‘Towards a Pollution Free Planet’

This year’s UN Environment Assembly on the theme “Towards a Pollution Free Planet” has strong implications for people’s health and livelihoods in Asia Pacific, which has some of the most polluted cities and oceans. The third United Nations Environment Assembly, which will take place 4-6 December 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya, will hone in on opportunities and actions to make our planet pollution free. Preceding that, Ministers and Environment officials from Asia Pacific will meet in Bangkok 5-8 September to bring to bear Asia Pacific dimension to this global discussion on ways to end pollution of air, land, waterways, and oceans and to safely manage chemicals and waste.

This account of how Iran has restored a critical wetland degraded by exploitation is the first in a series of stories showing how countries and stakeholders in Asia Pacific are tackling some of the most pervasive forms of pollution in the region.

Restored wetland reduces dust and sandstorms in Iran

Hoor al-Azim is one Iran's largest wetlands which straddles the Iran-Iraq border, a third of which is located in Iran. From 2005-2012, the wetland was drained for oil exploitation, further aggravating dust storms in the area and causing serious damage to the region's ecosystem. By fall 2013, three water reservoirs had dried up while two ecosystems were on the verge of destruction.

The joint efforts of the 11th government and the Department of Environment restored nearly 70 per cent of the wetland to its previous capacity, drastically reducing dust and sandstorms and revitalizing an important resource for people in the area.

Three of the five water reservoirs in the Hoor al-Azim wetland are now filled with water from the Karkheh River while the remaining two are filled with agricultural runoff and with waters from the Karkheh.

Head of the Department of Environment, Massoumeh Ebtekar said the revival of this area is one of the important measures the government took to counter dust storms and the resulting poor air quality. “Maintaining a healthy wetland system insures a healthy environment and thus a better quality of life for humans. In 2013-14, Hoor al-Azim was completely dried up,” she said. “Thus far, more than 70 per cent of wetland has been restored and the dust hot spots have been recovered with water.”

Along with reducing dust storms in the region, the wetlands are also an important resource to communities who rely on it to replenish aquifers that supply drinking water and filter out harmful pollutants.

Managing peatlands and keeping carbon dioxide under control

Smoke from peatland fires contributes to global air pollution, which causes nearly 6.5 million deaths annually.

Indonesia has suffered from seasonal peat fires for decades but is now moving to restore its peatlands and use them sustainably. Peat fires in Indonesia have caused widespread haze and contributed to air pollution, which has also adversely affected neighbouring countries.

If you drain a peatland and degrade it, it releases greenhouse gases and is susceptible to fires. As a way to prevent fires, Indonesia is rewetting its peatlands to keep them wet and use them sustainably.

Peat is partially decayed vegetation saturated with water and accumulated over thousands of years.

Of the 2.6 million hectares of land burned between June and October 2015 in Indonesia, 33 per cent was carbon-rich peatland. On some days the fires generated more carbon dioxide than average daily emissions in the United States.

The air pollution affected 43 million people and hospitalized 550,000. According to the World Bank this cost Indonesia US$ 16 billion in economic losses - an equivalent to 1.9 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product - and twice the total value of the Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction.

The fires not only have a dire impact on people’s health, they severely affect tourism in the sub-region.

The impetus for the fires is to clear the land for agriculture. Peatland continues to be degraded due to logging, drainage and burning. The costs are huge.

Turning a corner?

To address this daunting challenge, in 2016 Indonesia set up the Peatlands Restoration Agency, and the government has started re-wetting the drained areas.

Furthermore, in 2016 Indonesia, Peru, The Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, together with international organizations and research institutions, set up the UN Environment-led Global Peatland Initiative. The objective of this initiative is to create a conducive environment for the member countries to learn from each other’s experience, thus minimizing the adverse environmental impact and ensuring a better quality of life for communities living in or surrounded by peatlands.

“We urgently need to have an accurate census of peatland locations so that we can put in place national and sub-regional action plans to conserve and restore them,” says Jan Peters from Succow Stiftung, Partner in the Greifswald Mire Centre, a Global Peatlands Initiative member.

“For local communities to benefit from this natural resource, we need to rehabilitate the degraded peatlands by rewetting them and keep these significant carbon stores in the ground.”

Practical action

In Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province, and more specifically in Dusun Hilir sub-district, Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilization of Tropical Peatlands (GAMBUT), a project supported by the Government of Indonesia, UN Environment and the United Nations Office for Project Services is testing innovative, and technically sound, peat rehabilitation methods in the province. The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

GAMBUT, which means “peat” in Bahasa, helps educate local communities on the importance of peatland so they can sustainably farm and reduce the carbon footprint of their crops. It also builds the capacity of local communities to effectively respond to fires through the use of fire early warning systems.

The project, building on earlier work of the national REDD+ agency, started in 2015. It will provide grants to communities with the aim of improving their livelihoods through the development of horticulture, fisheries (the area is very rich in kerapu fish), and other related sectors. In return, people will take part in rehabilitation activities, such as the unblocking of water channels to allow water to reach peatland. 

At the community level the hope is that grant recipients will help to put an end to illegal logging, and stop ”slash and burn” practices, thus contributing to improve livelihoods, health and well-being.

As the world’s environmental leaders come together in December 2017 for the Environment Assembly focusing on pollution, they will have to make bold decisions to prevent future environmental impact from haze-causing peat fires.

Learn more by viewing this slideshow

Peatlands are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. When they burn they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Read Peat fires stoke global warming.

Peatland is also critical for biodiversity conservation, water resource management, and livelihoods.

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Climate Resilient and Alternative Building Technologies Housing for the Philippines

Many cities in the Philippines are typically faced with pressures on limited natural resources, natural hazard risks, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and flooding. They are compounded by limited institutional and societal capacity to manage, respond, and recover from disaster events as well as high levels of poverty.

A transformation is needed towards a use of greener, renewable, more locally sourced construction materials and housing designs.

Within ESCAP project implemented with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the Bicol State College of Applied Sciences and Technology (BISCAST) developed a model for green, affordable, climate resilient housing called ‘Climate Change Resilient Pilot Housing’ (CCRPH) which is a cost-effective, resource efficient alternative to conventional construction of social housing. It consists of environmentally friendly methodologies, prefabricated beams and hollow concrete blocks that can be assembled quickly, saving costs and time.

The CCRPH proved to be a viable solution with measurable impacts and gains, such as a 50% reduction in construction costs, reduced electricity consumption by over 25%, reduced waste material and waste water on site by up to 30%, reduced mortar by approximately 50% due to the HCB concept of “closed bottom”, reduced 40% of concrete and 30% of steel works for slab construction due to HCB-slab system, and conserved water via rainwater harvesting.

In another example, the Hilti Foundation and ESCAP implemented a joint project for proof of sustainable building concepts between 2012 and 2014. This included extensive technical research, policy advocacy for certification of the sustainable building concepts in the Philippines, business research into housing needs, community acceptance and affordability, and setting up local supply chains, as well as the establishment of the social enterprise BaseBuilds.

The other project by BaseBuilds developed a pre-fabricated, modular modern housing system based on bamboo that stands out due to its cost-efficiency, disaster resistance, environmental performance, user comfort, and the potential to support local skills building.

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Forest Account Compilation in Viet Nam

Historically, forests in Viet Nam experienced decrease especially after 1943 until 1990s when the forest area percentage declined from 14.3 million ha to a low of 9.2 million ha. This included a drop of forest coverage 34% in 1976 to 28% in 1990 due to rapid economic development and human conflicts.

This prompted the government to embark on ambitious reforestation programmes to gain back lost forest coverage. Viet Nam’s forest policies and strategies indicate a clear political commitment to forestry development through the effective management of forest land and an increase in forest cover to 45% by 2020.

The World Bank WAVES project focussed on developing a series of timber and forestry accounts for Viet Nam that quantify changes in timber and forest resources, including forest carbon stocks, as a consequence of both economic production and natural processes. Accounts were prepared according to the SEEA (System of Environmental Economic Accounting) by the General Statistics Office (GSO) and the Vietnamese Academy of Forest Sciences (VAFS) at the national level.

The forest accounts were able to show changes in both values and volumes, and importantly, changes in composition over time, thus informing policies through data on the sustainable use of forest resources. Over the three years reported by the accounts, the volume of timber resources increased by 16%, total forest area increased by 4.5% and the value of forest timber rose by 16%. Furthermore, forest cover increased from 40.6% to 42%.

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A town, a disease, a convention: a fitting tribute for the victims of Minamata

In August, the Minamata Convention on Mercury will officially take effect, and the first Conference of the Parties – aimed at “Making Mercury History” – will follow on 28 and 29 September in Switzerland. It will oblige governments to reduce mercury use, clean up contamination sites, and ensure health care for victims of mercury poisoning.

One spring day just over 60 years ago in southern Japan, a young girl was brought to hospital by her anxious parents. She could barely walk, was slurring her words and was hit by convulsions and seizures. Days later, her sister was also admitted with the same symptoms, and that was followed by a neighbour, and then dozens more people.

The town of Minamata was then gripped by an unexplained epidemic of a condition that ravaged the central nervous system. Doctors saw numb limbs twisted in pain, loss of speech, and then, all too frequently, coma and death. Animals were also hit: birds had fallen from the sky and cats were gripped by convulsions – even leading to some calling it “dancing cat disease”.

Upstream, one of Japan’s most advanced factories had been dumping chemical waste into the bay. A sludge containing mercury had been consumed by fish and shellfish, and from there had entered the food chain and the staple, protein-rich diet of the coastal communities. It was several years before the precise cause of the epidemic was identified, but not before hundreds of lives were lost.

The Minamata incident will go down in history as one of the worst-ever industrial disasters, with the town giving its name to the crippling, deadly condition – and therefore associated with disease and death.

But 60 years on, its suffering and stigma is being transformed into action: the entry into force of the Minamata Convention. This is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment, and something that will help prevent a repeat of Minamata’s suffering. It is the first new global Convention on environment and health adopted for close to a decade, and will tackle the entire life cycle of mercury, considered by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten chemicals of major health concern.

In August 2017, the convention will officially take effect, and the first Conference of the Parties – aimed at “Making Mercury History” – will follow on 28 and 29 September in Switzerland. It will oblige governments to reduce mercury use, clean up contamination sites, and ensure health care for victims of mercury poisoning.

But why is continued action even necessary? Surely a problem from the middle of the last century has been resolved by now. Regrettably, this is not the case, and hence the need for a coordinated, global approach.

In developing countries across the globe, mercury is being used in small-scale, artisanal gold mining – and incidences of mercury poisoning, including the horrific conditions of the children poisoned in Minamata, are being reported today not too far away in the Philippines.

Mercury can also be emitted from coal-fired power plants, adding another dangerous element to the already suffocating pollution suffered in many cities of the world. It can be spewed out by the incineration of waste, and be transported over distances far removed from its original emission source. It’s even been used in dentistry – for fillings – and cosmetics, such as the skin lightening soaps and creams popular in Asia and Africa.

There’s no safe level of exposure, and everyone is at risk because the dangerous heavy metal has spread to the remotest parts of the earth and can be found in everyday products. Children, newborn and unborn babies are most vulnerable, along with populations who eat contaminated fish like the original victims of Minamata. Then there are those who use mercury at work, and people who live near of a source of mercury pollution or in colder climates where the dangerous heavy metal tends to accumulate.

The fact is that we don’t want to live in a world where putting on makeup, powering our phones and even buying a wedding ring depends on exposing millions of people to the risk of mercury poisoning. In addition, we have solutions that are as obvious as the problem itself. There are alternatives to every single one of mercury’s current applications, such as newer, safer industrial processes.

The convention shows that big and small countries can all play a role – as can the man and woman in the street, just by changing what they buy and use. And that will be a fitting tribute to the victims of Minamata.

Integrated Resource Recovery Centers in Sri Lanka

Rapid urbanization and economic growth are increasing the amount of waste in the Asia-Pacific region. Small cities, where the largest proportion of the urban population resides, have low resources and capacities to manage their waste.

Poorly managed waste causes numerous social and environmental impacts, including higher incidences of diseases, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and water and soil pollution. To help small cities sustainably manage their waste, ESCAP is implementing the “Pro-poor and sustainable solid waste management in secondary cities and small towns in Asia-Pacific” project in partnership with Waste Concern (Bangladesh).

Through this project, ESCAP is helping local governments to deploy inclusive programs and strategies for adopting 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) practices and establish Integrated Resource Recovery Centers (IRRCs). In Sri Lanka, ESCAP has helped the local governments of Matale and Ratnapura to establish IRRCs in partnership with local civil society organizations. Recognizing the success of the IRRC, the Central Environmental Authority of Sri Lanka funded an increase in the capacity of the IRRC in 2009, followed by another increase supported by ESCAP in 2011, taking the total processing capacity to 9 tonnes of waste per day. Through its IRRC, Matale Municipal Council was able to reduce about 50% of its waste going to its large central landfill per day. In addition, the amount of waste recovered and recycled increased by four times from 2008 to 2015, while the household waste segregation rates increased from 10% to 60% over the same period. Building on the success of the IRRC in Matale, in 2012 ESCAP also helped to establish an IRRC in Ratnapura City with a 5 tonne per day capacity.

The IRRCs have also been successfully replicated in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Viet Nam to recover economic value and resources from waste and contribute to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.

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