Environment & energy, Government and governance | Asia, Southeast Asia

23 September 2019

With urban centres across Southeast Asia experiencing rapid population growth, governments need to take action to deal with a growing junk problem, Elena Reshetova writes.

It is a well-established fact that the world is becoming increasingly urbanised. In recent years, non-OECD countries have been the main source of urban population growth, where the number of city dwellers reached three billion, having multiplied six times in almost six decades from 1960 to 2018.

Non-OECD Asia, one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions, is projected to have the world’s highest urban population growth in the coming decades. Today, 13 out of 20 most populated cities are located in Asia, with only three – Tokyo, Seoul, and Osaka – belonging to OECD member countries.

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Outside China and India, the largest urban populations are found in ASEAN cities. For example, by 2030, Jakarta is projected to overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest city and Manila is expected to follow closely in fourth place.

With ever-growing population comes a host of mounting challenges. Achieving and sustaining adequate living standards, energy access, food and water security, and air quality is difficult.

Proper governance of an urban ecosystem involves so many moving parts that some essential issues are often overshadowed. One such issue is waste management.

As a major issue, waste management is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the beginning of the 20th century, the amount of urban waste was less than 300,000 tonnes per day. By 2025, this number is expected to increase twenty-fold and reach six million tonnes.

While OECD cities have been trying to tackle this issue for decades, non-OECD cities experiencing unprecedented population growth are lagging behind. ASEAN capital cities alone, for instance, produce about 50,000 tonnes of trash per day.

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Municipal authorities are struggling with waste collection, dumpsite allocation, and landfills reaching their full capacity. That poor waste management contributes to health and environmental problems within and beyond city limits.

One potential solution that has been on the table for several years is waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities.

As of now, hardly any WtE projects have been implemented to take advantage of large quantities of urban waste in large ASEAN cities.

Jakarta started constructing its first WtE incinerator in December 2018, and its completion is planned for 2021 right as the city’s main waste disposal site is expected to reach its maximum capacity. Thailand is more familiar with WtE and has a total of 15 facilities, including several in urban areas.

However, they generate a small amount of electricity (42 MW) and only the most recent National Power Development Plan for 2018 – 2037, which was released in the first quarter of 2019, emphasises the importance of WtE projects.

In the Philippines, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced its support for promoting WtE technologies in January 2019, and facilities for converting waste to energy in large urban areas are yet to be planned.

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ASEAN cities should take urgent action to tackle urban waste issues. WtE solutions are especially relevant in the region, where coal consumption is on the rise and climate change vulnerabilities are apparent.

WtE projects implemented on a large scale could contribute to sustainability targets in the areas of energy and industrial policies as well as complement the circular economy approach.

Nevertheless, a lack of bold action to address mounting waste challenges is illustrative of a pervasive problem, the absence of political will. Whether phrased this way, as ‘regulatory impotence’, or as ‘reluctance among policymakers’, the problem remains the same.

Effective technical solutions alone are not a sufficient condition for addressing this issue. Considering the growth of the region, this issue is as important as ever, but only when solutions are translated into tools that can be, and are, actually utilised by policymakers, can Asia’s growing waste management problem be dealt with.

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