Japan shares its antipollution expertise

Grassroots work the best way to combat Asia's environment problems

The city of Kitakyushu has moved ahead of other municipalities in transferring Japan’s industrial knowledge and technology — including measures to combat pollution — to developing countries.

The city, which succeeded in reducing serious industrial pollution in the 1960s and is now known as a center for environmental businesses, set up the Kitakyushu International Techno-Cooperative Association (KITA) in 1980 to spread technology in cooperation with local businesses.

Some 35 engineers from small and midsize South Korean companies arrived in Kitakyushu last month to learn about industrial and environmental technologies in one of KITA’s training courses.

As KITA’s activities demonstrate, efforts to make use of Japan’s expertise in reducing pollution in developing countries, particularly in other rapidly growing Asian nations, are visible at different levels of society. Some experts believe this process is most effective at the grassroots level, which is less affected by vested interests.

As of March, the number of participants in KITA’s training courses stood at 3,066 from 108 countries. South Korea accounted for the highest number, followed by China. KITA also dispatches experts to areas that request advice, conducting research and holding seminars.

“Since 1987, we’ve been providing training courses for both industrial technologies and those that mitigate environmental damage,” said Hideo Naito, director of KITA’s Environmental Cooperation Center. “It is based on our experiences of (dealing with industrial pollution of the 1960s).

“We promote cleaner technologies, although South Korean participants, for instance, express more interest in industrial technologies than those related to the environment.”

One of KITA’s major achievements has been its long-term exchange with the Chinese city of Dalian. Kitakyushu and Dalian forged “friendship city” ties in 1979, and KITA, commissioned by the city, started dispatching experts to Dalian in 1993.

Since then, exchanges between the cities have been very active. In 2001, Dalian received the UNEP Global 500 Award as the first major city in China to be recognized for its contribution to conserving the environment.

“We were also very happy to hear the news,” Naito said. “The prize could be attributed to much efforts not only of the city but also the residents.”

He added that Dalian’s needs and problems have changed over time.

“At first, their major concern was how to deal with air and water pollution and how to regulate facilities that caused pollution, but now they are more interested in how to raise environmental awareness among citizens, which is also our main objective here in Japan,” Naito said.

Public crucial to solutions

Lawyer Mitsutoshi Hayakawa, who serves as managing director of the Citizens’ Alliance for Saving the Atmosphere and the Earth, or CASA, agrees that public awareness is the key to solving local and global environmental problems.

Hayakawa was involved in air pollution lawsuits filed in 1978 by residents of Nishiyodogawa Ward, Osaka, against electric power and steel companies, Hanshin Expressway Corp. and the national government. CASA was created in 1988 by individuals suffering from ailments caused by air pollution, along with supporters, consumer groups and scientists.

As the pollution victims’ demands for clearer skies goes beyond national borders, CASA has cooperated with people overseas who suffer from ailments linked to air pollution.

CASA welcomed a request in 1995 by a member of a South Korean nongovernmental organization to create a citizens’ network across East Asia to tackle regional atmospheric problems.

The Atmospheric Action Network in East Asia consists of 19 NGOs from seven countries and regions, including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Russia. The organization exchanges information and conducts joint research and monitoring activities.

“It is important that the East Asian region, which is experiencing rapid industrialization, controls not only air pollution but also global warming,” Hayakawa said. China’s involvement is especially important as it is difficult to acquire reliable environmental data from the Chinese government.

“We need to create closer relations with more grassroots organizations in China, which have grown in numbers in recent years.”

While some environmental problems — such as global warming — have attracted widespread attention in recent years, industrial pollution that directly affects human health is still prevalent in developing countries.

Masazumi Harada, an expert in Minamata disease who now teaches at Kumamoto Gakuen University, said current pollution problems in developing countries are more complex than those experienced by Japan.

“While Japan’s industrialization took 100 years, it is happening in developing countries in 10 to 20 years, and pollution is occurring at many places at the same time,” Harada said.

“Minamata disease was simple in a way — a large company dumped a large amount of toxic waste water (into Minamata Bay), but pollution ongoing in developing countries is more complex as it involves multiple contamination, and the effect comes out slowly and less obviously because the amount of toxic substances is smaller.”

Minamata disease, a form of mercury poisoning caused when chemical company Chisso Corp. discharging untreated waste water into Minamata Bay, killed hundreds of people, left thousands disabled and caused birth defects in Kumamoto Prefecture in the 1950s and ’60s.

Grassroots effort

Harada, who has traveled the world to meet people affected by mercury and other forms of toxic contamination, believes it will be difficult for Japan to help other countries by imparting its own experiences. He said, however, that Japan may be able to contribute by showing what it failed to do.

“In the case of Minamata disease, Japan failed to conduct health checks on all the people in polluted areas. In addition, the government drew up criteria designating people as Minamata disease victims, but ignored those who did not meet the criteria,” he said.

“Therefore, it has no data on how mercury poisoning affects human health when the level of the poisoning is small, which is what is most needed in the world now.”

Harada also emphasized the importance of sharing information from the viewpoint of victims.

“At the government level, often one nation provides another with legal knowledge or pollution-prevention equipment,” he said. “I’m not saying this is unimportant, but what is more effective is to encourage pollution victims and their supporters to meet people abroad.

“The victims and their supporters know what is important and what should be done first. And government officials and medical experts should support such grassroots exchanges.”

Yoichi Tani, a resident of Minamata, is working to achieve this. Tani, who supports Minamata disease victims, set up in May 1984 a citizens’ group that promotes exchanges and cooperation among individuals and grassroots groups working to support victims of industrial pollution and environmental destruction in Asia.

As many as 1,000 people have visited Minamata from abroad. And Tani and his group cooperate with groups in other Asian countries on specific issues, including the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster in India and the illegal dumping of radioactive waste by Asian Rare Earth into a nearby pond and river in a village in Malaysia.

Japan can do more

Tani is critical of the claim that Japan uses its expertise to help developing countries combat pollution, stating that the government has yet to clarify its responsibility in the Minamata disease case.

“The government, which has not learned many lessons from the Minamata case, cannot contribute to other countries by making use of its experiences,” he said.

Tani, who travels abroad about twice a month to visit locations riven by contamination and environmental destruction, said visiting a site is important as it illustrates the social and cultural environments of different countries.

“While I see differences in each area, what is common is that pollution problems occur where discrimination exits,” he said. “So simply protecting the environment does not solve pollution problems. We also have to look at human rights and peace issues.”

Tani has also found that people stand up and protest when their culture and everyday life is under threat. Visiting other countries has made Tani consider the Minamata disaster more deeply.

“Cooperation with people in Asia also benefits us,” he said. “Minamata disease and the victims’ struggle contain profound and extensive issues from which we still need to learn a lot.”

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