By Suvendrini Kakuchi*
TOKYO, Oct 7, 2010 (IPS) – It may not be easy to imagine Japan as a jolly green giant, but to several Asian countries that have been enjoying environmental projects funded by Japanese aid, that’s what this nation has resembled in the last two decades. Since the early 1990s, Japan has been involved in several green initiatives across Asia, with its participation usually in the form of overseas development assistance (ODA) loans, grants, and technology transfer. One of the most recent ones, in fact, addresses some of the impacts of climate change in agriculture, and has taken one of Japan’s foremost agriculture development experts to northern Thailand.
According to Dr Masato Oda, the project he has been overseeing there in the last year or so has been helping farmers use less water to grow their crops. And because the approach demands neither high technology nor vast amounts of money, it can be replicated elsewhere in Thailand and beyond.
Oda says that the methodology they are using in Thailand would be useful in other Asian countries such as Cambodia, where constant droughts have forced farmers to keep a demanding irrigation schedule. “The beauty of the whole project is that farmers… do not have to be rocket scientists to succeed,” he says. “All they need to know is to work harder on crop growing and few other important conditions such as the selection of high quality seeds, all steps that are not beyond their reach.”
The soil in Thailand’s north is classified as sandy. Annual rainfall there is between 800 to 1,000 millilitres over six months out of the year, but the remaining months usually mean drought-like conditions. Northern Thailand farmers, however, have managed to grow crops (mainly sugarcane) despite these conditions. But that has grown more difficult in recent years as temperatures fluctuate and the dry spells get longer.
Research has shown that farmers resort to a heavy watering schedule – twice a day – during the drought period. Oda says that the 12 households included in the project have been using a new system that has helped to retain at least 1,000 millilitres of rainfall that is roughly needed to facilitate crop cultivation on sandy land.
“Farmers now water just once a week and still have good harvests,” he says, adding that the farmers have also begun growing tomatoes on once uncultivated areas. Oda explains that the project approach is to focus on increasing water retention on the land by growing more crops on the land and covering the surface. These two tactics, he says, essentially decrease water evaporation.
With the need to water their crops reduced immensely, the farmers no longer spend as much on diesel that they use their water pumps. Oda thus says that the new irrigation system contributes to reducing climate change overall as less pump use means less emissions that in turn would lead to less pollution. That, he says, is an important step in helping correct current erratic weather patterns blamed on global warming.
Several landmarks in Japanese environment aid have been noted since Tokyo began it almost 20 years ago. In 2006, for instance, Japan offered support China a grant of 6.82 million dollars to combat sulphur dioxide – spewed by acid rain and which was ruining crops – and yellow sand dust.
In the same year, Japan also extended environment aid to the Philippines for initiatives like developing the local recycling industry, as well as for raising awareness on river protection. Environment-related projects took about four percent of annual Japanese ODA during the 1990s. By 2008, the green share in ODA had risen to more than 20 percent.
When it began steering ODA monies to green projects, Tokyo had explained it was reducing the heavy emphasis of “traditional” aid on infrastructure in developing countries. Tokyo also said that its then new policy of helping Asia protect its environment was based on Japan’s own experience in combating widespread pollution during the years when it was going through rapid economic development.
This was during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Japan’s petrochemical refineries were built to help power the country’s manufacturing ambitions. Yet while Japan did grow into an economic might, it paid for that success with its people’s health as severe air pollution led to tens of thousands of Japanese suffering from asthma.
In 2004, Japanese green aid, through the Japan Fund for Global Environment, began to be extended to non-government organisations working at the grassroots level. Fund spokesman Takuya Kimura says that in 2008, around two million dollars (at current exchange rates) supported 27 environment projects, mostly on water preservation and protection and education at community level. Twenty-two of these projects were in Asia, specifically Burma, India, and the Mekong Delta area.
Overall, though, experts point out that Japanese green aid has been low-key, in large part because of the lack of clear policy coupled with recent ODA budget cuts. As a result, says a Stockholm School of Economics report, Japanese environment aid is becoming politicised as disbursement is based on recipient requests.
Waseda Environment Academy director Takeshi Hara says the best environmental aid is when Japan supports programmes that take into account ecology that supports human development. “What we see now is a heavy focus on market-oriented aid policy based on Japan’s green technology transfer and fostering a new market as the answer to environmental issues,” remarks Hara. “This is not what Japan should be doing.”
* This IPS story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network http://www.cdkn.org.