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Asia, ASEAN And Environmental & Disaster Relief Cooperation; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

C3S Monthly Column M006/15

This has been an eventful quarter and month in Asia. The highs include the 26th ASEAN summit held in Malaysia (April 2015), World War Victory Day celebrations, the visit of Indian Prime Minister to China, an India-China Agreement on Climate Change, the India-Bangladesh land-swap, and the G20 meeting, while the lows include the Nepal Earthquake and tremors and aftershocks elsewhere on the Asian faultlines (April-June), the Rohingya refugee crisis, Chinese ferry disaster on the Yangtze river, heatwaves across India and fears of a failing southwest monsoon in India.  With the World Environment Day falling in June (June 5, 2015) it behoves one to look at the developments to protect the environment in the region in the recent past. An India-China Agreement on Climate Change and the high-level ASEAN dignitaries meet to build consensus on institutionalising the resilience of ASEAN, a follow up to the “ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change 2014” adopted by the leaders at the 25th ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, are important roadmaps to highlighting the plight of the region.

Another important outcome of the 26th ASEAN summit keeping in mind the natural disasters in the region and the plight of Rohingya refugees is the “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centred ASEAN.” This declaration according to the ASEAN secretary-general Le Luong Minh takes “inspiration from Malaysia’s  ASEAN Chairmanship theme this year – ‘Our People, Our Vision, Our Community’ … [and]  will spell out ASEAN’s specific commitments on the political, economic and socio-cultural pillars that will help create sustainable development in the region.” At a time when the world community is trying to alleviate the refugee crises, efforts to find a solution for the Rohingyas could be possible only with the cooperation of all ASEAN nations without extra-regional interference to a problem with roots in the colonial times. The British elections results gave a bigger majority to David Cameron in time for World War Victory Day and Remembrance celebrated across the globe but he too has to deal with the North African refugee crisis affecting the EU even as Asia deals with the legacy of British occupation and resettlement.

Human security is imperilled in many parts of the world and the displaced are precipitating refugee crises that add pressure to the functioning of international organizations. North African refugees coming across the Mediterranean Sea are affecting intra-EU relations and in the Indian Oceans the Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar to other ASEAN nations are disrupting the smooth functioning of the ASEAN, ironic when you consider the recent People-Oriented & People-Centred Kuala Lumpur Declaration!

The Rohingyas who are internally displaced people (IDP) also became environmental refugees as well way back in April-May 2008: A relentless pile on of trauma on to these stateless people. The Cyclone Nargis, a “rare, eastward moving at low-latitude strong tropical cyclone that caused the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar” wrecked havoc on the IDP camps as well as affecting logistics sustaining it and later the aid distribution itself. In addition it devastated the rice harvest adding further stress to the food supply to the camps. The Myanmar government in view of the prevailing crisis insists that it will discuss the issue only if the ASEAN and other concerned actors avoid using the term “Rohingya” thus continuing to deny their identity. A harsh colonial legacy that continues to disrupt peaceful co-existence decades after the British created the problem by settling the Muslims from what is now Bangladesh to gain better tax revenue from the lands of the Rakhine people of Myanmar. India and Bangladesh meanwhile with a landmark land-swap agreement this month have solved a forty-year-old problem and have succeeded in granting an identity to the populations living in the “no-man’s land” enclaves between the two nations. It is to be hoped that the ASEAN nations can shape a better future for the Rohingyas without too much extra-regional interference.

Disasters & Their International Aftershocks  

It is estimated that the April 25, 2015 Nepal earthquake which measured 7.8 on the Richter has killed 8,800 people and injured more than 23,000.  Many deaths occurred in the Everest base camp which was quite close to the earthquake’s epicentre east of the Lamjung district. The deaths of the mountaineers were caused by the earthquake and the avalanche it triggered. Thus even though the earthquake affected Nepal and India the devastation was felt across the globe due to the number of international tourists and mountaineers who succumbed to it. A scary theme repeated in the earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter that hit the Malaysian island of Sabah this World Environment Day, where 18 people from 5 countries died on Mount Kinabalu, many from a Singaporean primary school!

The continuing aftershocks in Nepal are still causing insecurity for it seems difficult to predict when they will cease. The aftershock on May 12, 2015 at 12:51 measured 7.3 killing 200 people and injuring more than 2,500. Thus it is “a long drawn out chain of events,” with one disaster having a ripple effect on others for years or even decades upon end. The rains and avalanches and landslides in the time of earthquake relief efforts hinder progress and claim new victims. The effect of the tragedy exacerbates social problems such as “human trafficking, labor cost and availability, rental and property cost burdens, urbanization, private and public debt burdens, mental health, politics, tourism, as well as disease and healthcare system damages” as thousands were made homeless as entire villages were flattened as well as destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Thus the plans to rebuild must include earthquake proofing and sustainable architecture to prevent such devastation in the future of this earthquake prone region.

The April-May earthquakes have claimed not just lives, buildings, and infrastructure but also have jolted the already poor Nepal economy with shocks felts across South Asia. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated economic losses from 9 percent to 50 percent (with a mean of 35%) of the gross domestic product which in 2012 was estimated at US$19.921 billion.

Add to the devastation of the earthquakes the loss of life and livelihood due to the Indian heatwave and the Chinese ferry disaster and one sees a lot of loss of life and property as a result of natural disasters and the need to inter and intra-regional cooperation to alleviate the resultant stresses. The  toppling of the ferry on the Yangtze River due to strong winds and stormy conditions during a routine river cruise has claimed over 400 lives … most of them senior citizens. This accident on June 1, 2015 has been deemed the deadliest Chinese maritime disaster in nearly seven decades. There were less than twenty survivors and 36 people are still unaccounted for. Meanwhile in India 1,636 “heat wave” deaths reported between May 15 and May 30 in Andhra Pradesh, 115 in Odisha and many more have been hospitalized as a result of the harsh heat and an unprepared system unable to come up with workable plans to curb the seasonal death tolls.

Climate Change

Following a harsh summer and a delayed start of the Southwest Monsoons the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted a bad monsoon with an expected rainfall from 93% to 88%. A consequence of the El Nino effect in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and the neutralization of the Indian Ocean Dipole. While unseasonal rains affected the Rabi crop, the predicted failing Monsoon further devastates the many farmers and the agriculture sector which remains a backbone of the Indian economy.

Climate change is a reality and the uneven heating of the planet is causing disruptions in the weather patterns. China and India, the world’s first and third biggest greenhouse gas emitters have projected a united front on climate change following Prime Minister Modi’s China visit. The joint document on climate change calls for developed countries to raise their pre-2020 emission reduction targets, and honour their commitment to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries. Both nations also committed to continue to work together in clean energy technologies, energy conservation and renewable energy. Five out of the twenty-six business deals struck up between the two global economic growth engines deal with renewable energy. India has already beat its renewable energy target while according to new data in the first four months of 2015, China’s coal use fell almost 8 percent compared to the same period last year — a reduction in emissions that’s approximately equal to the total carbon dioxide emissions of the U.K. over the same period.

The complete joint statement on climate change can be viewed at:

An insight into the origin of the Rohingya problem can be found at:

Overview & Outcomes of the 26th ASEAN Summit can be found at:

(The writer, Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues.)

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