Asean's sustainable future? Science and technology
October-December 2015
By: David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri

There is much that is required to set Asean on a sustainable path to continued growth. The list is long. It includes the need for a regional identity; a shared plan for sustainable growth; revenue generation, which will require tax reform and addressing corruption; developing more robust institutions to deploy Asean’s scarce resources efficiently and equitably; and establishing the rule of law to encourage foreign investment to contribute to Asean’s future. 

Much has been written and said about these needs. But in this essay, we will focus on one that tends to get less attention: the role that science and technology (S&T) can play to enable Asean’s sustainable growth.

The US Mission to Asean, based in Jakarta, developed a focus on science and technology shortly after it began operations in 2010. This focus grew out of a desire to support the rapid urbanization of the region and help Asean address issues that relate to the linkages between our human and natural systems, particularly the increasing pressure human population growth and development are putting on Southeast Asia’s natural resources.

While S&T is not the only tool needed to meaningfully address these issues, it is an important one that has not been adequately utilized. That is beginning to change. The reason for this change can be found in the growing awareness that what worked in the past to grow economies may no longer be possible. In this essay, we will focus on three specific issues that are challenging or will challenge the efficacy of these past approaches, and for which the US Mission to Asean developed programs or encouraged initiatives – climate change, impacts on human health from pollution, and poor nutrition.   

Three challenges to continued growth 

Asean is a region of low productivity. This is one of the biggest challenges facing its member states as they try to improve the lives of their people. A few statistics underscore the situation. It is estimated that 53 percent of Asean’s 618 million people live on less than $2 a day, with 18 percent earning less than $1.25. Most of Asean’s poor, like many of developed countries in the past, are subsistence farmers. Such farmers comprise 45 percent of Asean’s population. The regional grouping’s agricultural sector has particularly low productivity, which is a consequence of low value and labor-intensive crops such as rice, the small size of family plots and land-use policies that make it difficult to aggregate land.

Cultural attachments to land also complicate matters. So, too, do the policies of several Asean member states on food security, food independence and food sovereignty, which encourage domestic food production and prohibit or impede the importation of food. These policies understandably emerged from, or were reinforced by, the rice crisis of 2007-08, which saw prices triple within a matter of months. Yet they have made and will continue to make hundreds of millions of Asean citizens dependent on low-productivity agriculture for their sustenance. Of course, this truth also has the beneficial effect of providing employment for millions of farmers.

Then there are the urban poor, who are growing in number given the mass migration into Southeast Asia’s cities. The 2014 United Nations World Urbanization Prospects Report projected that an additional 34.5 million people in the region would be living in cities with populations larger than one million by 2025, which by then will be home to more than one-third of Asean’s population. Many of Asean’s urban dwellers are self-employed, which most often means they are underemployed. They lack the basic skills and tools to participate meaningfully in the global economy, including English language, education, infrastructure, adequate housing, sanitation and health care. The available revenue to address these shortcomings is in very short supply. Against this backdrop, Asean’s farmers and urban dwellers, especially its urban poor, are facing existential and developmental threats arising from such things as climate change, the health impacts of air pollution, euphemistically called “haze” by some, and poor nutrition.   

A new model 

The world is focused on economic growth, which increasingly is difficult to achieve and sustain. The reasons for this are many.  It will be difficult for Asean to grow at the rates it hopes to achieve while trying to manage the many needs and challenges ahead, including promoting human health and empowerment by providing such things as health care, education and infrastructure; coping with climate change, rapid urbanization, natural disasters and emerging infectious and chronic noncommunicable diseases; and transitioning away from its dependence on diminishing natural resources.

These needs and challenges are new, given Asean’s aspiration to participate in the global economy. Without meeting them it will be very difficult for the region to go beyond provisioning the world with its own diminishing natural resources. The simple truth is that Asean will need new approaches to growth than those that were effective elsewhere in the past. So too will the rest of the world.

In the past, people altered their landscapes and exploited their natural systems with great economic benefits, and seemingly little impact. We are only now witnessing the cumulative impact of such past practices. Scientific studies have shown that human activity has and continues to transform the structure and functioning of the earth's systems upon which we have long relied, including its forest cover, rivers, oceans, climate and atmosphere. None have been exempt from what we have done and are continuing to do. Now these changes are affecting health and well-being because they are affecting human safety and our basic necessities.

Yet too many persist in following old paths to progress despite concerns that they are not sustainable. Indeed, recent economic analyses such as “triple bottom line” accounting strongly suggest that businesses only are able to make a profit by avoiding the full economic, social and environmental costs of their operations, which are paid in large part by the public or deferred to future generations. A new report from the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health makes it clear: the planet has been mortgaging the future to live in the present. Asean is doing the same.

Some think it unfair to deny past paths to prosperity to those who are trying to take them now. The ongoing international negotiations attempting to establish goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are but one example of countries making the case for them staying the course charted by the past. One of the positions taken by developing countries – the developed world has caused most of the problem and should bear the burden of limiting greenhouse gas emissions – is understandable as a matter of past equity since the developed world was able to develop in part by doing as the developing world wants to do now.

But those past practices are not sustainable. There is growing evidence the planet cannot absorb the additional effects of pollution and natural resource exploitation. The result of attempting to utilize past growth models would exacerbate climate change, create critical shortages of the very things that once supported development and damage the natural resource base upon which we all depend. It would be just a matter of time before those impacts take an existential toll.

So what can be done? The key for Asean is to minimize mistakes going forward to maximize the possibility of long-term growth as opposed to short-term, unsustainable gain. Mistakes are more costly than the price of avoiding them, especially when Asean and the rest of the world will have increasingly fewer opportunities and less time to recover when mistakes are made. Of course, it also is true that recovery from certain mistakes may not be possible. The pace of the transformation of the globe and the changes to its natural systems is picking up speed. At some unknown point we are likely to be too far down the road to turn back.

It also is true that a future of conflict related to scarce resources looms. So does the threat of human migration, which is accelerating based on both conflict and the shortage of such resources as water and food. Migration promises to inundate countries already trying to cope with the increasing demands of their own citizens. Their ability also to meet the needs of new arrivals, whose ability to contribute to their new home countries is modest at best, is doubtful.

This understandably is leading some countries to try to close their doors to their neighbors. But our interdependence is an incontrovertible fact. Disease, water, fish, pollution and the economies upon which we depend transcend national boundaries. It is ironic that some are reverting to their tribes at the very moment when the world is becoming more aware that the real boundaries that separate us are dissolving. Asean needs a unifying principle that recognizes this truth – an identity that recognizes the shared past, present and future of its people. Part of Asean’s ability to create such an identity will depend upon transborder approaches informed by the application of science and the use of existing and new technologies. In short, S&T can help. 

Meeting the challenges

Science can give Asean a better understanding of changing environmental conditions so it can better plan for the future. By utilizing science-based tools, the association can develop and implement plans to prepare for and mitigate against the adverse impacts related to issues such as climate change, the effects of pollution on human health, and poor nutrition, all of which affect Asean’s productivity. Presently, there is no roadmap showing what it can do to prevent and respond to these challenges in the long term.

One of the things Asean will need to do is utilize science and technology to understand the impacts on health and the environment from current growth and development patterns, and to understand the nature of the problems it is facing and likely changes that are coming. Science-based understanding can inform policies and decisions and help reduce the risk of future mistakes, which are costly and from which it will be increasingly difficult to recover. Innovation in S&T can help Asean meet its sustainability challenges by presenting opportunities to grow in the way we need; for example, through low-carbon technologies and using alternative energy sources.

From the early days of its engagement with the region, the US Mission to Asean identified the need to apply S&T to help meet the region’s sustainability goals by strengthening science-based policy-making. The US mission’s first new hire was a science adviser who was a professional scientist with a doctorate and background in environmental health sciences. Other US missions and embassies have had science advisers, but few if any ambassadors have had the benefit of a professional scientist to advise them concerning science and technology.

The US State Department recently recognized the important role that science and technology can play in the implementation of foreign policy. In a new report at the request of the State Department, the US National Academies of Sciences highlighted the critical role S&T can play in a range of foreign policy issues. The report calls for the State Department to strengthen and continue to develop its science and technology capabilities, and to create S&T programs in the field to provide opportunities for bilateral and multilateral collaboration. For Asean and the United States, continuing to strengthen S&T cooperation would provide more opportunities for Asean to address the challenges it faces in developing sustainably.

The US Mission developed a multiyear plan to engage the region in S&T cooperation, including development of a program to support the region’s cities to adapt to climate change; implementing the US-Asean Science and Technology Fellows Program, which is aimed at strengthening capacity in science-based policy-making; advocating for putting sustainable fisheries management on the Asean agenda; proposing a monitoring program to assess greenhouse gas emissions in the region; and evaluating the public health impacts of haze pollution.

These and other programs put science and technology at the center of American diplomatic engagement in Asean. They helped provide tools to help Asean’s leaders address some of the challenges to its human and natural capital that threaten to limit the region's productivity. The following descriptions of the US mission’s S&T programming and advocacy are examples of the benefits such tools can provide with regard to climate change, the impact of pollution on human health and poor nutrition. 

Using science tools to build sustainable cities

Asean is predicted to be one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Rising temperatures and sea levels are expected to inundate low-lying littoral regions, increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and increase the risk of climate-sensitive diseases such as dengue fever and malaria. Said simply, the location of the region’s cities and farmland, its vulnerability to natural disasters and the undeveloped nature of its health care systems make its people among the most threatened by potential climate-related disruptions.

There is growing evidence that Southeast Asia already is suffering from the effects of climate change. For example, climate change has been projected to increase the frequency and severity of weather-related disasters, leading to increased economic losses. The 2011 floods in Thailand suggest this projection is already a reality. The World Bank estimates that those floods caused $45.7 billion in losses. Similarly, Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013, was the strongest recorded storm at landfall, with wind speeds reaching 235 miles per hour. It caused estimated losses of $14 billion.

These and other storms underscore a long-term severe weather trend that promises to get worse. To understand the potential economic consequences of such increases based on the number and severity of the region’s storms, one need only focus on the Asian Development Bank’s estimate that the cost of natural disasters within Asia has outpaced its gross domestic product growth during the last four decades. 

Additional impacts of climate change are also likely on the way. For example, global warming will result in the expansion of the water column, especially in the tropics, leading to increased coastal inundation and saltwater intrusion into agricultural areas and freshwater aquifers.

Asean’s great coastal cities and communities are also at risk. More than half of Southeast Asia’s population lives in coastal areas. The fact that the region has very low rates of insurance makes Asean’s exposure to climate change even worse. For example, it has been estimated that of the $45.7 billion in losses caused by the 2011 floods in Thailand, only $12 billion was covered by insurance and most of that was for business interruptions. Similarly, of the $14 billion in losses associated with Typhoon Haiyan, only between $1 billion and $2 billion was insured. This is hardly a surprise. Insurance rates in Asia are only 7.6 percent, compared to 67 percent in the United States. Stating the obvious, when people don't have insurance their governments either pick up the check or, as is more often the case, they go without and struggle to recover from the disasters that have befallen them. 

Science-based partnerships and understanding can help address these climate change challenges. There are a wide variety of science and technology tools and best practices to inform Asean’s leaders how best to strengthen urban and community resilience to these expected changes. For example, with regard to flooding and water management, which are critical challenges, tools include geospatial maps to visualize risks to natural and other assets. These maps can be integrated with many other types of data, including where people live and their demographics. Models can project the amount of sea level rise and inundation, helping to plan for growing communities and prepare for and respond to natural disasters. There are also planning tools that can assist in designing and implementing green infrastructure strategies, such as well-designed landscapes to reduce stormwater runoff and flooding. Green infrastructure solutions can contribute to improved flood protection, energy savings, air quality, property values and healthier communities.

For communities that want to consider human health impacts of water management projects and plans, a health impact assessment tool can be used to maximize health benefits and minimize adverse health impacts that might otherwise not be considered. Fortunately, some Asean member countries are starting to develop health impact assessments to inform policy-making and even integrating them as part of environmental assessment processes. 

The US Mission to Asean brought some of these tools to its member states, using a science-based approach to its sustainable cities partnership with eight cities in seven Asean countries. It highlighted the need to protect the services that urban ecosystems provide and to take into account social equity. Participants in the program were especially interested in technical tools for systems models to show the interconnections among economic development and social and environmental issues of concern; planning for green infrastructure; and for developing “what-if” scenarios to help predict future impacts of policies currently under consideration.

Based on this learning, participating teams strategized and committed to actions to help realize their sustainability plans. These included creating cross-sectoral working groups within their city governments; encouraging public participation in their planning processes to build broad support and to identify issues of greatest concern to their communities; and taking into account all of the costs associated with possible policies, including the often externalized environmental and social impacts. All of the city teams noted the desirability for continued US technical assistance, especially in support of climate adaptation planning and implementation, as well as the application of science and technology to address water management and to inform land-use planning.   

Human health and air pollution

Another example of science and technology engagement by the US Mission to Asean is related to air pollution, often referred to within the region as “haze,” which has been a longstanding problem. Air pollution now is the world’s largest single environmental health risk, with one-third of all the deaths occurring in the fast-growing cities in Asia (World Health Organization, 2014). There are various causes of air pollution, including industrial operations, motor vehicles, forest fires and the regionwide practice of land clearing by fire. Widespread exposure to air pollution led policymakers to use monitoring technologies to help them formulate responses.

Landscape fires in Asean are one of the region's greatest health risks, as well as being one of its greatest drivers of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. Pollution from biomass burning leads to increased deaths and disabilities from cardiorespiratory disease, both within the borders of the countries where the fires are set and well beyond. The adverse consequences of failing to reduce this form of air pollution are many, including the obvious such as the loss of productivity and tourism, and short- and long-term impacts on human health. In addition, there is resulting damage to Asean’s human capital, the loss of biodiversity and the associated exacerbation of climate change. 

Unfortunately, such as with the rest of the world, Asean and its member states don’t always factor in these costs in developing a response to the problem. This is due to two factors: the time during which effects happen and the geography of those effects. Said simply, not all adverse health impacts from burning are immediate or local. Some of the more serious respiratory and cardiovascular outcomes can occur in the longer term. 

Fortunately, there are tools to measure past and future damage that haze has caused and will continue to cause if it is not prevented. A US-based consortium of universities conducted research in Asean that links the generation and transport of fire emissions with known public health impacts resulting from exposure to the resulting pollution. Their study makes it possible to quantify the public health impacts of air pollution, including haze traveling across borders. The consortium found that protecting peatlands from degradation and burning would reduce smoke concentrations in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province, and Singapore by more than 90 percent, and by 80 percent in other parts of equatorial Asia. The approach the universities took quantifies the health benefits created by keeping carbon locked up in trees, peat and other soil as opposed to releasing it into the atmosphere. The study’s results underscore the importance of peatland conservation for both environmental protection and measurable public health benefits.

Another tool relates to pollution that is primarily caused by industry and vehicular traffic. This tool has been deployed in well-publicized programs developed and implemented by the United States to measure the concentration of particulate matter in urban environments. The air quality monitoring program at the US Embassy in Beijing is an excellent example of how data-sharing can lead to an increased awareness of risk and can inform responses by policymakers to adopt pollution reduction goals and preventative measures. There are plans to implement the US monitoring program in other countries around the world.

These and other tools can benefit Southeast Asia’s leaders. They can assist them in gathering the information they need to make more informed decisions on how best to promote the development of Asean’s human capital, and in convincing their citizens to support the plans they decide to implement. These tools could inform land-use decisions so as to avoid other harmful effects to health. And they could assist in making the case to hold those responsible for illegal land burning accountable for their actions by providing evidence that prosecutors and litigants need. The health of Asean’s people is critical to its future and knowing how to protect them from air pollution and other pollutants could play a major role in whether the region will realize its potential.  

Nutrition: Fisheries management and conservation

Science and technology tools also can assist in monitoring and managing resources shared by the region. Fisheries are an excellent example. Much has been written about the health of the world's oceans and coral reefs. Nowhere is the challenge more acute than in Asean, which is the breeding ground for a large percentage of the world’s “pelagic” fish, such as tuna.

To a large extent, Asean citizens depend on pelagic and non-pelagic fish for protein, which is vitally important in human development. There already is as much as 40 percent developmental stunting in certain Asean member states caused by deficiencies in micronutrients (zinc, iron, vitamins A and B12, fatty acids) and protein. And it appears the problem of stunting may not be confined to the current generation. Scientists are studying whether the stresses caused by stunting affect development in the next generation. A report published in the Journal of Nutrition earlier this year presented new evidence showing the adverse impacts on mental development in the children of stunted parents. 

The health of the region's fisheries is vital to meeting the challenge of nutritional deficiency. But there is too little information concerning the state of Asean’s fisheries. What little evidence there is suggests that the stocks of non-pelagic fish in the South China Sea may be as low as 5 percent to 7 percent of their levels in 1960. But the point is no one really knows. What we do know is that fishermen are taking fewer fish and traveling farther off shore to get them. We also know they are continuing to resort to dynamiting coral reefs that destroy important breeding grounds for numerous pelagic and non-pelagic fish species. To make matters worse, large trawlers are coursing Asean’s seas with huge nets, indiscriminately taking all living things in their wake. The problem has become so acute that Indonesia has begun to sink the ships of those fishing illegally in the region.

At the same time that fish stocks are under stress, the need for fish is growing. It is estimated that by 2050 the world’s oceans may need to provide 70 percent more fish to support our population. Most of Asean’s people lives in coastal areas, with a significant number directly dependent on marine and coastal resources for their nutritional well-being and livelihoods. This is especially true of small-scale subsistence fishermen and their families. 

What is needed now is for Asean to know where it stands in relationship to this vital resource. For this reason, the US Mission to Asean encouraged the addition of sustainable fisheries management to the association’s agenda. Through the leadership shown by Brunei, the issue was first addressed during its chairmanship year in 2013, at which time a study was commissioned to begin the process of assessing the health of Asean’s fisheries sector, including in the South China Sea. In a separate effort, scientists are studying vulnerable “hotspots” in the decline of fisheries and the resulting impacts their decline will have on human health in the region.

A new way forward 

Asean’s member states will need to empower their people to become more productive without destroying what they and future generations will need if the region is to grow sustainably. It will not be easy.

But Asean has the right model to organize multistakeholder dialogues to address such transborder challenges as climate change, the impacts of pollution on human health, and poor nutrition. In order to succeed, Asean’s leaders and people will need better information than they now have. The science and technology tools described in this essay are just a few examples of what is available to inform them as they face the hard choices about what they can do to encourage sustainable growth in their countries, and in the region.  



David L Carden was the first resident United States ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), serving from 2011 to 2013.

Montira J Pongsiri was the US Mission to Asean's science adviser.

This work is not a product of the United States government or the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the authors are not doing this work in any governmental capacity. The views expressed are those of the authors only and do not necessarily represent those of the US government or the EPA.

Allison 11/03/2015 09:40 AM
David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri rightly highlight how science and technology (S&T) could help address sustainability issues looming in ASEAN members’ futures. There is clearly a need for greater S&T collaboration throughout the Southeast Asian region, and Carden and Pongsiri provide valuable detail about the activities that the US Mission to ASEAN facilitates. However, I am surprised that ASEAN’s own S&T mechanisms were overlooked for their potential to contribute. ASEAN’s S&T activities trace to the establishment of the Committee on S&T (COST), which first convened in 1978. The high level body is a focal point for coordinating regional cooperation on S&T matters and has responsibility for developing ASEAN’s Plans for Action in S&T (APAST). The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology (AMMST) regularly brings together member leaders and S&T ministers to discuss regional issues of S&T significance, with an informal AMMST (IAMMST) interspersed between them. Contrary to what the authors state, ASEAN does in fact have long term planning initiatives in place that could help address regional sustainability. The extant APAST, which plans for the 2007-2011 timeframe (and was later extended to 2015), identifies several avenues of S&T cooperation that address issues such as climate change, renewable energies, transboundary marine pollution, and environmentally-friendly materials development. APAST’s planned successor, which is set to cover the 2016-2020 timeframe, will likely be organised around the eight thematic tracks identified at the 2010 Krabi Initiative. These tracks include green technologies, food security, water management, and biodiversity for health and wealth. In addition, COST coordinates several S&T flagship programs with aims in building an early warning system for disaster risk reduction, building climate change resilience in ASEAN, and reducing the incidence of infectious diseases in Southeast Asia. The challenge for ASEAN may well lie in implementation as it’s not always clear how such initiatives have progressed in practice. Yet ASEAN certainly has communicated a desire to support members in “moving up the technology ladder” and move away from economic growth that is founded on exploiting natural resources. At the eighth IAMMST in 2014, ministers agreed to a new vision that seeks to build “a Science, Technology and Innovation-enabled ASEAN which is innovative, competitive, vibrant, sustainable and economically integrated”. It is perhaps too early to tell how this will advance past a policy statement, but continued US technical assistance would definitely help this occur. S&T collaboration can facilitate a sustainable future for the region, though the best solution will be one that is entrenched within existing ASEAN mechanisms. This way, like Cardin and Pongsiri argue, we can see ASEAN building informed ASEAN solutions. ---------------------------- Dr Allison Sonneveld is a Research Officer for the Australian Army. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
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