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Asian water consumers at risk despite strong "right to know" laws

A new The Access Initiative (TAI) report from global research organization World Resources Institute’s (WRI) reveals that Asian countries are not effectively telling people if the water they use for drinking, farming, and fishing is polluted or dangerously toxic. Despite passing strong “right to know” laws, governments are still putting their poorest communities at risk by failing to release pollution information that they are legally required to disclose.

Launched in Stockholm, Sweden at this year’s World Water Week conference that focuses on water and waste, the report “Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand” examines vulnerable communities’ access to water pollution information.

Analysis by WRI, a global research organization, shows that, although governments have passed laws that protect citizens’ right to environmental information and mandate public disclosure of this data, officials are failing to live up to their legal obligation—either proactively or upon request. For example, government agencies in Indonesia and Mongolia ignored 58 percent and 59 percent of information requests, respectively.

The right to information about environmental threats is a human right in itself, and it is also critical to the protection of other human rights. People have the right to know about hazardous pollution in the waterways on which they rely. Governments that fail to provide that information are violating their citizens’ human rights, said John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

400 million tonnes of hazardous pollutants per annum

Each year, industrial facilities release upwards of 400 million tonnes of hazardous pollutants into the worlds’ waters. Yet secrecy around the amount and type of chemicals that companies discharge is still the norm, especially in Asia.

According to a new WRI report, 80 percent of countries do not provide information on the amount of pollution that industrial facilities discharge into the environment.

The report analyzes data from state of the environment reports, water quality monitoring portals and other public databases to assess the availability of pollution information that governments are legally obligated to disclose. The report authors also tracked 174 information requests that local community members submitted and spoke with nearly 150 affected people about barriers they faced accessing pollution data.

Governments’ failure to provide water pollution information is an environmental injustice. Without it, poor, marginalized communities cannot participate in decision-making, let alone hold governments and more powerful corporations accountable for contaminating their local water sources,” said Elizabeth Moses, report author and environmental democracy specialist at WRI.

Limited public access

In Thailand, a country with one of the most advanced environmental disclosure regimes in the world, residents of Map Ta Phut, a sprawling industrial estate that hosts more than 140 petrochemical facilities, still do not know if their water is safe to use. Researchers from nearby organizations and international universities have discovered dangerously high levels of mercury and arsenic in the water, but as the report finds, public access to government pollution data is extremely limited in practice.

All the government services — municipalities, public health, the Office of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning, and the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand — realize what has been happening with pollution in our community, but they don’t tell or give us the true information. I’ve never received correct and clear information about the water, said Nangsao Witlawan, former oil refinery worker, and Map Ta Phut resident.

When governments do release environmental data, officials often provide limited information that community members can neither access nor understand. For instance, Thai government officials frequently respond to information requests in English, which most Map Ta Phut residents do not speak.

European environment MEP's call on the Commission to take measures to phase out the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation, including palm oil, as a component of biofuels preferably by 2020. They also call for a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market.

Is the water safe to use? In Thailand, a country with one of the most advanced environmental disclosure regimes in the world,public access to government pollution data is extremely limited in practice according to WRI.

In Indonesia, many local fishermen cannot understand the highly technical wastewater information they receive from the government and need it translated into more straightforward formats like pictures or graphics.

Villagers who fish Indonesia’s Ciujung River need to know what pollutants companies are releasing into their water sources, how these chemicals will impact their health, which companies are responsible and what steps their government has taken to prevent further contamination. Yet our government rarely provides such local, facility-specific information, and even when officials do, it’s often so technical that we have to translate it into pictures that the fishermen can understand, said Henri Subagiyo, Executive Director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.

Call for disclosure and transparency

WRI’s report calls for a radical shift in information sharing to protect people from using contaminated water that could harm their health and economic livelihoods. It recommends that governments release information in non-technical formats, create centralized systems for responding to communities’ information requests and encourage companies to disclose pollution information.

Civil society organizations and international donors also have a role to play. They should invest in building local communities’ capacity to understand water pollution information, advocate for greater government transparency and participate in decision-making.

About TAI and STRIPE

The Access Initiative (TAI) is the largest civil society network in the world dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.

Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment (STRIPE) is one of TAI’s projects that helps communities improve their environment and health by exercising their right to access information and participate in environmental decision-making.

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