The gold rush in Mongolia has left a toxic aftermath: contaminants from the mining process have leached into the water that poor communities rely on for drinking, bathing and raising livestock. Residents need the government to tell them if the water is safe to use.
The Flint water crisis an example of what can happen in the absence of transparent, inclusive and accountable water quality regulation and public service delivery. And unfortunately, it's just one community out of many throughout the world experiencing this problem.
Solving the challenges of air and water pollution will require more than the adoption of top-down solutions or greener technology. It will require countries to address key governance challenges, like inaccessible information and a lack of public participation.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its first-ever access to information policy last week. The pilot policy—which will be revised after its first year—aims to “enhance transparency and openness” in the organization’s work. But despite its noble aspirations, the policy falls far short of providing true transparency.
Harriet Bibangambah, a Research Officer at Greenwatch Uganda, also contributed to this post.
Uganda is one of only 10 African countries with a national access to information (ATI) law. These types of laws are essential to human rights, providing citizens with legal access to the government-held information that directly impacts them—information on issues like mining permits, logging concessions, air quality data, and more. But as researchers are learning, ATI laws on the books do not necessarily guarantee freedom of information.
Uganda passed its Access to Information Act in 2005, releasing an implementation plan and ATI regulations in 2011. The regulations establish procedures for citizens to request government-held information and for the government to respond to citizen requests. WRI and Greenwatch, a Ugandan environmental law and advocacy organization set out in August 2011 to investigate how the law works.
Increased industrialization in Asia has created countless hurdles for communities to protect themselves from pollution. Important government information—such as the amount of pollutants being discharged by nearby factories or results from local air and water quality monitoring—still isn’t readily accessible in user-friendly formats. This practice often leaves the public entirely out of decision-making processes on issues like regulating pollution or expanding industrial factories. In many cases, the public lack the information they need to understand and shield themselves from harmful environmental, social, and health impacts.
This state of affairs recently prompted a group of government officials, NGOs, local community representatives, and academics to demand government action to change the status quo. Last week, representatives from China, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand released the Jakarta Declaration for Strengthening the Right to Environmental Information for People and the Environment. The Declaration urges governments to improve access to information on air and water quality pollution in Asia—and offers a detailed road map on how to do so.
This post was co-authored with Elizabeth Moses, an intern with The Access Initiative.
Today is International Right to Know Day, a global initiative to share ideas and stories on right to information (RTI) laws and transparent governance. This blog post provides an inside look at how citizens from one Thai community are seeking access to information in order to protect themselves from environmental pollution.
On May 5, 2012, 12 people were killed and 129 injured in Thailand’s Rayong Province. The devastation occurred when a holding tank containing toluene exploded at the Bangkok Synthethics petrochemical factory in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, an area housing nearly 150 industrial facilities. The very next day, a mixture of hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid gas leaked from Map Ta Phut’s Aditya Birla Chemical Plant, sending 138 people to the hospital.
As the Bangkok Post noted, the more than 49,000 residents in areas surrounding Map Ta Phut received no warnings about the industrial accidents. They were not told if it was safe to remain in the region or if they should evacuate. In fact, details about the toxic chemicals released during the accidents were not even immediately provided to community members.
Leaving residents in the dark about the dangers they faced undeniably threatened their health. But what would have happened if community members already had information about the chemicals regularly used and emitted by Map Ta Phut’s industries? What if they understood the risks of being exposed to these chemicals and how to cope with these dangers should accidents happen? Would having easy access to information about the industrial estate help them protect themselves from industrial accidents and pollution?