Things Russia should care about in Southeast Asia: Environment

Indonesia haze. Source: AFP / East News

Indonesia haze. Source: AFP / East News

While Russia has been struggling to find its strategy for integrating into the Asia-Pacific, helping out with environmental issues may be a way to fit in without addressing tough political dilemmas and spending a lot on investment.

Analysts who focus on the Asia-Pacific have long been ranting that Russia is not paying enough attention to what is going on in the region, especially Southeast Asia. The ASEAN population is neither aware of what interests Russia nor understands how Russian particpation in their region could be of use.

This post will start a series of articles that will focus on matters underreported in the Russian media and thus on the margins of the public agenda. At the same time, Russia may have a role to play in addressing these issues, so taking it into account may prove useful for Southeast Asian states.

We will start with an issue underreported everywhere and always - environment. This is a matter that is severely underestimated. Some aspects of the enviornment like climate change are sometimes even denied existence in public discourse. Perhaps that is a kind of wishful thinking, as dealing with most environmental issues requires a lot of hard work, implementing tough policies for businesses and citizens alike. Putting it metaphorically, we need to plant trees in whose shade we do not expect to sit.

Natural and manmade, environmental issues are not to be disregarded by the states of Southeast Asia. The region is not in the mildest of areas in terms of destructive natural forces to begin with.

Typhoons do great damage to coastal states of the region every year, with some bringing utter destruction. The latest case is certainly Haiyan back from 2013, which took a toll of 6,300 in the Philippines alone. The economic cost of the disaster was more than $2.8 billion - a sum that by no means is small change, especially for Southeast Asia.

Then there is the underlying case of El Niño (and his sister La Niña) - a weather phenomenon that has been repeatedly worrying environmentalists. This temperature anomaly that originates in the eastern Pacific causes extreme weather patterns on both sides of the ocean, including Southeast Asia. This year has so far been one of the notable El Niño years with harvests of rice, soy bean and palm oil influenced by changing weather conditions in the region, particularly in Thailand. And we are promised an anomalous winter as well.

Nature is tough around here as it is, but it may well get even worse. Southeast Asia may become one of the regions most affected by climate change. A recent report by the World Bank states that chances are that soon after 2030 increasing temperatures and, consequently, rising sea levels may lead to severe agricultural loss in shoreline countries. A rise of 30 cm will lead to 43 percent of Bangkok being covered by water. Vietnam’s rice powerhouse, the Mekong delta, may lose 12 percent of its output. Not only does this directly impact economic growth, it also threatens the livelihoods of millions of people living in coastal and urban communities.

Human activities are only making things worse. Almost every year, medieval-style slash-and-burn agricultural practices in Indonesia bring about massive forest fires, the haze spreading around the whole Southeast Asian region. It is an issue far beyond one country’s responsibilities.

A satellite view of the Southeast Asia haze. Source: AFP / East News

Or take the South China Sea - an international security issue with significant environmental repercussions. Artificial island construction and fortification brings about serious underwater reef deterioration and threatens aquatic biodiveristy, not to mention the fishing resources themselves, crucial for fishermen in Philippines or Vietnam.

Let’s be clear - this is not just an ethical issue of treating nature well. From the pragmatic perspective, slow innovation, poor waste management, lack of green technology all have profound cumulative effects on economic development, with some countries losing up to 5 percent GDP annually due to climate change and pollution.

So what does Russia have to do with all that? Well, first of all, neither climate, nor environment issues know any kind of borders. The case of the Indonesian haze demonstrates that just because your country doesn’t burn wood, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to breathe smoke. The inherent transnational nature of such issues calls for global efforts and perhaps it is precisely why we are so bad at dealing with it.

Secondly, while Russia has been struggling to find its strategy for integrating into the Asia-Pacific, helping out with environmental issues may be a way to fit in without addressing tough political dilemmas and spending a lot on investment or boosting trade. Russia has a lot to offer in terms of research, technology and training for disaster prevention and relief. With privileged port call rights in Vietnam, Russian Navy vessels may become instrumental in promoting search and rescue activities. Surely, Russia itself has a long way to go in terms of green growth, but perhaps through increased cooperation it can also learn from some of the more developed countries of the region like Singapore with its Green Plan.

Talking environment and climate change with developing countries like Russia or most of the Southeast Asian states is tough. Industrialization and modernization is hard enough as it is, adding green costs to this challenge makes it twice as difficult. The countries that are now adopting high-tier green technology have had their chance to build their wealth at a time when mankind didn’t care much about pollution or greenhouse gases (it was also a time when smoking was considered good for you). But modern day developing economies can not afford that, because the backlash will come quite soon in the form of financial loss.

This is why Russia should be considered useful for Southeast Asia to partner up in dealing with issues of climate change and deteriorating environment. Thankfully, we were smart enough not to politicize this issue (yet?) and Russia’s resources and experience may come in handy and serve as a basis for better cooperation on an issue of global significance and direct human impact.

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