Date: Sun, 30 Nov 97 13:10:22 CST
From: Louis Proyect <email@example.com>
Subject: Poisoned Lands: Across Asia, Pollution Disaster (2/2)
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
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
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
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 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
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
"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
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
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
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