Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Environmentalism protects our most basic human rights

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 The Jakarta Post

Environmentalism protects our most basic human rights

by Jonathan Wootliff

In a new democracy like Indonesia's, there is rightly much concern for human rights. Since the fall of Soeharto, we have witnessed the emergence of thousands of homegrown civil-society organizations intent on improving the lives of the average Indonesian.

In a country rife with corruption and widespread poverty, these valiant not-for-profits play an essential role in safeguarding the rights of ordinary citizens who do not have the wherewithal to fend for themselves.

Without their determined efforts to make Indonesian society fairer, there is no doubt millions of vulnerable people would suffer a myriad of injustices.

But with all the gallant campaigning for enhanced constitutional privileges, rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of children, gender equality and so forth, there is a fundamental human right that sometimes gets overlooked.

Surely there can be no more fundamental right for every man, woman and child than unfettered access to clean water and fresh air?

Without these basic requirements for our survival, there would be no point in fighting for anything else. Nothing is more fundamental -- nothing is more important -- than human health.

Effective environmental management is the key to avoiding a quarter of all preventable diseases in Indonesia. And these diseases are directly caused by environmental factors.

The environment influences our health in many ways -- through exposure to physical, chemical and biological risk factors, and through related changes in our behavior in response to those factors.

According to the World Health Organization, millions of people die unnecessarily each year due to preventable environmental causes. Our disregard for the health of our planet is taking its toll on our own wellbeing.

Mitigating environmental risk could save thousands of Indonesian lives each year, and improve the health of tens of thousands more.

Children and the poor are the most susceptible to many life-threatening diseases that could be so easily be eradicated if we were to pay more respect to our environment.

All too often, the protection of our ecosystem and concern for nature is considered a luxury. But it is high time we wake up and understand that environmental protection must be a priority.

The fact is that saving the birds and trees directly translates into better quality human health and life expectancy.

Environmental problems are compromising Indonesians' health, both in cities and the countryside.

Respiratory diseases as a consequence of traffic pollution are rising at an alarming rate in Jakarta and other major metropolises.

The plundering of the nation's natural resources, particularly through deforestation, is damaging the health of those living in rural areas.

Food safety is becoming a growing issue as a consequence of irresponsible farming practices and a disregard for environmental protection.
Coastlines are increasingly exposed to natural hazards, and there is evidence that the 2004 tsunami hit those communities hardest where mangrove belts had been cut down.

From the Indonesian tropics to the Arctic Circle, climate and weather have powerful direct and indirect impacts on human life. While people adapt to the conditions in which they live, and though the human physiology can handle substantial variations in weather, there are limits.

Weather extremes -- often caused or exacerbated by our lack of regard for environmental protection -- such as heavy rains, floods and hurricanes, also have severe impacts on human populations.

Thousands of deaths occur in Indonesia each year as a result of climate tragedies alone, many of which can be avoided through sound environmental management.

In addition to changing weather patterns, climatic conditions give rise to waterborne diseases. Climate-sensitive diseases are among the largest killers on the globe.

WHO statistics show that diarrhea, malaria and protein-energy malnutrition alone caused more than 3.3 million deaths globally in 2002.
Both national and regional governments must take a stand. Indonesia must focus more on the environment. Everyone from ordinary citizens through to big businesses and politicians must understand the imperative of taking better care of nature.

The country is blessed with some of the world's most valuable natural resources. The future health of this nation depends on us taking the environment more seriously. If we squander nature, we put our very own survival on the line.

It's time we put humans on the endangered list, along with the orangutan and the tiger. Maybe then Indonesia will take more seriously its responsibility for nurturing nature.

-- Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com