- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

BANGKOK Jobs were slashed, the stock market plunged and their currency withered. But many Thais detected a silver lining in the dark economic clouds fumes from Bangkok's once infernal traffic jams thinned, dust swirls off construction sites vanished.
Elsewhere in Asia, the 1997 financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn likewise were viewed as a boon for the continent's battered environment as polluting factories closed, car sales plummeted and megaprojects were scrapped.
"It offers a time for us to rest and breathe," Ng Cho-nam, president of the Conservancy Association in Hong Kong, said then.
Although major construction is still on hold and Bangkok's air may be cleaner, analysts concur that the breathing space is short-lived and say Asia's continuing economic woes are proving destructive to the environment.
Research by the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and U.N. agencies has found that almost every Asian government has cut spending for environmental protection and some tend to turn a blind eye to violations of pollution standards, illegal logging and overfishing. Cleaner technologies are not being introduced.
"In times of economic crisis, there is a tendency to think: 'Let's get the economy going and the environment can be improved later,'" said M.A. Khan of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
When Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) visited an electronics firm this year that had failed to meet environmental standards, he urged authorities to grant it a license anyway.
"I will plead for businesses and would get on my knees if necessary," Mr. Chen said.
His remarks came amid an economic downturn and ever louder complaints from businessmen about the island's more stringent standards on factory start-ups introduced a decade ago. Such controls, Taiwan's government fears, will drive industry to mainland China, where regulations are looser.
"We do find that there's a lesser interest in environmental standards," said Howard Shaw of the Singapore Environment Council. "What [businessmen] say to us is, 'We're having to cut budgets at the moment.' So they can't commit time and budgets to our programs."
Increased poverty brought on by the 1997 crisis also is having a major impact as growing numbers of people in rural areas have to live off the land. More trees are cut and fish caught, wildlife poached and ecologically sensitive areas, like steep hillsides, stripped of trees to expand farm fields.
In cities, poorer consumers opt for cheaper refrigerators, heaters and other goods, even if these are less environmentally friendly.
Hard times in Indonesia have prompted more fishermen to switch from traditional methods to the destructive, illegal practice of squirting cyanide on coral to stun and capture fish alive for sale to Hong Kong and ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
The fish fetch higher local prices, while money-strapped enforcement agencies are hard-pressed to mount patrols.
Meanwhile, their staffers are more prone to accept bribes to feed families on meager wages.
"A lot of [environmental] destruction in the Philippines has always been seen as a matter of survival. That has worsened with the slump," said Von Hernandez, spokesman in Manila for the conservation group Greenpeace.
The financial crunch, for example, has prevented drivers of jeepneys the colorful, noisy diesel minivans that serve as public transport from tuning engines or taking other simple steps to reduce pollution.
Although Manila's vehicle-emission standards are as tough as those in Los Angeles, the government cannot afford monitoring equipment, so the law goes unenforced.
Air pollution in general has worsened in Manila, despite declining economic activity, and other urban areas of Asia have enjoyed only a temporary respite from the economic crisis.
South Korea's Environment Ministry says emissions of pollutants such as carbon monoxide and dust particles dropped countrywide to 3.77 million tons in 1998 from an average of 4.4 million tons a year before the crisis. But both oil consumption and pollutant emissions are now back to pre-crisis levels.
Malaysia's most environmentally controversial project the Bakun Dam on the island of Borneo stopped when cash dried up during the crisis. But the project, which would flood a tract of rain forest larger than Singapore, was revived in March.
China, meanwhile, has managed to escape a major downturn and encourages domestic spending to keep the economy growing. The country produced 2.07 million cars last year, compared with 1.58 million in 1997.
Beijing has raised spending on the environment in recent years, but the Asian Development Bank says the current level about 1 percent of gross domestic product must be increased significantly. It says China faces an array of challenges from flooding caused by deforestation to growth of deserts from overgrazing.
Elsewhere, budgets for the environment have shrunk.
After the crisis, per capita spending dropped from $28 to $19 in South Korea, from $5 to $3 in Thailand, from 67 cents to 53 cents in Malaysia and from 36 cents to less than 1 cent in Indonesia, the bank said. With the threat of a new recession looming, expenditures are unlikely to increase.
Mr. Khan, the U.N. environmental analyst, said several Asian governments, and even businesses, were just starting to put more money and thought into environmental programs when the 1997 crisis struck.
The much-followed maxim "Grow now, clean up later" is being increasingly questioned and the dark side of the Asian economic miracle examined.
The price for unbridled growth has been heavy. Half the continent's forests have vanished and the average fecal coliform count in Asia's rivers is 50 times higher than U.N. guidelines. More than 1,000 mammal species are threatened. Some 1,500 varieties of rice have disappeared in Indonesia. Half of Southeast Asia's rich coral reefs are at high risk.
There are no winners. The continent's richest nation, Japan, struggles with mountains of industrial waste and loss of biological diversity. The poorest Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Papua New Guinea depend on a small natural resource base, yet cannot resist overexploitation of forests and other ecosystems for short-term economic gains.
In Indonesia, political turmoil and economic decline have ensured that illegal logging and air and water pollution increase. The London-based environmental group Telapak says forests in Sumatra could be gone by 2005 and those in Borneo by 2010. Even national parks are being destroyed.
The devaluation of Thailand's currency, which triggered the 1997 crisis, proved a strong stimulus to agricultural exports, leading to the ruin of more wetlands by destructive shrimp farming.
"It is difficult to see that any substantive progress on environmentally sustainable development will be made until economic and financial stability is restored," said Kristalina Georgieva at the Asian Development Bank.
She notes that Asia's economic and environmental problems have common roots headlong growth without proper safeguards, unsustainable management practices, lack of openness in government and corruption.
"The critical question for the environment is whether resumed growth will be 'business as usual' or will reflect fundamental reforms in both the economic and environmental spheres," she said.

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