(Used by permission)
by Datuk A. Bakar Jaafar
Coming of age at 26 in the autumn of 1975, I flipped through the centrefold of the October issue of Playboy which was accessible only at the special collection section of the Miami University library in Oxford, Ohio.
To my surprise, there it was, a male figure. He had a big chest for having inhaled polluted air, messy hair for having been exposed to acid rain, spotty dark skin for having been bombarded with excessive ultraviolet radiation, glassy eyes for having stared at a glaring sky, and stubby finger tips for having punched too many electronic pads and computer key boards.
It was an illustration of what future Man might look like, if the environment continued to be polluted at that current level.
In the summer of the same year, the official opening of the new US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office for Research and Development in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the late President Gerald Ford, had to be cancelled as the city experienced, quite appropriately at that very moment, a “temperature inversion”; the air pollutant index had gone beyond a dangerous level.
Back in Malaysia, my former Factories and Machinery Department office at the MIC headquarters off Jalan Ipoh in Kuala Lumpur had been bombarded with, since the late sixties to mid–seventies, non–stop telegraphic messages captured by police intelligence, containing unsolicited communist propaganda and other subversive elements:
“Look at the capitalistic government, encouraging the setting up of factories in the interior, polluting the waters, and affecting the masses.”
Such an unwelcome element had raised serious security concerns, though the number of communists in the country had been kept to a minimum, or at a safe enough level to keep the armed forces “busy”.
As a response, the Environmental Quality Act of 1974 was enacted.
Since then, a series of regulations has been introduced and enforced as much to prevent pollution – largely through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Order of 1988 – as to control pollution from palm oil mills, rubber factories and other industries and motor vehicles, and to manage the disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes, the use of halon and chlorofluorocarbons, oil tankers and other maritime sources of pollution, and to control the release of untreated or partially treated sewage.
The control of other human or animal waste, however, has not been subjected to the same federal law.
In the meantime, the air continues to be polluted by an exponential increase in the number of fossil–fuel dependent vehicles on the road, as the multi–modal public transport system has yet to be fully developed quickly and adequately enough to cope with the increasing demand from sprawling commuters.
Furthermore, the nation continues to depend more on transport and logistics by road and highways, than by waterways, even though it would require much less energy, thus less pollution, to transport goods and services by water than by land.
This is certainly in contradiction to our understanding of the Archimedes Principle. In physics, one learns that the buoyancy of water is displaced by the full weight of a vessel with its cargo, hence negating the pull of gravity. Thus, no energy would be required to carry the weight in water; whatever little energy required is only to overcome water resistance when the vessel is in motion.
After the air we breathe, the second most important resource of all is water.
Unfortunately, though, if a brunette were to jump into the nation’s rivers, she would most likely turn blonde as 80% of our rivers continue to be polluted more by suspended sediments from uncontrolled land clearing or lack of control in earthworks than by untreated or partially treated sewage and other sullage waters.
For safe supply of drinking water, prior treatment and chlorination is a must. However, increasing numbers of residents can still resort to bottled supplies of spring, ground–mineral, or distilled water for drinking and cooking purposes.
But once contaminated, ground–water will take at least 30 years to recover. Would we one day have to wrap every other tree in the country with a plastic cover or shield in order to capture fresh, clean, and safe water for our daily survival?
At the same time, our rivers carry tonnes of floating debris and rubbish to our seas due to littering and indiscriminate dumping of garbage and other household or commercial waste. Should such a trend continue, the country might have to establish a Royal Rubbish Commission (Suruhanjaya Sampah DiRaja). That would be unfortunate.
However, with some optimism, there could be an enviro–economic policy instrument in place, based not on the polluters–pay principle, but more appropriately for developing economies like Malaysia, on the indifferent consumers–pay principle which would entail returning all unwanted goods or materials to designated collection centres for re–use or recycling. In return, consumers would be rewarded with levy–equivalent “credit points” to pay off a required levy.
Hopefully, in 50 years, a new cultural norm would have developed.
Every household or workplace would have recycling bins for wet and perishable waste (for composting), dry and non–perishable waste (for recycling), and toxic and hazardous materials (for recovery).
The recyclables would be traded in the Malaysian Commodity Exchange. The new goods, for both consumer and industrial purposes, would contain a certain percentage of recyclables. With highly favourable tariffs, materials, with some calorific value which can no longer be recycled, will become another source of fuel for electric–power generation.
Despite all the effort and policies in place, the environment will not be as safe a place as it used to be even though Malaysians are more likely to be killed on the road, than to die from communicable and industrial diseases.
Hopefully, more Malaysians would learn to adopt healthier diets. In short, one would have to unlearn, to adapt, to adjust, and to survive in the future.
Datuk Ir Dr Abu Bakar Jaafar was Department of Environment Director General from 1990–95.
(Used by permission)