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Writing a greener story in Asia and the Pacific

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Rising economic prosperity and poverty reduction may not tell the whole story of progress in Asia and the Pacific. Telling signs in the natural world recount a narrative that is far from complete. This year has been particularly affected by the COVID-19 global health pandemic, with devastating impacts on our health and the economy. Yet, building on its achievements, the region must continue its drive towards a sustainable conclusion.

There have been promising developments as we turn the page to a critical Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The region is on track to achieve targets on eradicating income poverty. The prevalence of undernourishment has dropped from 17 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent in 2017. The proportion of the population using basic sanitation services has increased from 48 per cent to almost 75 per cent since 2000.

Nonetheless, we will miss the mark on all 17 SDGs by 2030 unless we quicken the uneven pace across each subregion. The next chapters of progress we write must not only be faster, but also fight for higher quality of life and a healthy environment.

Most strikingly, there is a lack of progress on environmental goals across all subregions. Data from the 2020 edition of the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific show that we are neither sustainably managing the rich, precious natural resources in our region nor taking adequate action to combat climate change. Myopic consumption practices have led to marine pollution and irreversible damage to ecosystems. Air pollution has clouded the skies, with the Asia-Pacific region emitting half the world’s greenhouse gas. Disasters are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

The earth continues to warn us that human progress cannot come at the expense of environmental degradation. As we make gains, it is our responsibility to advocate for measures that protect the planet. To urgently improve waste management, increase resilience against natural disasters and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

In addition to environmental considerations, advancements in the region’s GDP growth are also challenging us to expand normative thinking on poverty. Although the region is making good progress on SDG targets related to economic growth, one-dimensional assessments are no longer enough. Mounting evidence reveals that the region is likely to miss all measurable SDG targets related to other forms of poverty, hunger, gender equality and reduced inequalities. This means that our ambitions must be far-reaching and informed by the complex realities of multi-dimensional poverty.

Thankfully, countries in Asia and the Pacific have made resolute commitments to sprint toward the 2030 finish line. Momentum for the future has been established by substantial groundwork. Existing efforts have laid policy foundations for a more favorable outlook in areas like access to clean energy and education. Progress towards the SDGs is not a linear process, but there is an emerging basis for acceleration in the coming years.

By speeding up efforts, the region can balance its fast-growing economy with prosperity for people and planet. The total capacity of the region to produce renewable electricity has increased almost fivefold since 2000, faster than any other region in the world. Many countries have adopted clean and environmentally sound technologies to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacturing sector.
Recent trends also given hope for an acceleration of progress on several goals in the coming decade. Increases in labour productivity, access to quality education and resource flow for development all provide examples that the Asia-Pacific region has built a basis for acceleration in many targets.

While we have harmed the planet along the way, I believe we also have the power to reverse negative trends and fight for the environment, as it has provided for us. If the region doubles its concerted efforts, the future may be brighter for target areas where progress has been slow.

The extensive efforts required means we cannot do it alone. Uneven gains across subregions convey that cooperation is more important than ever. We must rally the region to collectively move toward an enduring vision of development that protects natural resources, particularly the ocean, and fights climate change. Listening to the data and supporting its availability will help create integrated policies fundamental to reversing negative trends. Revitalizing partnerships at all levels and across all stakeholders will enable us to implement them.

With decisive action, the region has the capacity to achieve a strong finish by 2030. During an unprecedented global health emergency and increasing economic uncertainty, let us not lose sight of the future. The determination and rich resources of the region can help us overcome COVID-19 and beyond. Together, we can write a story of Asia and the Pacific which is one of success for every aspect of nature and society.

UN ESCAP

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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Green Planet

How to reduce pollution in Delhi’s waterways

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Cattle travel through toxic foam in the polluted River Yamuna that flows through Delhi. Photo by Ashoke Kumar Ghosh

About 80 per cent of the water supplied to households in India’s capital, Delhi ends up as wastewater, some of which remains untreated, polluting the city’s waterways and threatening the health and wellbeing of its residents. This metropolitan area, with its population of approximately 30 million, currently has 35 operational sewage treatment plants.

In December last year, the Indian government announced its plans to treat over 95 per cent of Delhi’s wastewater by the end of 2022 – over four times the national average.

To support this initiative, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the first-ever study of its kind to examine how Delhi, India’s largest city, recycles its wastewater and how it can be done more efficiently.

It assessed the various technologies sewage treatment plants use for nutrient recovery and recycling for safe and sustainable re-use of wastewater in Delhi. These include activated sludge process (ASP), extended aeration (EA), moving bed biofilm reactor (MBBR), sequential batch reactor (SBR), or fluidized aerobic bed reactor (FAB) processes.

The UNEP study found that the MBBR system is the most suited to the situation in Delhi and should, where possible, be employed in new treatment plants.

MBBR is a modern system invented in Norway that uses a combination of biological rather than only chemical or mechanical processes to treat the water and remove pollutants. But this system is not without its challenges, say experts.

“The adoption of MBBR technology for large sewage treatment plants is challenging as maintenance costs are large,” said Sangeeta Bansal, a lead researcher on the project.

The study suggests that other systems, such as SBR, and ASP could also be used for larger sewage treatment plants.

In addition to mapping Delhi’s current nutrient recovery, recycling and reuse practices against available treatment options, the study has developed an ecosystems health card to measure the water quality and assess the revival of selected water bodies in the city. 

Some forms of pollution cause an increase in minerals and nutrients in the water, a process known as eutrophication, which leads to increased plant life, including algae, but a decrease in the diversity of fish and bird life. Raw sewage and food waste are also rich in nutrients, notably reactive nitrogen compounds such as nitrates and ammonium compounds, which are converted into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Lake Najafgarh in Delhi is one example of a polluted waterway. Since 2011, the lake area has increased by eight per cent due to pollution. It feeds into the Yamuna River, which flows through the city and is one of the main tributaries of the Ganges River.

“Supporting water security by using treated wastewater for non-potable purposes like toilet flushing, car washing, construction, agriculture, and rejuvenating affected rivers and lakes, is vital for the city’s sustainable development,” said Riccardo Zennaro, a Programme Management Officer for wastewater at UNEP.

“It can also improve access to clean tap water,” he added. “Wastewater treatment supports the recycling and recovery of water and nutrients and is, therefore, critical for sustainable water and nutrient management, while preventing pollution. However, it needs significant improvement to meet Indian government environmental standards.”

A stakeholder engagement workshop is planned to inform local and national decision-makers and relevant authorities about the findings of the project and discuss the next steps in implementing the recommendations as well as possible follow-up actions. 

UNEP

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Climate Change and its Effects on Europe

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If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia. 

According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around FloridaAside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder.  Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream. 

This relatively even weather in England has undergone change.  More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F.  There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions. 

Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters.  This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods. 

July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021.  Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region.  Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area.  At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion. 

If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.

England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades.  None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter.  London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.

When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences? 

One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.

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The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response

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Photo: NASA

While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased.  So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.

The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France.  Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC.  The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.

In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year.  One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside.  They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain.  Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.

Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames.  The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.

In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.

Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar.  In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated. 

The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared.  Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed. 

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming.  Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so.  Is runaway global warming then our future?

The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges.  The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.

Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants.  Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.

In the meantime, we have to change our ways:  Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine?  Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.

Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on.  It is easy and just a matter of habit.  In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. 

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