This year, Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and India’s FLAME University have come together to run research workshops, and a series of webinars, to develop comparative perspectives, from China and India, on the process of bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic. The two presentations in this latest webinar focused on environmental studies.
Linking conservation to support for India’s rural poor
The creation of conservation enclosures to compensate for the effects of development projects has become customary around the world. In her presentation, Professor Abhineety Goel of FLAME’s Environmental Studies department, described the impact of the national Compensatory Conservation Program on forest communities in Central India, and the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on this initiative.
Prof Goel explained that her research has focused on a number of remote villages around the proposed Omkareshwar National Park Complex in Madhya Pradesh. A quarter of the land area in this state has forest cover, and members of 46 different indigenous tribes make up 21 percent of the population.
With the big land-holdings, on which agricultural farming takes place owned by non-indigenous tribes, the majority indigenous population has been largely engaged in informal labour in the forest, varying in forms across the seasons. This had made for a precarious existence, and meant fulfilling basic household needs was always a struggle.
However, a significant number of villages were displaced for the creation of the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar Dams, with inhabitants relocated to buffer areas. The creation of the new conservation enclosure, led to an even greater threat to the livelihoods of the forest communities and a pressure to migrate to cities on an annual rather than a seasonal basis. This has had serious negative social effects, alongside the economic impact.
“Effective and efficient forest conservation has to go hand-in-hand with community development, but this is not happening,” Prof Goel said. “In the absence of community development, it is largely tribal or indigenous peoples who are marginalised and their labour is being further commodified.”
India has seen a devastating surge in COVID cases in the first half of 2021. But while the number of reported cases in the areas Prof Goel has been studying are low, she does wonder if the figures reflect the true picture, as access to healthcare facilities and testing kits is limited.
To tackle the deep-rooted problems, Prof Goel recommended the implementation of development policies specific to forest communities. These would seek to expand employment opportunities, establish more widespread education and social welfare programmes, and improve decentralised governance.
Her specific recommendations for responses to the pandemic include the creation of separate COVID response cells, the introduction of mobile health units, and steps to ensure the efficient implementation of social welfare schemes during the crisis.
Hong Kong’s local and cross-border air pollution and the COVID effect
Along with rapid economic growth, many Asian cities have experienced degraded air quality and consequent health issues for their expanding populations. In Hong Kong, air pollutants originate both locally and across the border in the Mainland industrial powerhouse located around the Pearl River Delta.
In her presentation, Professor Paulina Wong, of Lingnan University’s Science Unit, set out the results of her research into air pollution in Hong Kong and the challenge this presents, both before and after the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the winter, when the winds blow from the north and northeast, as much as 77 percent of Hong Kong’s dirty air comes from the Mainland, Prof Wong explained. However, local pollution levels remain fairly constant throughout the year, with marine traffic as one of the three main contributors. Over the last 10 years, Hong Kong has introduced a number of regulations to require the use of low-sulphur fuels in local waters, however, serious concerns do remain about other pollutants. Electricity generation is a second major polluter, but because of Hong Kong’s size and topography, there’s little scope for developing renewable energy infrastructure. While the city’s densely packed, high-rise buildings, and growing number of road vehicles, lead to very high roadside pollution.
From a purely environmental perspective, with less travel and industrial production taking place due to the pandemic, 2020 was an exciting year to look at, Prof Wong said. “On Earth Day 2020 we had a much better air pollution reading as the whole world had, kind of, shut down.”
Within Hong Kong, the mobility of the population fell by 50 percent during the initial waves of COVID infections and, among key pollutants, the PM2.5 figure dropped by the greatest amount. However, readings from around Hong Kong’s main port showed that the levels of NO2 and NoX rose, as the volume of containers transiting Hong Kong continued to rise. “We still had to import food and other necessary items, and we still had to export.”
To improve the quality of Hong Kong’s air on a permanent basis, Prof Wong recommended strengthening cooperation across China’s regions, improving the city’s air monitoring capacity to obtain more reliable figures, increasing transparency in the sharing of relevant data, and encouraging public participation.