The Concept Behind $300 Housing


The concept of building cheap houses for the poor to improve their living standards is hardly a new one. However, a house that is sustainable, affordable, part of an “ecosystem” of services of electricity, water and sanitation, and, perhaps most importantly, maintains people’s dignity. Sounds far-fetched, especially with price tag of just $300. Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, the brains behind the idea, believe that it can be done.

Govindarajan and Sarkar first outlined their concept in a Harvard Business review blog a few years ago. Since then, architects, companies and other students have all tried to take up the challenge of building such a house. Some have had limited success, while others introduced ideas that make the concept even more inspiring.

The solution to the problem of affordable housing, Govindarajan and Sarkar argue, comes about when companies start treating the poor as valued customers. Once they are, innovation and efficiency will fill the gap governments and NGOs have not been able to satisfy. The market for affordable housing amounts to more than $5 trillion.

More than 1.5 billion people in the world lack houses that are sustainable and able to cater to their needs. More than 330 million of them live in slums, where poor quality housing compounds the problems of unsanitary practices and overcrowding. This number is projected to rise by another million by 2025.

Govindarajan and Sarkar believe that the secret to affordable and sustainable homes lies in three “D’s”: dignity, durability and delight. Building homes out of waste material furthers inequality and the segregation of poor communities from the richer. The house must be built of out materials that would maintain the dignity of the poor.

The house should also be durable, because a house that constantly falls into disrepair will end up being more expensive to the owners. It should also be appealing to the eye and enjoyable to live in. When owners regard their house as more of a home rather than just their living quarters, they will be more inclined to look after it.

Harvey Lacey, an engineer from Texas, took these ideas even further. He calls his concept Ubuntublox, where people build their houses themselves. This helps create an attachment to the house and teaches them the skills they would need to maintain it.

Sources: The Guardian, Harvard Business Review 1, Harvard Business Review 2, Harvard Business Review 3, Harvard Business Review 4
Photo: Weymouth


Controversial Land Acquisition Amendments Promulgated in India

Last month, the President of India promulgated the controversial Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance despite massive public opposition. This means that even though the bill outlining the amendments has not yet passed in India’s Upper House to legally become a law, its content would still be enforced. Multiple farmer organizations have collectively filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the ordinance, labeling it as “unconstitutional” and an unchecked exercise of executive power.

The bill amends various aspects of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, which replaced the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The aim of the amendments is to facilitate development projects with greater ease by expediting land acquisition.

But many argue that the amendments violate property rights of vulnerable communities and risk exacerbating economic and social woes. While the 2013 Act made the consent of at least 70-80% of landowners mandatory for a project to be carried out, the new amendments no longer require any level of consent for projects that are for national security and defense, rural infrastructure, social infrastructure, industrial corridors and housing for the poor.

The amendments also no longer mandate a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) to be carried out for these five types of projects or any Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project if the government owns the land. Opponents of the amendment fear that the categories exempt from the consent and SIA requirements are so broad that nearly all land development projects can be carried out without them.

The new amendments also weaken the previous Act’s provision that decreed land be returned to its original owners if it remained unused for more than five years after its purchase. As a report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India on Special Economic Zones found last November, land in India is often left undeveloped for long periods of time.

Opponents also criticize the amendments for increasing government officials’ immunity against prosecution. In the old Act, the head of the department that carried out the project would be responsible for any mismanagement or wrongdoing. Now, the head of the department and other civil servants are protected from prosecution until the government gives courts its permission to proceed.

The Modi government, which is behind the amendments, has defended them by asserting that they will attract foreign investors. Land acquisition laws for foreign companies have been riddled with red tape and slow bureaucracy. The World Bank rates India 142 out of 189 economies for ease of doing business. Many companies have dropped their investment plans after just a few years because of these impediments.

But lingering concerns remain about the government’s ability to carry out any provision of either the 2013 Act or its amendments. Indian bureaucracy is riddled with corruption, impunity and mismanagement. An estimated 75% of displaced people since 1951 are still awaiting rehabilitation. Many have not been given their due compensation.

Sources: The New Indian Express, The World Bank, One Law Street, One Law Street (2), The Weekend Leader, The Hindu
Photo: The Wall Street Journal

Effects of Open Defecation in India

The extent of open defecation in India presents a major health and safety issue. Worldwide, there are one billion people who do not have a toilet, and Indians make up 60 percent of this number. Of this 60 percent, the majority comes from rural areas. Activists and the government have advocated for the building of shared community toilets as a solution to the problem, but ingrained social norms and attitudes stop people from using them.

The government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission last year, which promises 110 million toilets built in the next five years in an effort to make India an “open defecation free country.” In an added bonus, the waste collected would be converted to fertilizer and other forms of energy. Lauded as a “sacred mission” that would coincide with the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, this mission has gained approval from almost all sections of the government and society.

But most people from rural areas have shown an unwillingness to discontinue their habits of open defecation even if they are given toilets. Many people who already have toilets in their house forgo its use in favor of defecating in the open. In 40 percent of households that had a toilet, at least one member chose not to use it at all. They believe that defecating in the open is more natural and healthy, and that building a latrine in the house brings impurity to it. The two thousand year old Hindu text, called the “Laws of Manu,” encourages open defecation.

Community toilets also have the added problem of being—by nature—shared, and people from different castes, religions and economic status are not willing to use the same toilet, even if they come from the same village.

However, open defecation practices remain a huge health and safety risk, and issues will only increase as India’s population grows. There have been hundreds of cases of women being raped as they leave their homes after dark. In one notorious case, two women from Utter Pradesh were raped, murdered and hung on trees after they were defecating in an open field.

India’s dense population also means that even in rural areas, human feces are not easily kept away from fields, wells and food. Bacteria and worms in feces are often accidentally ingested. This results in a range of health problems from diarrhea to enteropathy, a chronic sickness that prevents the absorption of calories and nutrients. Many specialists believe that the problems open defecation causes are the reason 50 percent of Indian children are malnourished.

A government study comparing Muslim and Hindu households supports these conjectures. The study found that 25 percent fewer Muslim families defecated in the open and also had lower child morality rates than Hindu families—even though Muslims in India are poorer and less educated than their Hindu counterparts. In the few areas where more Muslims defecated in the open than Hindus, they had higher child morality rates.

Social norms and habits need to be changed if open defecation is to be successfully fought. Simply building more toilets will not do the job. The government has already taken some steps to educate people about the dangers of open defecation and reward those who use latrines. In Haryana for instance, it launched the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign that urged women to only marry men whose home had a toilet.

Sources: Scroll, Government of India, The Economist, BBC,
Photo: Siasat

Democratization in Myanmar Catastrophic for the Rohingya

Democratization in Burma, now Myanmar, seems to have opened up a can of worms. Freeing political prisoners, allowing freedom of speech, granting access to social media and tolerating freedom of assembly has allowed many Burmese people to express what had long be suppressed, albeit incompetently at times – a deep-seated hatred for the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Rohingya make up five percent of Buddhist-majority Myanmar and have been discriminated against for centuries. They are denied citizenship and many basic rights because they are not seen as Burmese, even though their families were brought over from what was then Bengal many generations ago. But while the military junta was in power, it jailed anyone who incited violence against the Rohingya in the interest of keeping peace.

In 2011, the regime finally started opening up and passed a series of political, economic and social reforms. Among other developments, Myanmar freed opposing politician Aung San Suu Kyi after placing her under house arrest for fifteen years. It also gave general amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners, one of which was a monk named Ashin Wirathu.

Wirathu had been jailed for twenty-five years for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. Now free to resume his activities, Wirathu helped instigate a wave of resentment toward the Rohingya that cumulated in the deadly 2012 Rakhine State riots and the 2013 nationwide anti-Muslim riots. He now heads the fanatic 969 movement, which has a large following among the Buddhist population.

The movement calls on all Buddhists to refuse to do business with the Rohingya and demarcate their homes and businesses using the “969” sticker. They are already pervasive on many shop windows, cars and motorbikes across Myanmar. The economic boycott against Muslims is only one of the four propositions of 969; the others are to restrict marriage between Buddhists and Muslims, forbid religious conversions and prohibit polygamy.

The general intent of these laws, according to Wirathu, is to prevent a much-feared Muslim “population explosion.” He calls Muslims “African carp” that “breed quickly and eat their own kind.” The Rohingya, he claims, are a threat to Buddhism and the Burmese national identity.

The movement has already succeeded in getting a “population control” bill signed into law. The bill gives the government the power to stop mothers from having another child for 36 months. Human rights groups are certain that this law will only victimize Rohingya women.

These racist attitudes are not marginal, according to Richard Horsey, a political analyst from Yangon. In fact, these extremist views are mainstream. Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said that people often get together in community meetings similar to American town hall meetings to discuss how to get rid of the “Bengali problem.” In Karen State, host to Myanmar’s capital Hpa-an, fliers exhort people to stop Muslims from leasing homes and farms, and some threaten Buddhists who act as their middlemen.

Facebook, which had long been suppressed under the junta regime, is now also being used as a means to spread hatred. Users encourage their friends and family members to support the 969 movement. Groups such as the “Kalar Beheading Gang” (“Kalar” is a highly derogatory word given to Muslims) have popped up.

Attacking the Rohingya has therefore become good politics in Myanmar, Jonathan Head, the BBC correspondent for Southeast Asia, asserts, and rhetoric is heating up as elections approach in November. Fear mongering has allowed new and rising politicians to curry favor with the Buddhist majority. Aung San Suu Kyi, once seen as the symbol of human rights in the country, and now head of the National League for Democracy Party, has been conspicuously silent.

The Rohingya were also recently stripped of their right to vote. Just before the end of military rule in 2008, the junta had allowed them to vote and even put up candidates for election. But in 2013, when the government said it would maintain the Rohingya’s right to vote in a constitutional referendum, Buddhists staged massive protests. Hoping to appease the population, the government made the Rohingya turn in their identity cards.

Many international organizations have said that the recent events amount to genocide. More than 170,000 Rohingya live in internally displaced persons camps throughout the country after their houses and villages were burned to the ground in riots. They are circled by hostile Buddhist populations that do not allow them to leave the camp. The camps rarely have medical facilities and the Rohingya often have to sell their meager food rations to obtain medicines for their children. Jonathan Head calls the conditions “ghetto-like.” The government has actively refused to count casualty rates.

During a recent international conference in Norway that aimed to address the Rohingya crisis, George Soros, a business magnate turned philanthropist, said that “In 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too, was a Rohingya…Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis in eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families who once had access to healthcare, education and employment. Now they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming.”

More than 150,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in overstuffed and rickety boats within the last three and a half years of democratic reforms. Smugglers promise to take them to Malaysia or Indonesia, Muslim majority countries. Jonathan Head voiced concern over the appalling conditions of the boats, which he said “were akin to the 18th century slave trade.” People cannot stand or sit properly, and are beaten if they try to stretch their legs. They are given a cup of rice, a single chili and two cups of water a day until the food runs out, as it often does.

Many boats never reach their destination and are instead handed over to traffickers, usually in Thailand, where people are then held ransom for up to $2,000. This often means that relatives in Myanmar have to sell their remaining land and homes to get them out. If they cannot, the traffickers simply leave them to starve. Recently, mass graves were uncovered in Thailand and Malaysia.

Myanmar refuses to admit responsibility for the crisis. Major Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, said that the country would “not accept allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”

Sources: Bangkok Post 1, Bangkok Post 2, Foreign Correspondants Club of Thailand, Bangkok Post 3, Al Jazeera, Asia Nikkei,Global Post 1, The Guardian, Global Post 2, BBC
Photo: Flickr

Artificial Trees Absorb a Thousand Times More CO2

Scientists have been arguing for a reduction in carbon emissions ever since the effects of global warming were recognized. Now, to further aid the fight against increased global warming, some of these scientists have found a way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This technology will manifest in the form of “artificial trees” that absorb up to one ton of carbon dioxide in a day.

These artificial trees look and feel nothing like real trees. In fact, they resemble cars in size and shape. Not only will they hey absorb carbon dioxide from the air a thousand times faster than a normal tree would, but they will also not release carbon back into the atmosphere unlike real trees.

Previous inventions that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere necessitated the processing huge volumes of air, since carbon dioxide makes up just 0.04 percent of the air we breathe. Artificial trees, however, will simply absorb carbon from the air into their leaves, which are coated with sodium carbonate. When sodium carbonate comes into contact with the carbon dioxide, it shall form a harmless bicarbonate – baking soda.

Klaus Lackner and Alan Wright, the brains behind this new technology, understood that carbon dioxide emissions needed to be decreased within the next few decades to prevent the non-reversible effects of climate change. Even if humans stopped all carbon dioxide emissions today, the amount left in the atmosphere would keep temperatures increasing for the next hundred years.

Artificial trees have the potential to reverse this trend. Ten million artificial trees could absorb 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. This would amount to 10% of all global emissions. A single tree would initially cost $20,000, around the price of a car in the U.S. However, as production of these trees increase, price would also fall, making this initiative cost less prohibitive.

The carbon dioxide collected by the artificial trees could also be used or stored in few ways. It could either be transformed into a liquid and buried underground. Alternatively, hydrogen could be added to it to create hydrocarbon fuel. As long as the process uses renewable energy, this fuel would not release any new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the gas could be injected into rocks such as peridotite, which can hold huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

The concept of artificial trees is a simple one, yet has immense appeal. The economy of energy would remain the same, enabling people to continue living existing lifestyles. Artificial trees would just allow us to maintain these lifestyles better. Noting that the U.S. will also be producing as much petroleum as Saudi Arabia by 2020, it is unrealistic to hope that alternative sources of energy would replace oil any time soon.

On the other hand, it is not economically sound for companies to invest in these artificial trees currently. Only when high penalty for companies that have huge emissions is put in place, will absorbing carbon dioxide be viewed as a solution equivalent to reducing emissions.

Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, National Geographic
Photo: Physics World

Major Poverty Measurements

Different organizations and governments measure poverty differently. This makes it difficult to establish an understanding of which people should be categorized as poor. Below are some measurements that have been developed to set worldwide standards for the poverty line.

Absolute Poverty Measurement

This measurement refers to the amount of resources a person needs to maintain a minimum standard of living. The absolute poverty line can remain the same regardless of how much the overall standard of living or income distribution changes in a society. The World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 worldwide is an example of an absolute poverty measurement.

Advantages: It allows for easy comparison between different countries.

Disadvantages: It does not always accurately represent the different costs of subsistence from country to country. It is simplistic and does not reflect indebtedness, health, education, housing or access to public services. Measurements do not take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Relative Poverty Measurement

This measurement refers to the living standard of a person relative to the rest of society, and changes as the standard of living in society shifts. Peter Townsend, a pioneering figure in defining relative poverty standards, defined people living in relative poverty as unable to “play the roles, participate in the relationships, and follow the customary behavior which is expected of them by virtue of their membership in society.” The EU calculates poverty using relative poverty measurements. Usually this means that people who earn only 40 to 70 percent of the average household income are categorized as under the poverty line.

Advantages: Reflects conditions in society at a specific time.

Disadvantages: It can give a skewed understanding of who lives in poverty, as people can be categorized as poor even if they are well-off simply because they have much less income relative to the rest of the population. It is simplistic and does not reflect indebtedness, health, education, housing or access to public services. Measurements do not take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Multidimensional Poverty Index

This measurement was established in 2010 to replace the Human Poverty Index of the United Nations Development program. It aimed to ameliorate the downsides of the absolute and relative poverty measurements. It measures poverty through three indicators: health, education level and standard of living. Each indicator has multiple sub-indicators. People are categorized as poor if they are deprived of more than a third of each indicator, while those who are deprived of half or more are in extreme poverty.

Advantages: The MPI allows measurements that can be compared accurately across different regions, countries, ethnic groups and other community characteristics.

Disadvantages: Measurements do not usually take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Sources: University of Pennsylvania, The European Anti-Poverty Network, Instituto Nacional De Estadistica, Oxford Poverty & Human Development, United Nations Development Program
Photo: United Nations Development Program

Cleaner Cookstove Technology Fails to Take Off


The Poverty Action Lab (PAL), a research organization from MIT, carried out a project that implemented new, environmentally friendly cookstoves for 2,600 households in Orissa, India. Each household contributed a small amount of money to pay for the building of the stove and was given training on its proper use and maintenance. Although the initial take up of the technology was high, families were only cooking 1.8 meals a week on the new stove three years after its implementation. Most had reverted to using their old cookstoves, commonly called chulas.

Indoor air pollution caused by chulas is the second largest health risk in developing countries, after unclean water. Over 70% of all households in India use them. Chulas burn cheap fuels such as firewood, coal or cow manure and create particle matter concentrations of 20,000 micrograms per cubic meter; the recommended limit is just 50. For the people who are around them — mainly women and young children — it is like smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. They cause 2 million deaths in India annually.

The new cookstoves were promoted as a cleaner alternative to traditional stoves that would save families from mental hardship and health expenditures. They would also make them more productive, as adults and children would miss fewer days of work and school. Finally, the stoves were advertised as being more cost-effective as they used less fuel and more time-effective because they decreased cooking times.

Medical checkups three years into the PAL study showed that because they were rarely used, introducing these stoves to poor households even at a very low cost did nothing to change health effects. High levels of blood pressure, a tendency to develop coughs and poor infant health remained the same. People showed the same risks of developing lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases.

In addition to causing health problems, chulas cause environmental damage. Worldwide, three billion people use them, or four out of every ten people. They collectively release 6 billion kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. That is triple the amount of the daily emissions from all private cars in the United States.

The main issue that seems to have stopped people from using their new stoves was that they required a lot more maintenance, and their unfamiliarity with the technology was an impediment to carrying out repairs. Households reported that they spent hours getting their stoves fixed and cleaning newly added chimneys. Their old way of cooking was easy to use and never broke. Moreover, it was familiar, so people were more inclined to revert back to it when their new stoves exhibited problems.

While the new cookstoves perform well in laboratories and have the potential to drastically decrease health and environmental effects, their effectiveness depends on them actually being used. India launched a National Biomass Cookstove Initiative (NCBI) in 2010 and plans to install 2.5 million cookstoves by 2017. Moreover, Hillary Clinton helped start the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), which aims to install 100 million cookstoves by 2020. Both the NCBI and GACC would do well to conduct long-term studies before spending millions of dollars in initiatives that have little to no impact.

Sources: National Geographic, The Washington Post, Poverty Action Lab 1, Poverty Action Lab 2, Boston Globe, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
Photo: The Washington Post

Narmada Dam Estimated to Cause Further Environmental and Humanitarian Disasters

A recent study carried out by a team of experts and political figures found that increasing the height of the Narmada dam in India would submerge a much larger amount of land than had been officially estimated. Team member Soumya Dutta, an environmentalist and energy expert, warned that it would lead to a humanitarian disaster “worse than the Nepal earthquake”.

Last year, the Gujarat state government had approved a height increase of the dam from 122 to 139 meters provided that people whose lands would be flooded were compensated and rehabilitated (their consent to the increase was not taken into account). The new study’s findings call for a re-evaluation of the number of people that would need to be recompensed. When the dam was first contextualized in 1999 it was planned to be only 88 m high. Multiple Supreme Court rulings over the years have allowed a series of height increases, to the dismay of activists.

India’s long-contested Narmada Dam raises troubling conundrums for anti-poverty advocates. The dam is the second largest in the world after the U.S. Grand Coule Dam. It has provided drinking water, irrigation water, electricity and flood protection to thirty million people in drought-prone and underdeveloped areas. The government has lauded it as a steppingstone that would lift millions of people out of poverty.

But the dam has also inundated 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land, disrupted the river’s ecology and repeatedly flooded surrounding areas during the monsoon season. People who depend on this land and river are from India’s poorest and most discriminated against communities- Dalits, or untouchables, and tribals. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced without their consent and given neither adequate compensation nor rehabilitation.

Annie Raja, another member of the research team and general secretary of National Federation of Indian Women, emphasized that large-scale corruption and mismanagement surrounds the dam project. Rehabilitation sites often have no water, electricity, schools or hospitals. Thousands of families have received no compensation at all so far.

But the Supreme Court of India ruled in 2000 that the benefits of the dam “are so large that they substantially outweigh the costs of the immediate human and environmental disruption”, citing a ratio of 100:1 of beneficiaries to affected people. It maintains the position that sacrifices have to be made for development- whether people agree to them or not.

Through the troubled history of the Narmada Dam, activists have argued that the long-term so-called benefits of the dam do not stand up to scrutiny. Degrading the environment exacerbates food insecurity. Intensifying the plight of India’s most vulnerable people deepens inequality and makes it harder for them to climb out the poverty trap. Turning a deaf ear to people’s concerns weakens democracy.

Moreover, dams do not last forever. Eventually, reservoirs silt up, and huge amounts of money go towards maintaining them. Some dams have to be removed altogether after a few decades. More than a thousand dams have been taken apart in the last century in the U.S. alone. Reservoirs are also hugely detrimental to the environment. Worldwide, they account for an astounding 4% of all human-made climate change. The resulting fluctuations in weather patterns are highly detrimental to those who depend on the land for their livelihood.

Since the 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save Narmada Movement, has carried out mass protests and hunger strikes. Activists have refused to leave areas there were to be flooded. This grassroots pressure forced the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was lending money to the Indian government for the dam’s construction, to conduct a review of the project. It decreed that it did not meet its environmental and resettlement guidelines and withdrew its loans in 1993. While the Indian government has managed to raise money from other sources to cover the costs of the dam, the same concerns remain.

The controversy surrounding the dam raises more philosophical questions about India’s future. As Arundhati Roy, a famous Indian author and winner of the Booker Prize, asks, who owns this land; who owns its rivers- the government or the people who live off it? Can the lives of people be pushed through a cost-benefit analysis machine for the sake of overall “development”? Should the environment be sacrificed to help secure to livelihood of millions of people?

Sources: Indian Supreme CourtUnited NationsScrollBusiness StandardThe Greater Common Good by Arundhati RoyInternational Rivers

Hangzhou: The Defilement of a Paradise

Hangzhou is widely regarded as the poster child for the Chinese economic model. The city is growing at nine percent annually and is six times larger than it was in 2000, thanks to the break-neck speed at which its industries are diversifying and expanding. Residents enjoy a GDP per capita of 9,300 dollars, the ninth highest of all cities in China. But the frenzied rate of development has also precipitated rain on Hangzhou’s parade – the rain being showers of coal dust.

On March 10, 2013, residents woke up to a film of black powder that coated their homes and roads. The trees and flowers of the nearby Bashan National Forest Park were not spared either. Paradoxically, Hangzhou is a city whose name translates to “heaven of the earth.” It is legendary for its natural beauty; an ancient saying declares, “just as there is paradise in heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth.” In 2009, the city was voted the “National Garden City” and given the “China Habitat Environmental Prize.”

However, authorities were not able provide an explanation, much less a solution, for the shower of coal dust that came down on Hangzhou. It was an incident that both literally and figuratively besmirched the city and pointed to a larger nation-wide problem. China burns 3.5 billion tons of coal each year, largely for energy purposes, which generates 60 percent of the nitric oxide, 40 percent of the carbon dioxide and 25 percent of the dust pollutants in China’s notorious pollution.

Many residents of Hangzhou have refused to turn a blind eye to the environmental strains caused by the city’s rapid development. In May of 2014, people in Hangzhou demonstrated against a proposed garbage incinerator they believed would contaminate the air with toxic dioxin and mercury. More than 20,000 signatures were gathered from concerned residents who called for the project to be halted.

The authorities demanded calm, claiming that the incinerator was necessary given that the rapid expansion of the city had led to mounting levels of residential waste. After facing months of continued criticism, they promised that the project would not go ahead if public resistance remained high. At the same time, however, they arrested dozens of protesters. But even if authorities did pledge a shutdown, they could easily withdraw it. In 2011, a paraxylene plant that had sparked multiple protests in the city of Dalian was later quietly reopened in 2012, one year later.

The Chinese government is taking some steps to address the environmental problem in Hangzhou. It promised to build a coal-free zone by 2017, and assured Hangzhou’s residents that they would be able to enjoy more than 300 days of second-grade or better air quality by then. The government established the aptly named Project Blue Sky, Project Green Water, Project Greenness and Project Quietness.

While not being entirely inert, the rate at which progress is being made to ensure clean air might not be fast enough to keep up with the city’s rate of growth. In spite of implementing a metro system in 2012 and other public transportation initiatives that were aimed at decreasing people’s dependence on automobiles, CO2 emissions due to transportation are projected to increase by 59.6 percent by 2020. As long as the city develops at its current rate, demand for cars and other forms of motorization will continue to surge.

In 2013, China released 29 percent of the world’s CO2, or 10.3 billion tons. It was the largest emission from any single country. The U.S. released the second highest amount of CO2, accounting for 15 percent of global emissions with 5.3 billion tons. There is cause for hope, however, with the carbon reduction deal President Barack Obama and President Xi Jingping signed last November. China agreed to cap emissions and increase its use of zero-emission energy sources by 20 percent by 2030. But even with this initiative, it seems that Hangzhou will continue to suffer increasing environmental degradation for at least the next fifteen years.

Sources: China Briefing, Chicago Policy Review, NYTimes, The Epoch Times, Xinhua, IKPMG, Hangzhou Weekly, Hangzhou Government, Hangzhou Government, UN Habitat, The Guardian, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission

Photo: Fortune

Bangkok’s Street Children

A girl and her sister sell flowers on a street in Bangkok. Her peaceful demeanour belies a life of struggle and hardship.  Bangkok, Thailand.
A girl and her sister sell flowers on a street in Bangkok. Her peaceful demeanour belies a life of struggle and hardship. Bangkok, Thailand.

Most beggars in Bangkok are not from Thailand. They are migrants from neighboring countries, such as Cambodia or Burma, who are drawn to the city’s lucrative begging opportunities. These beggars must accept a high level of risk when they travel to Thailand; many are thrown in jail and then deported in a worse state than before. But the biggest issue arises when they bring their children to work on the streets with them. They are at risk of being abused and exploited, are often unhealthy and are in danger of being hit by cars or motorcycles.

There are more than 20,000 street children in Thailand’s major urban areas. In a single day, a child can earn 300 baht ($10) to 1,000 baht ($30) – much more than the amount a Cambodian or Burmese living in poverty makes back home. In Phnom Penh, for instance, scavenging rubbish all day will only earn a child 16 baht ($0.50). Cambodians make up around 80 percent of Thailand’s child beggars. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and half of its population is children.

Beggars who are from Thailand usually hail from the northeast Isan region, where 40 percent of the country’s poor comes from. Their parents come to Bangkok to find work, usually as motorcycle taxi drivers or construction workers. When they have children, they realize they cannot afford to take care of them. Distrustful of the government-run orphanages, many simply abandon their children in the hands of babysitters, hoping they will find a home there. However, these children are often made to work on the streets to earn some money for their upkeep, according to chairwoman Darat Pitaksit of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Bankok, an organization that works with underprivileged children.

Because going to school is mandatory until the sixth grade, most Thai children manage to attend at least primary school. Secondary school attendance in Bangkok, however, drops by 20 percent. Despite it being the richest area of Thailand, rates of attendance are lower in Bangkok than anywhere else in the country because of the presence of migrant workers’ children and the lifestyles they are made to lead.

Contrary to common perception, these street children, both from Thailand and neighboring countries, do not fall into crime, drugs, or other illicit activity. “Thai children are raised to respect their elders,” Pitaksit says. “In addition, the belief in karma helps them to be more accepting of their hardships in life.” Similarly, Cambodian children would often rather beg on the streets than go to school, says Chantana Sueprom, a staff member of the UNICEF supported NGO Friends International. They feel it is their duty to help their parents earn money.

Sources: Reuters, UNICEF, Asian Development Bank
Photo: Jimmy Lam Photography