U.S. Supports Asia’s Balance of Economic, Environmental Goals

A wildfire burned through this field in Indonesia in 2011, creating a noxious haze and denuding the land.
A wildfire burned through this field in Indonesia in 2011, creating a noxious haze and denuding the land.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer

Washington,
26 July 2013

Asian governments are showing heightened concern about addressing environmental problems and preserving existing natural resources, according to assessments presented to a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee July 24.

At the same time, U.S. government agencies and international development agencies are working to support regional decisionmaking that preserves the region’s environmental resources as the nations pursue greater economic growth and prosperity.

“Some countries in the region have lost 70 to 90 percent of their natural wildlife habitat to agriculture and infrastructure development, deforestation, land degradation and climate change effects,” testified Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the U.S. State Department.

Reifsnyder said the United States is engaged in partnerships and assistance efforts to help East Asian governments make sustainable choices in decisions regarding climate change, air quality, deforestation, freshwater supplies, sanitation, wildlife trafficking and marine preservation activities.

In the last decade, Southeast Asia had one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation, a practice with several adverse environmental impacts. Forests are leveled with fire, so smoke and ash emissions diminish air quality and contribute to global warming. Denuding the landscape can lead to land erosion and diminish water quality.

Reifsnyder said the United States is participating in a World Bank program for the region, Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, known as REDD+. The State Department official said Indonesia is a leader in this regional initiative, noting that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has committed to making significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The United States supports additional work on REDD+ in Indonesia in areas such as forest mapping and monitoring, peatland emissions and fires; low emissions rural development options and measuring, reporting and verifying emissions,” said Reifsnyder.

The United States is involved in other regional forestry conservation activities, which focus on restraining illegal logging.

The region’s water issues demand careful management to balance competing interests, officials said. Clean water supplies and sanitation must be extended to large populations lacking them without doing damage to watershed sustainability. Construction of massive dam projects is a typical solution to these problems, but projects elsewhere have shown that damning water supplies can harm downstream populations and cause other unintended damage.

Dam projects are now under consideration on the Mekong River, a waterway supporting the lives of 70 million people. The projects could threaten livelihoods and sustainable use of the resource but also provide opportunities to “promote cooperation and regional integration,” said Reifsnyder.

“In the case of the Mekong, we believe greater U.S. diplomatic and technical engagement could help strengthen existing regional institutions and drive the region toward better decisionmaking around large-scale infrastructure,” Reifsnyder said.

The United States helped the five nations in the Mekong basin form the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009 to boost regional cooperation on environment, health and infrastructure decisions. The Mekong River Commission, a U.N. body formed 50 years ago, provides another forum for regional talks on sustainable resource use.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is working through the LMI to identify environmental, economic and social effects of climate change in the region, said Deputy Assistant Administrator Gregory Beck.

“The project also assists highly vulnerable populations in ecologically sensitive areas to increase their ability to adapt their livelihoods to climate change impacts on water resources, agricultural systems, biodiversity and ecosystems,” Beck said.

In Indonesia, USAID is working with the government to bring safer water and sanitation to more than 2 million people. Beck also described significant progress toward safe water systems in the Philippines, with loan and construction projects underway that will potentially help another 2 million people.

With this regional activity underway and future sustainability in the balance, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland who chaired the hearing, said Singapore stands out as a leader that “has invested in proactive government reforms to implement best practices in environmental planning, despite water scarcity, population growth and rising sea level challenges.”

Cardin described Singapore as a “cleaner, greener, and more prosperous” nation that can contribute greatly to a regional dialogue on preserving environmental resources while promoting economic development.”