Asean’s governments continue to abuse the environment but the regional body’s shared ecological efforts to tackle the issues are pitiful.
Farmers along the Mekong have been told to expect a worse drought than the brutal water shortages that gripped the region before this year’s rains arrived.
Severe or extreme drought is forecast to affect Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam before the next wet season, threatening agricultural production.
The Mekong River Commission said the drought had brought the Mekong’s water levels to their lowest points in at least 60 years, with most of the lower Mekong basin suffering exceptionally low flows since June.
The Mekong supplies the region’s rice basket and millions rely on the produce that grows from its never-ending supply.
The commission warned that Thailand and Cambodia would be harder hit than Laos and Vietnam.
There had been insufficient rainfall during the wet season with a delayed monsoon that ended prematurely, the agency said. It added that El Nino was also creating abnormally high temperatures and evapotranspiration.
The rains arrived around two weeks later than normal and ended about three weeks earlier.
The commission, established in 1995, works directly with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage shared water resources and the Mekong’s sustainability.
This neglect of the main supply of freshwater for the four countries must be addressed before ecological collapse sparks mass civil disturbances.
On the southern side of the equator, Indonesia continues to burn its prehistoric forests, ensuring the archipelago is listed as the third-largest emitter of carbon on the planet, after China and the USA.
Industrial giants Nestle, Unilever and P&G have been accused of buying palm oil from suppliers associated with forest fires in Indonesia that cover vast areas with toxic haze.
The wider palm oil sector contributes around 3.5 per cent to Indonesian GDP and sustains an estimated 6 per cent of the population.
The Indonesian government in 2018 earned US$17.8 billion from exports of the oil.
Greenpeace said the companies and the world’s largest palm oil traders have been purchasing the versatile oil from producers linked to around 10,000 forest fires.
The firms bought palm oil from plantations under investigation for this year’s fires and from companies which face court action for fires between 2015 and 2018, the environmental group argued.
The Sumatran rhino, sun bear, pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, clouded leopard, Sumatran tigers and orangutan are all threatened. Around 1,000 of the gentle “man of the forest” are thought to have died every year as a result of palm-oil production in the last 20 years, with some of the giant apes found buried alive.
The UN has warned that nearly 10 million children are at risk from the air pollution caused by the fires. The blazes are calculated to have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between August 1 and September 18. Greenpeace said that was almost the UK’s total carbon output for the whole of last year.
According to the WWF, every hour an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared for palm oil to be grown on.
“Companies have created a facade of sustainability. But they source from the very worst offenders across the board,” said Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
“The companies responsible for the fires and those who financially benefit from them should be held accountable for these environmental atrocities and the devastating health impacts caused by the fires.”
Four of the palm-oil suppliers named by Greenpeace, Wilmar, Cargill, Musim Mas and Golden-Agri Resources, reportedly supplied more than 75 per cent of the world’s palm oil in 2015, according to Indonesia’s Centre for International Forestry Research.
A third of all Indonesian mammal species are now estimated to be critically endangered as a result of deforestation, largely for palm oil.
The European Union has challenged Malaysia and Indonesia on the destructive nature of the palm-oil trade. But rather than accepting that reform is necessary, both countries have retreated to nationalistic rhetoric to defend their vested interests.
Asean’s beaches are continually strewn with single-use plastic dumped at sea by companies and governments that prioritise quarterly profits over the health of the planet.
The 10 Asean member states need to look at the proactive environmental measures taken by the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission.
EU member states are forced to comply with environmental targets, including producing a certain proportion of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Those that fail to keep up with targets or allow pollution levels to exceed levels face fines and prosecution in the European Court of Justice. Environmental crises do not stop at national boundaries and collective action is needed.
Asean should take similar action to preserve what is left of the region’s natural wonders.
Millions depend on the Mekong for their livelihood. Picture credit: AllFreePictures