[Documents menu] Documents menu
Sender: owner-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Sun, 30 Nov 97 13:10:22 CST
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3@columbia.edu>
Subject: Poisoned Lands: Across Asia, Pollution Disaster (2/2)
Organization: ?
Article: 23052

Poisoned Lands: Across Asia, Pollution Disaster

By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times
29 November 1997

PENYENGAT RENDAH, Indonesia -- Ramli lay on the plank floor of his shack, coughing and breathless, fighting for air like a beached fish.

Ramli, a 37-year-old sawmill worker, died like that in this riverside village on the island of Sumatra, leaving no savings and no legacy other than the uncomprehending tears on the unscrubbed faces of his three little daughters -- and the mound in his widow's abdomen that signifies another baby is on its way.

Yet as Ramli's widow and children sat grieving inside their shack, wondering how they would survive, the girls coughing themselves, they had no idea what killed him.

What about the smoke?

"Oh, yeah, that might have been it," agreed Dariah, his 27-year-old widow, who like many Indonesians has just one name, and she looked for a moment out the open door of the shack. The smoke from forest fires was everywhere, an unimaginable cloud that stings the eyes and tightens the chest, like the plume from a campfire -- except that it has blotted out the sun across hundreds of thousands of square miles in Southeast Asia and left the region with the ambiance of an ashtray.

The smoke is a striking example of the public obliviousness in Asia to the health risks of the growing environmental disaster throughout the region, an obliviousness so profound that wives discount even the pollution that transforms them into widows. More fundamentally, the smoke has affected a half-dozen countries and demonstrates how, partly because of this obliviousness, Asia's filth is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan.

Asian polluters are not merely sullying their own countries but are creating environmental catastrophes that cross international boundaries and create a burden for the entire planet.

If the traditional paradigm of a pollution problem was a factory that dumped mercury in a lake, harming its immediate neighbors, the environmental headaches of the future increasingly will be regional and global challenges like global warming or acid rain.

Asia will have to play a crucial role in the resolution of these problems, the most vexing of which is perhaps global warming, the topic of the international conference in Kyoto, Japan, that begins Dec. 1. Asia now is the source for only 17 percent of the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are suspected of causing global warming, but its carbon dioxide emissions are rising at four times the world average.

Just in the last few months, by one calculation, Indonesia's forest fires have released as much greenhouse gas as all the cars and power plants throughout Europe will emit this entire year.

Fundamentally, Asia is so huge, is industrializing so quickly and is so dependent on coal and oil -- prime sources of carbon emissions -- that its share of greenhouse-gas emissions is almost certain to overtake that of the West. The Asian Development Bank calculates that by the year 2020, the emissions will increase two to five times, depending in part on whether curbs are instituted.

The Smoke: Students Can't See the Blackboard

The forest fires of Indonesia demonstrate the difficulty of grappling with transborder pollution. Malaysia and Singapore were particularly hard-hit, and their relatively well-educated populations were more aware of the dangers of breathing the smoke. But they were in effect the hostages of Indonesians who saw the problems as an inconvenience rather than a health crisis.

At a junior high school in the city of Jambi on Sumatra, a few hundred students in tan uniforms swarmed about the open square in the middle of the school, none wearing face masks. Some played tag -- an ideal game, because the blanket of smoke made it easy to hide -- and teachers dismissed the haze as nothing more than a bother.

"We have no health problems and no drop-off in attendance," Ratnajuwita, the matronly principal of a private school in the Sumatran city of Jambi, said as she sat on a couch in her office. "Everyone is fine. The only problem is that we can't use the blackboards in the classrooms."


"The smoke is so thick in the classrooms that students can't see what is written," Ratnajuwita explained patiently. Then she smiled reassuringly and added, "But there are no health problems."

Officials at the government hospital in Jambi largely echo that line, describing the smoke as more of a nuisance than a hazard. But that may reflect government policy more than medical fact, for in other countries periods of severe haze have been associated with sharp increases in short-term death rates, as well as long-term increases that are harder to measure.

Twenty miles from Jambi, in the riverside village of Kumpeh -- a cluster of wooden houses on stilts, inaccessible except by footpath -- the local farmers have not been informed of the official line. They say that many of the 1,496 people in the village are sick, and they add that three have died after bouts of coughing and fighting for breath.

Most of the homes had their doors open, with people coming and going, but Sukri's door was closed, and he was sitting morosely with his wife and children in the dark. Sukri, a 27-year-old farmer with curly black hair, a thin mustache and dark brooding eyes, was struggling with the incomprehension any parent faces upon outliving a child.

"When our baby was born, he was healthy," he said quietly, sullenly, as if still disbelieving that his 6-week-old son had died the previous day. "Then he began to cough, and his chest seemed to hurt him. He cried a lot, and he lost his appetite. He was sick just a day and a night, coughing, heaving for his breath, and then he died."

Sukri paused and added with a shake of his head, "It was so quick."

The baby's surviving sisters, 3 and 9 years old, sat beside their father, eyes stained but dry, coughing themselves.

"It may have been the smoke," Sukri said resignedly, as if in a dream. "But we don't know. We just don't know."

Neither does anyone else. The baby died and was buried without ever seeing a doctor -- the same fate as Ramli. Doctors consulted in other countries noted that it was impossible to make a precise diagnosis in such a case, but added that the symptoms sounded as if they involved a respiratory ailment and that such levels of smoke would normally be associated with deaths from respiratory diseases.

The Sumatran forest around these villages, so isolated in places that some tribesmen still blow poison darts from 6-foot-long blowpipes to catch game, has been the scene of slash-and-burn agriculture for hundreds of years, but only since the 1980s has the smoke become a substantial problem.

This year was far worse than normal, partly because farmers and loggers alike were more aggressive in clearing land and partly because the monsoon rains did not arrive in the fall to put the fires out.

The result was that the smoke spread as far as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, enclosing an area inhabited by 200 million people.

The smoke may now be dissipating, but at its peak it devastated tourism throughout the region and harmed the regional economy, while also causing airplane, helicopter, car and boat crashes that killed hundreds. And no one knows how many people like Ramli or Sukri's son have died, or what the health effects will be on the countless millions of people who lived in the center of the ashtray for months, breathing in the smoke day after day.

To hike through the villages of Sumatra is an eerie experience, the smoke stinging the eyes and blotting out the tropical sun so that even midday feels like dusk. The woods are completely quiet, the birds refusing to chirp and even the monkeys sitting forlorn and silent in the trees.

The Filth: Local Pollution, Global Effects

Asia's problems are so severe because pollution tends to reflect two fundamental forces: industrialization and increasing population density. The filthiest smoke and water arise in the early stages of industrialization, where most of Asia is now, and Asia's population is dense and growing rapidly.

In that respect, the forest fires are an anomaly, for the worst problems tend to be in the new mega-cities, those with more than 10 million people. Asia has nine of the world's 14 mega-cities, including the biggest, Tokyo, and the fastest-growing, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

If the image of Asia past is the timeless one of a peasant in a rice paddy, then the symbol of Asia in the coming decades may be of children playing in the rivulets of sewage that run through Dharavi, the gritty, smoky shantytown in Bombay, India, that is probably the biggest slum in the world.

While the pollution in Dharavi will kill or harm primarily the people of Dharavi, some of the filth will reverberate across the region and around the world.

The Kyoto conference underscores the attention being devoted to international concerns like global warming -- although, to be fair, when it comes to global warming, Americans are the most profligate source of emissions, so that the people of New York threaten the citizens of Dharavi far more than the other way around.

Some international environmental concerns are regional, like the air-pollution particles and acid rain that originate in one country and then endanger people in neighboring countries. These are international but not quite global, for the air pollution from the Asian mainland is detectable in Hawaii but not in the continental United States.

Then there are the genuinely global challenges, like global warming or the chlorofluorocarbon emissions that harm the ozone layer. China is now the largest source of those emissions, but it and all other countries are to halt production within a decade under an international treaty.

A third global challenge is the preservation of resources in the international "commons," like the oceans. And as one ponders the impact of a prospering Asia on these commons, a sobering sign of what is to come is coral reefs.

Cantonese cuisine in southern China emphasizes the freshness of the ingredients, and any self-respecting Cantonese restaurant buys its fish live and keeps them in an aquarium until they are ready to be cooked. The economic boom in Hong Kong and southern China has meant a surge in the demand for live fish, and the easiest way for fishermen to catch live fish is to squirt a milky concentration of sodium cyanide into coral reefs.

The cyanide kills the smaller fish but stuns the larger ones so that they can be easily netted and placed in large tanks in special fishing ships, sometimes converted oil tankers. The cyanide also kills the coral, and so over the last 15 years coral reefs throughout the Pacific have been severely damaged by the cyanide fishing.

To dive along many of the pristine beaches of the Philippines today is to glide through empty, dead coral reefs that seem like ghost towns. Orange and red coral reefs where multicolored fish used to flit about through the turquoise waters are now white coral corpses devoid of life.

For all the environmental catastrophe under way in Asia, Westerners are in no position to feel superior. Indeed, Asian countries are a mess primarily because they have been outdoing the West in economic growth, and they are in fact paying more attention to environmental problems than Europe or America did at similar levels of per capita income.

Even China has adopted sophisticated environmental laws -- albeit routinely unenforced -- and established an environmental protection office in every county, which is more than the United States has done.

To be sure, the offices are normally feeble and ineffective, often protecting polluters more than the environment, but China's lukewarm efforts today still compare favorably with the inaction against the clouds of coal dust and smoke in American cities early in this century.

"In spite of my lack of sympathy for the Chinese regime, at a comparable stage of development, we were doing less for the environment," said Vaclav Smil, a scholar at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

Progress is evident amid the filth, and in the wealthier countries of Asia, there is hope that the worst is, if not over, at least in sight.

"The pollution is getting worse and worse, but the speed of the deterioration of the air is slowing," said Lee Kark Bum, a presidential aide in charge of the environment in South Korea. "So in South Korea we're expecting to get to the worst point around 2005, and then by 2015 the pollution will become less and less."

One open question is how the economic crisis in Asia over the last few months will affect the environment. It will probably slow the pace of industrialization -- and thus of environmental degradation -- but it may also lead to cost-cutting that reduces the sums spent on cleaning up the pollution.

"For the next three to five years, the pressure on governments will be to adjust to weaker currencies, weaker stock markets and a general lack of trust on the part of international investors," said Peter Hills, director of an environmental-studies center at Hong Kong University. "That's going to push the environment aside."

Still, despite the economic difficulties, Asia is expected to continue to grow, and as it does so, one of the most encouraging environmental examples for the region is Japan. In the late 1960s, Japan was perhaps the most polluted country in the world, and then over the last 25 years it cleaned up its air and water and transformed itself into one of the least polluted and most energy-conscious nations in the industrialized world.

The basic problem is simply that some other Asian countries are in part planning to follow Japan's trajectory precisely -- first create the filth, then clean it up later.

"I think that's based on a false premise, that the only way to industrialize is to pass through the valley of the shadow of pollution, and then we'll come out rich on the other side," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute in Washington.

Lash and other experts are almost unanimous that the old model is no longer valid, if it ever was, and that pollution-control steps can be taken even by poor countries to save money as well as lives.

Sulfur emissions from the burning of Chinese coal, for instance, cause acid rain that leads to an estimated $5 billion in damage annually to Chinese crops and forests, not counting damage farther downwind to Japan and South Korea.

In Chongqing, a once-lovely Chinese city with some of the worst pollution in the country, the rain is so acid that it sometimes has a pH level of 3, roughly the same as Chinese vinegar.

At this point, the economic damage to crops is so severe that China would save money by curbing sulfur emissions.

Still, many pollution-control measures -- like any investment -- require an upfront cost to generate returns later on.

The Politics: Public Awareness Is Often Lacking

One reason many Asians are oblivious of the environmental risks, and therefore inclined to add to them, is that much of the region lacks a vigorous free press and dynamic political opposition to point out the problems. Even Malaysia, which is relatively democratic by Asian standards, banned scholars a few weeks ago from making statements about the forest-fire smoke without official approval.

Education Minister Mohammed Najib bin Abdul Razak noted that one researcher had been quoted as saying that breathing the haze blown into Malaysia was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Najib denounced such findings as "speculative in nature."

"Painting such a picture could give a negative image of Malaysia, causing a scare among Malaysians and preventing foreigners from coming to the country," he said.

Yet while political freedom might boost reporting and discussion of pollution risks, it is equally clear that freedom itself is not enough. Another prerequisite is simply an environmental consciousness, for the Philippines is one of the most democratic countries in Asia, and yet it still uses leaded gasoline and has one of the worst environmental records around.

This lack of consciousness means that while ordinary citizens may complain about the degradation, they are also among the biggest offenders. In the Indonesian forests, for instance, some of the fires were set by ordinary villagers -- people like Purwadi, a 42-year-old farmer near the Indonesian town of Kuala Tungkal.

The area around his farm was already thick with smoke from other forest fires, so that even at midday a car must drive with lights, and there was Purwadi setting fire to another forest. A poor, uneducated man, Purwadi moved to this forest as a pioneer, building a shack and living without electricity or running water.

He stood barefoot in the field, plumes of smoke rising all around him, and was happy to speak of the poisonous snakes in the grass and the wild pigs in the surrounding jungle. But the conversation grew strained when less tangible topics were raised.

What about the health consequences of the burning forests, the impact on neighboring countries?

Purwadi looked startled and paused a long time. He shuffled his feet and politely explained that he did not know about any of that.

"There's no other way of clearing the land," he added. "And I've got to plant my chilies."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

[World History Archives]     [Gateway to World History]     [Images from World History]     [Hartford Web Publishing]