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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #97

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Beyond the fragmentation of its society and the deterioration of institutions, the other major challenges facing Malaysia are the degradation of its environment, as well as regional and global issues.

Malaysians generally are not aware or more correctly refuse to acknowledge the severe assaults on their environment, believing that they are the inevitable price for progress. The leaders naively believe that pollution and high levels of carbon monoxide in Kuala Lumpur means that the city is now on par with Los Angeles.

Malaysians were rudely disabused of their collective naivety by the 1997 haze that engulfed the entire region. Citizens suddenly discovered that the air they breathe was no longer healthy; indeed it could kill them, especially if they were suffering from chronic respiratory ailments. The official response to the new crisis was anything but reassuring, with ministers warning scientists who dared publish the levels of pollutants be prosecuted for revealing state secrets!

That haze brought home another significant point: pollution affects not only those in the immediate area but also far beyond. The Malaysian haze originated across in Sumatra, an area Malaysians had little interest, that is, until the haze. Thus it is appropriate to discuss environmental concerns with regional and global issues.

Environmental Degradations

A jarring and depressing sight on flying into Malaysia is seeing those ugly scars on the lush landscape. Previously verdant jungles are now literally pockmarked with dirty reddish brown patches of exposed laterite soil. During the rainy season the rivers would be bloated with brown muddy waters carrying the thin layer of rich topsoil to the sea. The coastlines are stained with a ring of brownish ribbon separating the clear blue sea from the shoreline. The picture gets more ugly and horrifying from year to year.

Back on land the scene is worse. As a youth I used to have fun at the beaches in Port Dickson. Today, I would not even dare walk on the beach without vomiting. If you stick your feet in the water, you will get a rash. You do not need an expert to tell you that the water is heavily contaminated. Even offshore the sight is not pretty. Diving off Pulau Perhentian on the east coast, the sight of bleached dead corals is enough to dampen your enthusiasm. The ground water is as heavily polluted as the rivers. Nearly all the wells in the Klang Valley are contaminated with hydrocarbon.

Having seen the degradation of the aquatic and marine environments, I rarely eat local seafood, and then only with the greatest trepidation. The coliform count (the number of the bacteria E. coli, an indicator of sewage pollution) in rivers and coastal waters is horrific, as are waterborne diseases like hepatitis, cholera and typhoid.

Walk through the exclusive neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, and the sights that greet you are rubbish strewn all over, solid waste unpicked, plugged open drains, and leaking septic tanks. Central sewerage is available only to a fraction of urban dwellers. Even in high-density housing areas, they still use septic tanks. Worse, gray waters (from kitchen, showers) do not go into septic systems but to open drains that in turn flow freely into rivers, creating an unbearable stench.

Within the last few years, with the slash and burn technique in neighboring Indonesia and the consequent haze, Malaysians are being rudely and painfully made aware of air pollution, and its immediate impact on their health and well being. The number of deaths and complications from respiratory ailments, in particular asthma, jumped. Malaysians had to wear masks to go outside. Less direct but equally immediate was the economic impact; the number of tourists dropped dramatically.

Haze is now a regular phenomenon, and with that regularity, its shocking impact is gone. People now take it in stride; the environmental consciousness has waned.

The haze did something remarkable to the collective consciousness of the people in the region. It impressed upon them that they share the same fate. They can no longer ignore what is happening in the neighboring countries, as what happens there has a direct impact on their own country. Singapore and Malaysia previously ignored the appalling poverty in Indonesia; now they realize that what those poor farmers were doing—slashing and burning their jungle—had a direct impact on all the neighbors, rich and poor.

Air pollution has been plaguing Malaysia for decades, primarily from factories and automobiles. A study from Universiti Kebangsaan found that 43 percent of children and 28 percent of pregnant women had elevated blood lead levels, absorbed mainly through the air from the exhaust of automobiles using leaded gasoline. Leaded gasoline is now completely phased out, but there are still other sources, like old paints.

To casual visitors, Malaysia with its thick lush jungle is fertile. What is not appreciated is that only a thin layer of topsoil supports this lushness. When torrential rains wash away this thin crust, only the barren clayish laterite earth remains. This erosion leads to the silting of rivers, reservoirs and waterways, greatly reducing their capacity and contributing to floods and further erosion and silting.

A common refrain from Malaysian leaders is that concerns on the environment are nothing more than scare tactics of those in the First World to keep the developing world from achieving growth. Implicit in this is the acceptance that Malaysia must repeat the same mistakes the industrialized world suffered through in order to achieve growth. Yes, pollution is the consequence of economic growth, but if we can learn from the mistakes of the industrialized world, we could avoid some of their horrible environmental disasters and spare ourselves the inevitable expensive remediation measures. It is always better, safer and cheaper to minimize pollution with better designs and appropriate measures beforehand than to clean up the mess afterwards.

It is true that with economic growth and greater affluence we can afford to tackle pollution more effectively. The air in Los Angeles is considerably cleaner than in Mexico City because California is rich and can afford stringent environmental rules. The lesson here is that we should learn from Los Angeles. We can have economic growth and yet not destroy our environment, soil our waters, and pollute our air. The idea that somehow the Third World must necessarily go through the same pollution cycles as the West went through means that we are incapable of learning from their mistakes.

One of the fastest growing sectors is tourism; it is second only to manufacturing, and quickly catching up. It is also less polluting. The country’s warm sandy beaches are havens for tourists from temperate countries, but if those beaches are polluted, there will be no tourists. Keeping the environment clean is good for our economy and health.

The main sources of pollution are homes, automobiles, industries, and agriculture. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel to deal with these problems, it only has to adopt the available technologies and adapt them to local needs.

Doing away with leaded gas spared children of urban areas from lead poisoning from the air. Malaysia has well-developed public transportation; that greatly reduces urban congestion and pollution. Malaysian cities however, are still congested. Traffic restrictions of the kind instituted in Singapore would greatly reduce pollution and also help calm commuters’ tempers.

Raw sewage (from humans and animals) is a major polluter. Central sewer treatment should be a high priority, but it is not cheap. The bulk of the cost (over 80 percent) goes not to treating the sewage but with transporting the waste to the treatment plant. These costs could be reduced substantially if planning were done well ahead. In America, infrastructures like road, electricity and gas, sewer and water lines are laid out first, and then the area is developed. That was how Cancun was developed; with the infrastructures in place before the hotels were built. Today Cancun beaches remain pristine; the same cannot be said of Malaysia. If central sewerage is expensive, the lack of one is even more so. The price would be paid in economic and human costs. Tourism for one would be severely impacted. The human costs would be recurrent outbreaks of water-borne diseases. These are apart from the esthetic considerations.

If sewer treatment is wanting, the management of solid waste is even more so. Walk in any urban neighborhood and we would see garbage strewn all over. Esthetic considerations aside, those heaps of rubbish pose serious public health hazards. They breed rats, mosquitoes and other vectors of serious diseases. When vast tracts of jungle are clear-cut for agriculture, after the precious timber is hauled out, the rest is simply burnt, creating air pollution and exposing the soil to destructive erosion. The solution to both problems is not difficult and surprisingly ‘low tech’ such that even simple villagers could understand.

When I helped my father replant his rubber plantation, we had useful guides from the Rubber Research Institute’s (RRI) extension department. For example, we did most of the digging for holes and fence posts before the old trees were felled. In that way we worked in the cool of the shade, a big boost to productivity. Then we would liberally seed the ground with nitrogen-retaining legumes so when the trees were later felled, the sunshine reaching the soil would speed up the germination of the seeds and thus reduce erosion. The creepers also added to the soil’s fertility.

When the trees were felled, we would cut them into short lengths so the local villagers could collect them for firewood. We also sold some to the local rubber smokehouses. Today those old rubber trees could be used for furniture manufacturing or wood chips and would reduce the need for burning. While the newly planted trees were growing, RRI suggested planting cash crops like vegetables, bananas, and pineapples. These provided substantial income while waiting for the rubber trees to be tapped in four to five years time. These simple, sensible and practical solutions brought much needed economic benefits to the landowners as well as being ecologically friendly.

With palm oil, the husks and fronds create substantial solid waste. Through technological improvements, together with the imposition of fines to those who do not adopt pollution-reducing measures, the waste is now reduced to less than ten percent.

Microbes are now used to convert organic waste into useful products. We are familiar with organic waste being converted to methane. Anerobic bacteria are now being used to convert biodegradable vegetable wastes into hydrogen for use as fuel. More sophisticated techniques include the use of biogenetically-engineered microorganisms to selectively remove heavy metals and other pollutants from the soil and solid wastes.

The livestock industry, in particular pig rearing and poultry, is extremely polluting.

The two also have major public health impacts: the Nipah virus encephalitis with the pig industry; and avian flu with poultry. Both industries have been small-scale enterprises until recently. With economic growth and greater prosperity, demands for both pork and poultry have increased immensely, stimulating greater productions. There is however, no commensurate attention to their waste management, as that does not contribute to the bottom line. What is adequate waste management for a small enterprise becomes a major environmental disaster as production steps up.

Malaysia could learn pollution controls from the West. Canada and America have massive pig-rearing enterprises with well-tested waste management technologies. With proper waste management, we would get not only healthy products that would fetch premium prices but also healthy workers and cleaner environment. That is good for the animals, economy, people, and environment.

The search for solutions can be hard and frustrating. Consider the community of Hereford, Texas, famous for its namesake breed of cattle. With its huge ranches, it is inundated with cow manure. The bulk of the waste is today used to produce natural gas that in turn powers industrial plants that extract ethanol from corn. This in turn leaves a high protein residue that is being used for cattle feed. This is true synergy that solves three problems: waste disposal, cheap source of energy for ethanol extraction, and a new feed source for cattle.

The tropical climate is both boon and bane for waste management. If waste is not disposed of quickly, it rapidly becomes a breeding ground for deadly infectious agents. On the other hand, that same warm climate could accelerate biodegradation. Malaysia has plenty of environmental protection laws, with environmental impact studies required and developments vetted by various agencies. There is even a Ministry of the Environment. The problem is in the execution, or lack of it. Count the environment as another victim of the deterioration of Malaysian institutions.

Next: Our Neighbors: Friends or Foes?


Blogger G. Balamurugan said...

The three "environmental" things that I would like Najib to do :

1. rectify the imbalances in governmetn revenue sharing
2. improve energy eficiency and renewable energy
3. protect our biodiversity

read the full article at http://planetofthemonyets.blogspo.com


6:03 PM  

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