Third Ministerial Meeting of the Regional Forum on Environment and Health in Southeast and East Asian Countries

By September 11, 2013 Speeches

Honourable Datuk Seri Dr. S. Subramaniam, Minister of Health, Malaysia

Honourable Datuk Seri G. Palanivel, Minister of Natural Resource and Environment, Malaysia

His Excellency Dr. Shin Young-soo, The World Health Organization Regional Director for the Western Pacific

His Excellency Dr. Young-Woo Park, Regional Director for the United Nations Environment Programme Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen.

1. On behalf of the people and government of Malaysia, I wish you a very warm Welcome and Selamat Datang. I am delighted that Malaysia has been chosen to host the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Regional Forum on Environment and Health in Southeast and East Asian Countries.

2. This year’s Meeting is particularly significant, as it marks the 21st anniversary of the Rio de Janeiro conference; a landmark summit where countries recognised the irrevocable link between environmental quality and human health. So we are especially honoured by your presence in Kuala Lumpur today.

3. I would like to congratulate the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), this Meeting’s Secretariat and fellow participating countries for supporting the Ministerial meeting, and for giving Malaysia the honour of hosting it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

4. In an ever more closely connected global economy, we face common environmental health challenges, and share common priorities for sustainable growth. And it is increasingly clear that the environment can no longer be considered as an afterthought to economic development.

5. In the wake of a particularly destructive financial crisis, and facing growing evidence of the impacts of the growth model of the previous centuries, global policymakers seek the right recipe for inclusive and sustainable growth. Whether you are an apex economy or a least developed nation, environmental health and sustainability are now essential ingredients.

6. The theme for this meeting – “Health and Environment at the Centre of Development” – is both timely and appropriate. In a few weeks, I will join other world leaders in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where the post-2015 development will be high on the agenda. As we look to secure the development of millions of people who live in poverty, we must also safeguard the global commons, ie. the climate, forests, water resources and biodiversity that sustain life and enable prosperity.

7. Around the world, the resilience of a wide range of socio-economic and environmental systems is now being tested against the demands of a rapidly growing global population and high economic activity. Malaysia is no exception: we are also actively trying to strike a balance between environmental conservation and development.

8. This has not been an easy path for a developing nation; many high-income countries achieved prosperity at the expense of the environment, not in concert with it, so there are few examples to learn from. But we have tried to prioritise transparency, both in our approach to environmental management and in the monitoring of standards and practices, and we have reinforced the importance of environmental health at every level of the decision-making process.

9. For Malaysia, the past three decades have been a period of rapid and sustained growth. Under the Economic Transformation Programme, introduced in 2010, the Government has played a key role in facilitating economic growth – liberalizing markets, offering incentives for investment, removing barriers and encouraging the private sector to take the lead. As part of the programme, we have put in place policies, regulations and guidelines to promote sustainable development; our aim is a clean, safe and healthy environment for all Malaysians. We have come a long way towards attaining sustainable growth, but there is further still to go. As we prepare to join the ranks of the high-income nations – the first country to do so this century – we will be inspired by the precedent set in the last.

10. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, countries adopted Agenda 21; a blueprint to achieve economic growth while ensuring social equity and environmental protection. It recognised a principle still being applied today: that sustainable development is the key to improved health and environment. Twenty one years on, it is increasingly clear that issues like inequity, poverty, illness and environmental degradation are not separate phenomena, not separate issues but closely intertwine, woven links in the same chain. To break through one, we must start work on all.

11. That is why Malaysia has pursued integrated sustainable development strategies – bringing economic, social and environmental objectives of society together – in order to maximize human well-being in the present without compromising the interest and the needs of future generations.

12. It is said that Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites! (William Ruckelshaus). Governments that choose to place environment and health considerations at the heart of their development can achieve sustainable economic growth and social stability – while at the same time safeguarding the environment and conserving resources for the future.

13. Integrating economic, health and environmental policies is easier said than done. It takes strong leadership to instil change, ensure a common vision and enhance cross-sectoral cooperation at various levels: the national, regional, global and even at the grassroots level. It also requires an understanding of how tradeoffs in the short term can be managed and reconciled with the intended long term benefits.

14. Nonetheless, the long view is critical; to avoid natural capital depletion, to avoid exacerbating climate change and provoking social insecurity. This is particularly true for developing countries, who are often more exposed and more vulnerable to environmental threats. Natural resource exploitation; pressure on food, water and energy supplies; basic infrastructure problems, and deadly air and water pollution; as is so often the case, these challenges threaten those communities who are least equipped to cope with them.

15. According to an OECD forecast, if we do not properly manage environmental risks, by 2050:

an additional 1 billion people are expected to live in severely waterstressed areas;
global terrestrial biodiversity is expected to decline by an additional 10%;
the number of premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter, is projected to more than double, to 3.6million a year; there will be a 50% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions; and
an expected increase in global mean temperatures between 36°C by the end of the century.

16. Each of these outcomes will be accompanied by considerable distress: to people, to nations, and to the planet itself. They threaten our livelihoods and our way of lives; they will put new pressures on our economic and political systems, and trigger new diplomatic problems. Yet we do not have to look so far into the future to find environmental risks.

17. Unsafe water, air pollution, and inadequate vector control are already major contributors to the worldwide disease burden which affects many developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 25% of all deaths and diseases globally can be attributed to environmental factors. While only 200,000 deaths in high income countries can be attributed to urban outdoor air pollution, the situation in low and middle income countries is worst, the number is 1.2 million.

18. But the death toll alone does not tell the whole story. In high income countries, 308,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years – the number of years of healthy life lost to ill health – were associated with unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene. In low and middle income countries, the figure was 64.2 million.

19. Here in South East Asia, we have just experienced a stinging reminder of the human costs of environmental degradation: a severe episode of trans-boundary pollution, known locally as ‘the haze’. This massive deterioration of air quality, caused by human hands, remains one of the most persistent and challenging environmental issues that our nations face: seriously impacting our population’s health and livelihood, threatening tourism, transportation and the environment. As ever, the worst affected are the young, old and the sick.

20. The severity of this year’s haze has triggered new levels of co-operation. Strategic actions have been taken at the regional level to prevent further adverse impacts on our health and our economies, with the ASEAN Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution playing a lead role. I hope that our co-operation deepens; not just on this matter, but across the spectrum of environmental risks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

21. Malaysia stands ready to play its part in mitigating those risks. As one of the seven countries identified by the Asian Development Bank 2050 report as an emerging star, our development will inevitably put new pressures on our rivers, our land, our air and our seas. In anticipation of these systemic burdens on the environment, we have already begun taking steps to attenuate them.

22. Since 1992, Malaysia has implemented the National Policy on the Environment, working to conserve our natural heritage through enforcement, research, education and public awareness. High impact economic development projects are subjected to mandatory Environmental and Health Impact Assessments. And we have developed the Malaysian Environmental Performance Index, which aims to help make sense of the ever growing body of environmental data.

23. The Index provides a clear structure with a set of quantitative indicators for environmental policy making, with peer-group benchmarking to identify best practice. As new scientific methods and reporting standards yield ever more detailed environmental data, such comparisons can help us ensure our policymaking is keeping pace with our development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

24. That ambition is critical, especially as South East Asian nations remain a byword for dynamic and expansive growth. As the connections between our nations grow stronger, it is incumbent on each of us to argue for more sustainable economic development within our borders, so that we may all enjoy the benefits of our shared resources: the water, land and air that connect us.

25. We can bring environmental health within our development plans by taking six steps:

  • Analysing the links between environmental health and development;
  • Prioritizing environmental health issues within the larger development objective;
  • Assessing the institutional mandates, capacity, regulations, budgets and enforcement relating to environmental health;
  • Ensuring adequate financing of environmental health interventions based on the above assessments;
    Monitoring process and outcome indicators, to continuously improve policy design and implementation; and
  • Managing stakeholder involvement and participation, including the role of the media and NGOs to give voice and influence to the vulnerable in our communities.

Ladies and gentlemen,

26. Our ecology is a value-chain: only as strong as the weakest link. Too often, that link has been us, the people.

27. We will not return to a simple reverence for nature; the pressures of development and population are too great for that. But we can and we need to and we must inculcate a new respect for our environment. Because for the simple reason our people, and our planet, depend on it.

28. Sometimes, that will require a change not just in organizational cultures, but in mindset. Our local Cengal tree, like California’s redwoods, may take centuries to reach its humongous size. But it can be felled in less than few hours by an unscrupulous timber contractor with a chainsaw. Until we understand instinctively that sacrificing such resources for short term monetary benefit undermines our long term aims, we cannot hope to achieve truly sustainable development. This same principle applies at regional and global policy, too.

29. Environmental and health issues must be a priority in formulating developmental plans. We all seek to build a more sustainable future for our people and our environment; and it is my sincere hope that meetings such as this will support more comprehensive regional cooperation towards that aim. And that aim is to ensure that we will make a great difference.

30. On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I take great pleasure in officially declaring this Regional Ministerial Forum open. Thank you very much.