Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Action needed to cure RI's environment

Jonathan Wootliff | Tue, 10/13/2009 12:10 PM | Lifestyle

Intensive care is what this country needs urgently. Without it, Indonesia's environmental health will have dire consequences for the economy, the people and for nature.

Not a week goes by without a new scientific report highlighting just how sick this archipelagic state really is. If it were a patient, the doctor would order a massive regime of therapy and remedial care. Left untreated, the illness will surely become terminal.

I was reprimanded by some readers of this column for commending the President for his leadership at the recent G20 summit where a commitment was made to stop fuel subsidies of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

It's an important step, but I would agree with those who argue that the government isn't doing nearly enough to cure this country of its serious environmental ills.

With cabinet changes about to be announced, the time is ripe to review the state of the environment and to urge new ministers to prioritize attending to the array of pressing problems.

Air quality is alarmingly poor. Jakarta is the world's eighth-most polluted city, where the number of cars has doubled in the past decade.

Respiratory diseases are rife due to high levels of atmospheric particulate matter. And persistent illegal logging combined with misguided slash-and-burn agricultural practices is causing forest fires that contribute to airborne pollution.

A lack of sewage systems is further compromising people's health. Indonesia's water quality ranks among the worst in Asia. Untreated industrial effluent drains into rivers and canals, which results in the contamination of surface and ground water.

It is small wonder that gastrointestinal disease is rife, and often rated at epidemic proportions.

More than 100 million Indonesians lack access to clean drinking water and more than 70 percent of this country's 220 million people rely on water obtained from contaminated sources, often from untreated sewage or agricultural chemical runoff.

Coastal waters, where a large proportion of the population live, are heavily polluted, particularly in the busy Malacca and Lombok straights where many millions reside.

Government is supposedly committed to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which means providing improved sanitation for 78 million people by 2015 among other tough targets.

But with current levels of investment pitifully amounting to around Rp 18,000 per capita, it is hard to understand how this can be achieved.

We can therefore take some consolation from the recently convened National Conference on Lakes, held in Bali, where nine ministries hatched a collaborative plan to clean up the nation's lakes in a bid to deliver clean water to millions.

The decimation of mangrove belts has contributed to significant coastal erosion. It is the disappearance of this important "bio shield" which exacerbated the terrible death toll from the tsunami.

With the surrounding oceans representing a vital source of food and livelihoods for millions, the disturbingly high rate of unsustainable fishing must be curbed.

The unscrupulous use of cyanide and explosives to take fish from sensitive coral reefs, and illegal foreign trawlers indiscriminately drag-netting valuable marine life are both causing near-irreversible damage to fish stocks.

The establishment of the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry in 2007 was welcomed by those concerned with the problems facing our seas. But more measures are required and substantially increased resources must be provided to enforce the law.

Marine biologists are now holding their breath in hope of seeing some tangible and positive outcomes from the recent intergovernmental summit in Manado, where a 10-year conservation plan was announced by the six nations that embrace the ecologically priceless Coral Triangle.

Deforestation is one of the biggest causes of ecological destruction, with a serious diminishment of wildlife habitats, resulting in the endangerment of some of the nation's most impressive mammals including tigers, elephants and the orangutan. And if that isn't enough, these creatures also have to contend with illegal poaching.

But the mother of all of Indonesia's environmental problems is climate change.

With at least 17,000 islands, this country is hugely exposed to potential sea level rises caused by global warming.

As temperatures increase, there will be more disease and crop failures. Ocean warming will adversely impact marine biodiversity. Scientists predict an intensification of water-borne diseases and say that sea level rises could inundate productive shorelines, impacting coastal farming and dwellings.

Effective government measures to stop forest fires would substantially reduce Indonesia's ranking as the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Progressive policies are also urgently needed to cut emissions and to introduce renewable energy technologies.

Environmental law is good on paper, but invariably ineffectually enforced. And there is an absence of any public information aimed at encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprints.

With Indonesia in such bad shape, the President's fresh batch of ministers must take the necessary steps to protect its fragile environment and ensure that the sick patient gets the treatment it so badly needs.

Jonathan Wootliff leads the corporate accountability practice at the consulting firm, Reputation Partners. He specializes in sustainable development and in building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@reputationpartners.com