Concern about the environment grows in East Asia as impacts of pollution and urbanization increase

Pollution and environmental degradation increasingly threaten the health of East Asia and Pacific's rapidly urbanizing population, according to two new environment reports from the World Bank.

Water-borne diseases now cause half a million infant deaths annually in the region, while air pollution causes thousands of premature deaths 50,000 people die prematurely each year in China due to pollution just from coal burning, according to the World Bank's new Environment Strategy for the East Asia and Pacific region.

These trends are a growing concern as more people move to the region's already crowded cities. More than 39 percent of the region's 1.8 billion people now live in cities, according to the World Bank's annual compendium of environmental data, the Little Green Data Book 2005. And by 2015 urban areas will be home to more than 50 percent of the region's population, estimates the Environment Strategy.

This growth presents huge environmental challenges for the region, as migration to urban areas in many countries is outpacing the ability of cities to provide clean-water and sanitation infrastructure. For example, a quarter of the region' s population doesn't have access to clean drinking water and over half lack access to basic sanitation, according to the Little Green Data Book 2005.

East Asia's economy is growing more quickly than any other region, but improvements in human welfare are being offset by serious environmental issues, said Jemal-ud-din Kassum, the World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific.

Environmental damage is also degrading many ecological services and natural protections. For example, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean last year highlights the importance of protecting the environment, as degradation of protective coastal mangrove forests and coral reefs contributed in part to the magnitude of the disaster.

The World Bank is actively engaged in a wide range of environmental initiatives in East Asia and Pacific, and has developed a $5.3 billion portfolio of environmental and natural resource management projects in the region, which is complemented by its Global Environment Facitility funding of $500 million in environment grants. Between 1995 and 2003, for example, the Bank helped governments phase out 89,000 tons of ozone-depleting substances more than any other region in the world. The Bank has also focused on providing sanitation services for the urban poor, and addressing threats to the region's biodiversity.

The grow now, clean up later model for economic development that much of the region has adopted sounds reasonable, but people don't realize that the costs of delaying environmental protection are much greater in the long run, said Maria Teresa Serra, Director of the Bank's Environment and Social Development Sector in the East Asia and Pacific region.

The new regional Environment Strategy calls for the Bank to proactively support environment policies and to seek effective engagement with development partners, both locally and at the regional level. The Bank is looking to strengthen environment policies and capacities in the region, and we want to encourage collaboration between agencies at all levels to address local and transboundary environmental issues, said Magda Lovei, Environment Manager for the East Asia and Pacific region.

Managing coastal resources, including tsunami recovery initiatives, is a high priority for the Bank, and community-based projects and efforts to protect coasts and coral reefs are already underway several countries. Regional collaboration will be especially important in the development of disaster-prevention efforts and early warning mechanisms, such as the recently proposed tsunami alert system.

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