Study: Although the region is in the grip of a pollution crisis, many Asians are ignorant to it

Water buffalos in a small lake in Sumba Island, Indonesia. Image credit: Asian Development Bank

Asia is right at the very centre of an industrial boom – and a steadily worsening water pollution crisis thanks to the very same industrial boom that is also almost non-regulated. But according to a new study released by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a non-profit think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., in the United States (U.S.), many of the rural poor have little to no access to information regarding who is contaminating their water with what, how they are vulnerable to the toxins, and the consequential negative health impacts on them as they continue using the polluted water for consumption, farming, and fishing.

The research study conducted as part of the WRI’s Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment (STRIPE) programme, is titled Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand, and was first published on the 30th of August in Stockholm, Sweden, where this year’s World Water Week was hosted. The study has discovered that although the governments of the three nations in question are legally required to be transparent concerning information on water quality, they are defying the laws.

The WRI has also linked the disregarding of these laws to catastrophic overtones for the rural communities as well as their livelihoods.

WRI collected and analysed data taken from water quality monitoring portals, environmental status reports, as well as other public data bases in order to appraise the degree in which governments are releasing information on water pollution, and the companies behind it. 150 individuals were interviewed, and the think tank also tracked information requests the community submitted to evaluate how the legal requirements played out.

The WRI found that in order to proactively make environmental information public and fulfil Right to Information requests, the governments would have to follow extensive legislation brought about by the adoption of international standards concerning public disclosures into national law.

The organisation also uncovered that while all the three nations in questions were required to disclose the general quality of water bodies, health impacts as a result of the contaminants present in the water, and efforts to clean up the water.

The types of information regarding water pollution that communities in the three countries need. Image credit: World Resources Institute (WRI)

Unfortunately, laws surrounding reporting indicators including information on the companies contaminating the water, the levels of discharge, and the implications of using the polluted water, vary among the three nations.

Around the world, governments frequently communicate the information to the general public by means of data portals, numerous environmental reports and ratings, and pollutant release indexes, among others.

But when it comes to the laws that reference right to information requests on environmental issues, both Indonesia and Thailand legally require their governments to publish the relevant documents on the impacts of pollution, facilities to clean the water, and water monitoring information. Mongolia, on the other hand, only has laws on the release on substances considered poisonous or radioactive.

According to the WRI, the legal provisions are not just broad – there is a general lack of clarity surrounding the issue of how the information should be made available and disseminated to communities scattered across the land.

And as extensive as these legal requirements regarding water transparency are, the WRI discovered that the officials were not applying the laws, ignoring up to 58 per cent and 59 per cent of information requests in Indonesia and Mongolia respectively.

“The governments’ failure to provide water pollution information is an environmental injustice. Without it, poor, marginalised communities cannot participate in decision-making, let alone hold governments and more powerful corporations accountable for contaminating their local water sources,” Elizabeth Moses, an environmental democracy specialist at the WRI, as well as the author of the report, said to Eco-Business.

The WRI put forth a list of recommendations to address this gap in information, including the development of a centralised system that can collect data from both national and sub-national agencies that report on issue on water quality, and can also serve as a single point of information for communities.

The ruling governments of the three countries should also take care to release the information in a format and language that communities can easily understand such as information centres, simple signs, and radio alerts, among other options. Moreover, they could also work closely with the locals to get a better sense of the types of data and information the people want, and their preferred mode of accessibility.

The WRI also stated that collaborations with government-owned companies and the private sector could also aid policymakers in upgrading efforts on transparency, and also encouraged civil society and community members to be more engaged in water issues by taking part in policy discussions and demanding information of a higher quality from the governments.

International donors with a focus on water problems could also avail more resources to civil society and governments to help them improve the lines of communication between themselves and communities, as well as ensure that the communication will also be used by the people.

“People have the right to know about hazardous pollution in the waterways on which they rely,” John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment said in a statement. “Governments that fail to provide that information are violating their citizens’ human rights.”


Sources: Eco-Business, World Resources Institute