Notes from the Field

East Meets West in California: A Dialogue on Environmental Issues in Asia

September 23, 2009

Natural resource depletion, development, energy demand, and climate change were all on the table at The Asia Foundation during last Friday morning’s launch of the China Environment Forum’s USAID-funded publication:  “Asia’s Future: Critical Thinking for a Changing Environment.” Featured speakers included Dr. Jennifer Turner, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in Washington D.C., and Dr. Robert Collier, visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. This unique convening of East and West Coast expertise to discuss the most pressing environmental problems facing Asia brought a packed room and a lively exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Dr. Turner began the discussion with an introduction of the complex, interconnected trends shaping Asia’s future. Most of the drivers behind these trends were directly related to changing economic and social forces that have altered demand for energy and resources, including fresh water. It was also evident that China’s rapid economic development is a major contributor, as the country’s robust growth and demand for resources has only increased its already strong presence throughout Asia.

A map of Cambodia brought this point into closer view, as it outlined the construction of new dams, roads, and mines in direct proximity to natural resource and biodiversity hotspots, many of which were financed by Chinese companies. I recalled my own travels from southern China, across the border and into Laos and Cambodia along the Mekong River, seeing and feeling the physical connection between China and its southern neighbors. In China, bulldozers working around the clock re-shaped the land in a cloud of dust. Downstream, poor villages floated on the Mekong River, every boat strung with fish nets, almost completely dependent on the resources in the water. Vulnerable to dam construction upstream, climate change, and increasing demands for natural resources, these towns needed measurable solutions.

The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program is approaching the problem from this perspective. In Laos and Mongolia, monitoring river water quality establishes a baseline with which to measure environmental impact, whether from large mining operations upstream, or locally based pollution. It also engages and empowers local stakeholders who conduct water quality tests and directly experience environmental impact on the river.

While many of the trends facing Asia’s environmental future are troubling and disconcerting, an overarching message highlighted by the meeting was the need for greater East-West Coast collaboration. The California-based audience represented innovators in environmental policy and action addressing many of the same challenges that Asia faces; businesses developing new and efficient technologies; and NGOs directly engaged with Asia through their geographical proximity to the region. The combination of these perspectives, along with those of international policy-makers and think tanks represented through the China Environment Forum, will prove to be a powerful, fresh, and much-needed contribution to implementing effective action.

Read more about the publication Asia’s Future: Critical Thinking for a Changing Environment.

Lisa Hook is a Junior Associate in The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org.

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