SULTAN Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah was spot-on last week when he reminded Perak lawmakers that “development is not a licence to allow the destruction of the environment”.
The comment was made in the context of serious erosion and siltation resulting from uncontrolled development in Tanah Tinggi Kinta between Cameron Highlands in Pahang and Lojing in Kelantan.
Early last month, Malaysians watched with a sense of helplessness, anger and shame the unfolding drama of toxic chemical pollution in Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor.
It ranked among our country’s worst environmental calamities in living memory, with more than 3,555 people affected and 111 schools in the district closed for several days.
The Department of Environment’s analysis of samples from the river revealed a truly sickening cocktail of organic solvents — benzene, toulene, xylene, ethylbenzene and d-limonene.
Toxic gases were also emitted when the chemicals met water and air. The gases — including acrylonitrile, xylene,methane and toluene — can cause headache, nausea, fainting and breathing difficulty.
The situation was grave enough for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to visit the victims in hospital in Johor.
Thanks to the dedication and timely intervention of the relevant authorities, the situation was brought under control and there was no need to declare a state of emergency, stressed Dr Mahathir.
Many factors appeared to have led to this shameful episode. They include alleged greed and to find an easy way out of responsibility on the part of those who caused the dumping.
Other factors include insufficient enforcement action against polluters to deter such behaviour, whether at the federal or local level, and a misguided attitude of communities that leave the entire job of conserving our rivers to the authorities.
Environmental neglect is hardly unique to Malaysia. A global picture was recently captured by the United Nation’s (UN) sixth global environment outlook (GEO-6), the most comprehensive environmental assessment produced by the world body in five years.
Launched last month at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, the 700-page report involved nearly 200 global experts who collaborated over 18 months. It covered in detail, a range of topics, including air, biodiversity, oceans and coasts, fresh water, climate change, human health and energy.
And it assessed the state of the global environment, the effectiveness of policy responses and possible pathways to achieve the environmental goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
GEO-6 warned that the overall condition of the global environment continued to deteriorate, driven mainly by population growth, urbanisation, economic development, technological change and climate change.
Here are some of the issues we’re dealing with.
AIR pollution currently causes an estimated six to seven million premature deaths annually. We might be accelerating towards the planet’s sixth mass species extinction.
EIGHT million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year as a result of mismanagement of domestic waste in coastal areas
WARMING ocean waters are leading to mass mortality of coral reefs across the world’s tropics.
SOME 29 per cent of all lands are degradation hotspots.
PATHOGEN-POLLUTED drinking water and inadequate sanitation cause about 1.4 million human deaths annually, with many millions more becoming ill.
These will lead to ongoing and potentially irreversible impacts if not addressed effectively and immediately.
However, just as a doctor doesn’t leave after delivering a bad diagnosis, GEO-6 offers a suite of positive, solution-oriented messages too. It identifies pathways and approaches to systemic change, which must be scaled up quickly to steer the planet towards a more sustainable future.
The considerable connections between environmental, social and economic policies can inform multiple goals. So policies addressing entire systems — such as food, energy and waste — are more likely to have beneficial impact.
For instance, reducing our use of fossil fuels leads to health benefits by decreasing outdoor air pollution responsible for premature deaths. And efforts to eliminate hunger (such as changes in agricultural production) can help address climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and chemical pollution.
With the window for action closing quickly, and given the unprecedented rate of global environmental change, the GEO-6 calls for ambitious and innovative policy at an unprecedented level. We need decarbonisation, a circular economy, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and better adapting socio-economic systems to climate change.
Typically, environmental policy efforts are based on individual issues, like air pollution, or industry sectors. But this approach doesn’t address the complexity of contemporary environmental problems that require large-scale, system-oriented efforts.
GEO-6 calls for urgent, inclusive and sustained action by governments, business and society proportionate to the scale and pace of global environmental change. Such change can only begin at home. It is time for us all to have a greater respect for Mother Nature.
The writer is a member of the Global Leadership Council of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.