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Pollution moves from silent spring to quietening sea

The New Straits Times, January 27, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

FORTY years ago, Rachel Carson wrote a book that turned out to be a classic on the environment. In Silent Spring, written over four years (1958-1962), she took a hard look at an environment devastated by insecticides and pesticides. Especially she studied the effects on songbird populations in the United States.

The title Silent Spring testified to the declining numbers of songbirds. Each spring grew progressively more silent as a result.

Carson focused on the ecological disturbances that have been created in nature — almost all of them were attributed to humans and the reckless use of their own inventions. A case in point, synthetic chemicals, have long lasting effects not only on birds, but on a host of other beings, including humans themselves.

Arguably, chemicals — pesticides in particular — have given the world a massive dividend in terms of better crops and the saving of millions of lives.

But there is no denying either that the number of lives lost to chemicals is also in the millions, worldwide. In addition, nature has been harmed as a result of the misuse and abuse of such substances, underscored by greed and ignorance.

Whatever the reasons, the impact on the environment cannot be discounted. It has led to an ecological imbalance that now endangers the blue planet.

Taking the cue from such an impeccable book, and acknowledging the waves of legislative changes that it sparked, due recognition must be given to what seems to be an ample warning over yet another form of silencing. This time it is the sea and coastal inhabitants.

Last week, a Universiti Sains Malaysia professor and director of USM Centre of Marine and Coastal Studies revealed that "inadequate treatment of organic matter" has resulted in beach pollution and sea contamination (NST, Jan. 18).

Apart from "high levels of bacterial content," other pollutants singled out were "insecticides, fertilisers, oil spills and grease, as well as agriculture-related organic materials".

If so, it is not difficult to see how this could lead to various diseases, including hepatitis and cholera through the "poisoning" of marine animals such as shellfish and cockles.

Ironically, development and industrial activities have been blamed, causing not only the decline of sea produce, but also putting health at risk should such activities remain unchecked. This is especially important as some 60 per cent of Malaysians live in the coastal areas and depend on marine produce for their livelihood.

Now, the reason for such pollution? Apparently, the sewage treatment plant in the State where the study was carried out was left unattended, and "waste materials undergo very brief and incomplete treatment process before the effluent is discharged into the sea".

It is also pertinent to recall a study by the National Poison Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia a few years ago found that preschool children in the same area had high lead levels in their blood, pointing to another possible form of environment-related pollution.

It looks as if the warnings Silent Spring sounded so many decades ago is still perfectly relevant to our times. In fact today the concern is all the greater. Moreover, the United Nations too is echoing the warning, so much so that it plans to launch a multi-million dollar initiative to conduct the first ever world ecology "medical check-up".

The UN initiative was undertaken "in view of the declining health of the ecosystems and their decreasing capacity to provide humans with goods and services, like water, food and flood control" and the need "to assess the status of several of the world's systems".

It is therefore imperative that Malaysia should emulate the UN initiative by conducting its own multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary study nationwide in the attempt to proactively determine and improve the "health status" of our ecological systems.

As it stands to date, studies on ecological systems are largely limited to a unisectoral dimension, without a look in depth at the links between the ecosystem and the changes imposed on it.

Such a restrictive approach could have resulted in a number of flawed and limited policy options (such as land reclamation) and, at times, a lack of seriousness in enforcing them, making the situation even worse.

This is compounded by the lack of awareness among the public of the need to protect the environment, despite various attempts to educate them. Unless all these shortcomings are tackled in a concerted way, not only is the spring likely to fall silent, but it may soon enough be true for all seasons to come.

We can avoid further destruction only if we remain vigilant. To quote Rachel Carson, almost half a century ago in 1954: "The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we have for their destruction."

* Recommended website: http://www.bomc.cm/archives/1962/a-silent-spring.html       

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