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The Hindu on : Lessons for the Third World

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, April 24, 2001

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Lessons for the Third World

WHEN PRESIDENT George W. Bush decided on March 28, 2001 not to implement the U.S. part of the Kyoto Treaty on controlling the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), he threw a challenge to the entire world community and especially to the Third World countries. Here is an American President elected without a majority of the popular vote, with the weakest mandate in American history, yet who, on his 69th day in office, gave up his election rhetoric of `compassionate conservatism' and reasserted his right-wing credentials.

Since a majority of his Cabinet members are former business tycoons who ran oil, iron or tin industries - the biggest polluters of atmosphere in the U.S. - it was only inevitable that the President would listen to them rather than to the free world of which he is the leader. To him the starkest of facts that the U.S. with only 4 per cent of the world population, causes 25 per cent of the global GHG emissions did not matter. Before becoming President, Mr. Bush, as Governor of Texas - a state with the worst record on the release of toxic gases in the U.S. - had already earned the nickname `Toxic Texan'.

Why did he do it? He did not mince his words to say: ``I will not accept anything that will harm our economy and hurt our American workers''. The American economy and the American workers are so crucial to the President that he is prepared to bring the whole world to the brink of disaster and put its very survival at risk.

Environment and development

As far as President Bush is concerned, he is right and the science is wrong with regard to the impact of GHG emissions on global climate. His rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change flies in the face of what is taking place before our eyes: unprecedented melting of the ice-caps in the polar regions, continuous rise in the sea levels, higher than normal increase in air temperature, more frequent and intense floods and droughts and noticeable alterations in the behaviour of birds, insects, plants and fish. These remarkable happenings especially during the last decade or so confirm beyond any doubt the change in global climate. By repudiating the Kyoto environmental agreement, the President seems to be as much unaware of the scientific consensus that pollution does indeed cause global warming as he was in the presidential debates prior to elections. To him the state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change is ``incomplete'' and there is a ``lack of commercially available technologies for removing and storing carbon dioxide''.

Some American soil scientists believe that the existing role of forests and large bodies of water as `natural sinks' for carbon dioxide can be enhanced to absorb increased carbon dioxide emissions. However, many eminent international soil scientists and environmentalists disagree with this view. They are of the opinion that ``rising temperature and carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere may turn sinks into sources in a few decades''. An excellent state-of-the-art review of natural sinks and their role is contained in the February 28, 2001 issue of Down to Earth, a fortnightly published by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

At a time when international funding agencies, led by the World Bank, are exerting all possible pressure on Third World countries to apply stringent environmental guidelines to all their development activities and to make them sustainable, the world's richest and most developed country seems to be flouting them. If the U.S. President rejects the Kyoto Treaty in order not to harm the world's richest and most developed economy, then his rejection bestows on Third World countries the right to tell their international financiers and donors not to sacrifice further their development projects at the altar of environment. The negative impact of a development project may affect the developing country in which it is located, and possibly its immediate neighbours, but the effects of such an impact could be mitigated by adopting suitable and timely remedial measures. However, the impact of what President Bush has done will be global and its effects could be catastrophic in the long term.

The views of the World Commission on Environement and Development on environment and sustainable development, contained in its aptly-titled 1987 report ``Our Common Future'', were unambiguous: ``The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable. Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life''. The Commission rightly foresaw economic and environmental concerns as complementary rather than contradictory and reiterated the need to integrate economic and ecological considerations in decision-making. However, decisions on economic development in some of the poorest countries are now being made purely on environmental grounds and, as a result, development projects designed to bring them above poverty line are being starved of financial and technical assistance by funding agencies and donors.

Deprived of funding

The world's two most populous developing nations, China and India, which account for nearly 35 per cent of the world's population, were deprived of funds to implement such important projects as the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Narmada scheme in India by international financing agencies. These projects were critical to their economic uplift. In addition to several intangible benefits, the Narmada scheme would irrigate over one million hectares of driest land in a drought-prone region of north-west India. The Three Gorges Dam will control floods in the Yangtze River for the first time in China's history and generate, as safe and clean hydropower, about 20 per cent of China's total energy requirements in the 21st century. Even before India applied for a loan amounting to less than 20 per cent of the total cost of the Narmada scheme, the World Bank sent a mission to India whose anti-project findings purely on environmental grounds pre-empted any loans. The mission simply pontificated to India on the resettlement of some 250,000 people that would be displaced by the project.

The Three Gorges Dam is likely to displace as many as 1.2 million people. The displaced people would be adequately resettled both in China and India and they would still be alive on completion of these schemes. The funding agencies should pause and ponder how many people would die due to floods and droughts without these schemes. Just one catastrophic flood in the Yangtze in 1954 claimed 300,000 lives in China. Similarly, without the hundreds of dams built since its independence in 1947, India would be just another Horn of Africa today. If the U.S. decides to build projects similar to the Narmada or the Three Gorges in order to boost its economy, would the World Bank pontificate to its biggest financial backer? Would it be willing to bite the hand that feeds it? The world awaits the Bank's reaction to President Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Treaty.

Least developed countries

Laos, a least developed and sparsely populated country in south Asia, is struggling to recover by developing a few medium-size hydropower schemes on the Mekong River and its tributaries after being ravaged by internal conflicts and the Vietnam war during the Sixties and the Seventies. But its modest development programme is threatened because of immense opposition from international fuding agencies. One such scheme did not attract funding because it was displacing some 28 households or about 140 people! Unable to cope with the growing environmental demands of international funding agencies and the numerous NGOs that support them, Laos has now invited private foreign investors to build some of the hydropower schemes.

Vietnam, which the U.S. and its allies had turned into an environmental laboratory during the war and where people are still dying from the toxic after-effects of such lethal chemicals as Agent Orange, is yet another poor country trying to catch up with the outside world. As soon as the environmentalist arrived recently at a project site in one of the poorest and most vulnerable area, his first question was: ``Where are the bird sanctuaries and the protected forests?'' He had to be reminded to get his priorities right since he was in a drought-stricken area of Vietnam where people were without food for three to four months in a year. It appears that sustainable development has now become synonymous more with the protection of birds and flora and fauna rather than the survival of hungry and thirsty humanity!

There are scores of examples similar to Laos and Vietnam where development assistance to a poor country has been either delayed or stopped purely on spurious environmental grounds. Unless the developing countries follow the example of India and China and are prepared to implement some of the development projects with their own meagre human and financial resources, they would not be able to shake off the straitjacket of poverty and backwardness. They should also take a leaf from the U.S. and put their own economic self-interest before any environmental consideration in matters of development.


(The author is an independent consultant to several U.N. agencies).

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