South Asia, the Southern subregion of the Asian continent, is a triangular landmass with the Indian Ocean, Himalayas, and Afghanistan as its principal boundaries. India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Afghanistan make up the region. Geographically, it is blessed with many of the world’s great rivers, the tallest mountains, vast fertile plains, favorable monsoons, and natural and ecological protection provided by the vast mangrove forests. But even so, the region is very vulnerable to environmental hazards and phenomena like climate change, which are also connected to the area’s economic and socio-demographic factors.
Home to nearly a quarter of the global population, and several developing countries with diverse economies and exports, South Asia remains the world’s fastest-growing region which indeed magnetizes greater interests of foreign countries and its immediate neighbors like China (Rahman 2014). China is the 2nd largest economy in the world after the US and has specific strategic and geopolitical interests in South Asia and the adjacent Indian Ocean for which it is eager to engage in trade and development in the region. Over the last decade, Beijing has sought to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in this region by offering projects focused on infrastructure development. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s most significant economic undertaking in this region. It is a large-scale infrastructure initiative that aims to enhance regional connectivity, boost trade, and promote significant growth in the economy (Miller, 2022). Despite the profound benefits this project tends to provide, it may also pose serious environmental implications to the region which is already prone to severe environmental phenomena such as high temperatures, sea-level rise, inconsistent rainfall, increased glacial melting, soil erosion, pollution, deforestation, water scarcity and degradation etc. Therefore, a detailed study is required to assess BRI’s environmental impacts and to propose the adoption of a safe and eco-friendly solution.
BRI & South Asia
Despite the enormous potential for business and trade in South Asia, the lack of adequate regional connectivity, proper cross-border infrastructure, and transportation facilities left the countries with only a minimal competitive edge. This is the reason why the region’s nations were receptive when China expressed its interest in building ports, roads, and railways throughout South Asia. Infrastructure and investments do enable nations to benefit from free trade and move towards progress and development. With Chinese investment South Asia intends to achieve the same. For its economic stimulus, South Asian nations undoubtedly require peaceful growth, and BRI appears to be an eminent solution (Faisal 2021). China officially launched BRI in 2013, which is considered one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. It has been associated with a very large program of investments in the development of ports, roads, railways, and airports, as well as power plants and telecommunications networks. It remains keen to improve the socio-economic conditions of its partner countries by providing them with employment opportunities, local skill development, reduced travel times for business and commerce, and better prospects of trade and investments (Jie and Wallace, 2021). However, as it is said “everything comes with a price”, in this case, the price seems to be paid in the form of the compromised position of South Asia on environmental fronts.
Overall Environmental Situation of South Asia
Due to its geographical location, population, economic infrastructure, and other factors, South Asia is one of the most susceptible regions to environmental hazards and phenomena like climate change. Some of the major environmental issues the South Asian nations are facing are given hereunder:
- Glacial Melting
The ice mass of Asia’s water tower i.e. the Hindu Kush Himalayan region is waning more quickly than the global average, mostly due to rising temperatures, linked to climate change. The region’s freshwater supply will be seriously threatened if these glaciers continue to melt at the same rate. Multiple hydroelectric installations in India, Pakistan, and Nepal may face major challenges due to a lack of river water flows, in addition to agriculture, fisheries, and other activities. Moreover, the change in snow melting and snow covering patterns will affect river flow in the coming term which pretense the hazard of upsurge overflows (Zaman, 2022).
- Rising Sea-Level
Sea-level rise due to additional water from melting glaciers and ice sheets and the expansion of seawater as it heats up, presents a significant threat to the region’s stretched and extensively populated shores. Only in Bangladesh is it predicted that the sea level will rise 46 cm by 2050, affecting 10 – 15% of the land mass and an estimated 35 million people (Zaman, 2022).
- Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss
South Asia comprises around 19% of the Asian and Pacific region’s total forest area, which makes it the home to a variety of species. However, due to several socio-economic reasons most of its countries actively engage in extensive deforestation. It is contributing to the loss of biodiversity by significantly destroying the natural habitats of many different species. Diverse habitats such as mangroves are also facing considerable strain through aqua-cultural developments in Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka (Kakakhel, 2012).
- Atmospheric Pollution
Pollution is yet another major environmental issue in South Asia. Significant discharge of air pollutants have been caused by the increased dependence on fossil fuels and the rapid development in energy consumption. On the other hand, the frequent practice of slash-and-burn agriculture is also causing air pollution and haze incidents in some particular areas.
- Land Degradation
In Asia and the Pacific, South Asia has the most irrigated land (nearly 90 million ha). However, there are several anthropogenic factors along with an increase in floods, storms, surges, and sea level rise that contribute to the worsening phenomena of land degradation in the region. Overgrazed grasslands, coastal areas, and deserted mountains are affected more frequently. The water and wind erosion are also considered to be significant cause of deteriorating arable land (Zaman, 2022).
The physical infrastructure directly impacts the soil, air, medicinal plants, and wildlife habitats. It could also result in shortage of natural resources, and increasing waste generation etc. Following are some ways that the Belt and Road Initiatives will exacerbate the environmental issues of South Asia:
- South Asian countries top the list of worst air quality. Industries and automobiles are the main sources of the toxic gases that are released into the environment, and the BRI projects will result in a rise in these emissions in the coming days.
- Some projects associated with agriculture and farming, which are seen as the foundation of South Asian economy, are also part of the BRI program. However, these projects tend to modern agriculture technologies and chemical fertilizers, which could further deteriorate the phenomena of soil erosion and land degradation in the region.
- BRI in South Asia passes through biodiversity hotspots such as Indo-Burma, the Himalayas, the Southwest China Mountains, the Indian Ocean, the Western Ghats, Sri Lanka, and wilderness and conservation areas like the Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia. BRI activities could disrupt the overall biodiversity, by deforestation and resulting habitat loss, the emergence of invasive species, illegal poaching and logging, etc. The infrastructure might also impede wildlife’s regular behavior and movement, which is especially detrimental to their migration.
- The roads, traffic, construction noise, or lightning pollution under BRI will also negatively impact the environment.
- Alongside air and land, there will be a substantial increase in sea traffic. Data from the World Trade Organization for 2018 indicate that the volume of international trade has expanded by up to 1,700% owing to shipping facilities, and due to BRI, an increase in the maritime business seems to be inevitable. Hence, there is a risk of probable water pollution or degradation that might have serious impacts on drinking water, agriculture, and particularly fisheries (Ali, Faqir, Haider, Shahzad & Nosheen, 2022).
The word “green” certainly indicates that green technology has something to do with sustainability. It is an umbrella term that defines the use of science and technology for the production of environment-friendly products and services that have minimum or zero contribution to pollution (Long, 2019). Green tech (GT) is closely related to Clean Tech, which specifically refers to products or services that improve operational performance while also reducing costs, energy consumption, waste, or negative effects on the environment. The basic idea is that by a potential technology, you can reduce waste, cut pollution, produce green chemicals (such as green laundry detergent, etc.), recycle products, create green energy (from solar and wind power), and minimize fossil fuel usage (through capture carbon technique or by designing more fuel-efficient engines), etc. Through the usage of GT, you may control hazardous substances or convert them into harmless substances. It is a broad category that encompasses several forms of environmental remediation. While climate change and carbon emissions are now considered among the most pressing global issues, there are also many efforts to address local environmental hazards. Some Greens seek to protect specific ecosystems or endangered species while others strive to conserve scarce natural resources by finding more sustainable alternatives. The main goal of GT is to protect the environment, repair damage done to the environment in the past, conserve the Earth’s natural resources, and preserve its biodiversity (Kenton, 2022).
Prospects & Recommendations
Given the deteriorating climatic conditions and environmental scenarios, South Asian countries and the investors around BRI should timely adopt Green Technology. It will not only ensure sustainable technological advancement in the region and, the production of eco-friendly goods and services but also pave way for even more incentives for investment and commerce. Following are some ways through which BRI can be set on the track of getting greener:
- Low-carbon infrastructure investments.
- Electrification, automation, and digitalization of transportation.
- Frequent use of solar and wind power for energy purposes.
- Sustainable and environmentally friendly installations such as rainwater collectors etc.
- Setting high environmental and social governance standards can foster business in an environmentally friendly approach.
Having the evident idea that failing to green the BRI will have potentially disastrous effects throughout the World, China has established a robust policy system. It is certain that investing in GT and making them available in BRI countries will not only allow the expansion and promotion of Green Technology on a global level but also generate green energy at affordable prices in BRI countries – helping the region to ascend towards a green and more prosperous development (Wang 2019).
The Belt and Road Initiative is a strategy initiated by the People’s Republic of China that seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks to improve regional connectivity, increase trade, and stimulate economic growth. No doubt it offers substantial socio-economic benefits to South Asian countries, but its associated activities may also have serious environmental implications. South Asia is already one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and environmental hazards. Its sound existence and prosperity is predicated only on the sensible and cautious management of its fragile and excessively exploited ecosystems. Hence, it tends to be very important for the BRI countries of South Asia to take timely measures to cope with the multifaceted challenges of climate change. The adoption and extended use of green technology is one such prudent measure. Instilling green technology in BRI would have an enormous positive impact on green growth and the environment as a whole. Moreover, making it ecologically sustainable through green technology provide unique opportunity for the involved countries – both in terms of creating economic opportunities and to avoid the brown technology trap. Therefore, involved stakeholders should embrace cooperation on capacity building, financing, and undermining local differences for proper promotion and utilization of green and sustainable technology.
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- Will Kenton. (January 2022). What Is Green Tech? How It Works, Types, Adoption, and Examples. Investopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/green_tech.asp#toc-types-of-green-tech
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- Christoph N. Wang. (April 2019). Leapfrogging the BRI through Green Technology. Green Finance and Development Center. Retrieved from: https://greenfdc.org/leapfrogging-the-bri-through-green-technology/
- Majid Ali, Khan Faqir, Bilal Haider, Khurram Shahzad, Nosheen N. (April 2022). Belt and Road Environmental Implications for South Asia. Front Public Health. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9084410/