War is raging in the heart of Europe, with the senseless fighting expected to make for a long, hard winter.
Food and fuel prices have spiralled as a result, portending hunger and hardship, not least for vulnerable communities far flung from the conflict.
Rising tensions in East Asia, amid the rivalry between the United States and China, make Taiwan a tinderbox that could flare up into a major confrontation that no one wants, nor may be able to control once set off.
Against this backdrop, the welter of reports on extreme weather – sweeping floods, roaring fires and devastating droughts – across the world, raise alarms that the climate crisis is getting harder to address by the day.
Little wonder that audiences say they are exhausted by the news. People are anxious about present developments and where they might be heading.
Fake news and misinformation add to the malaise. Some of this is spread deliberately, to sway public opinion, but much is also shared innocently, even unthinkingly, on social media platforms. Yet, curbs to check the former could constrain legitimate interaction.
At times like these, World News Day, which we mark today, is of added significance. Today, we reflect on how journalism can make a difference, and why it is so important that it does.
Journalists in professional newsrooms have a vital role to play in safeguarding the well-being of the communities they serve. Our democracies depend on them doing so, effectively and purposefully.
How best to do so?
To my mind, we need to focus on delivering information, insight and inspiration.
Credible information – fact-based, reliable, and timely – remains vital if we are to have reasoned, and reasonable, debates on how to tackle the challenges we face and figure out the ways forward. While we might all be entitled to our opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts. Without any agreement on even basic facts, democratic discussions are reduced to a cacophony of assertion, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats put it.
Fact-based journalism requires painstaking legwork by reporters, relentless cross-checking and quality control by editors, as well as authoritative analysis and interpretation by seasoned commentators.
Not surprisingly, in this age of bewilderment, audiences are seeking out trusted voices, whom they can rely on to deliver reliable reports and insightful commentaries. Multiple studies show that apart from the news, audiences value explainers, backgrounders, analysis – whether online, on video or through newsletters.
Beyond this, faced with relentless waves of doom and gloom, people also want inspiration. They want to hear about possible solutions to the problems at hand, as well as of those who are stepping up to address them. So too content that seeks to shine a light in dark corners, and give voice to communities and subjects that are more often neglected or ignored.
Allow me to cite one example: a video series, titled ‘Invisible Asia’, in which my colleagues from The Straits Times cast a spotlight on people living in the shadows of their societies, largely unseen and unheard.
The series was awarded the top prize for investigative/enterprise video journalism at the global Editor & Publisher EPPY Awards 2021.
Many more examples of how journalism has made an impact can be found on the World News Day website. The old newsroom adage, “show, don’t tell”, applies here.
At a time when Orwellian “War-is-Peace”, Freedom-is-slavery” doublespeak and state-sponsored misinformation campaigns are rampant, it seems fitting to turn to that journalistic sage, George Orwell, for inspiration on World News Day.
In his 1946 essay, Why I Write, Orwell argued that all writing, but perhaps especially journalistic endeavours, has a political purpose, as well as a quest for telling a good story well.
His words ring true today. He wrote: “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
“But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience… I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style…
“The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”
So it was, and so it remains, especially today.
About the author
Warren Fernandez is President of the World Editors Forum, a network of editors under the World Association of News Publishers, and also Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times in Singapore.
To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Straits Times (Singapore) and was first published on March 8, 2021.
Two foreigners wed to Singaporean men share their struggles and breakthroughs as they made a new life in the city state.
SINGAPORE – Siti’s husband, an odd-job worker 10 years her senior, did not allow her to leave the house without him – not even to do marketing.
Her husband also did not allow her to work and she was not given an allowance, though he paid for the bills at home.
Siti (not her real name), now 38, met her husband while working as a hotel receptionist in Indonesia, where he was holidaying.
They got engaged after a long-distance relationship of three months.
“I married him as he was very sincere in wanting to marry me,” she said.
However, life in Singapore in the early years had been mostly housebound for her. She stayed home to raise their four children, the oldest of whom is now 14.
“I felt he was afraid of me making new friends and I felt very alone.”
She said she did not go into marriage thinking that a Singaporean man would be her ticket to a better life, but she certainly did not expect the chagrin of having to ask him for money for even the smallest things.
“I felt like a child,” she said.
“Once I asked him for $5 to buy chilli for cooking, and he said he had no money. I was angry that he had money to buy 4D, but said he had no money to buy chilli.”
Siti is not alone in her marital woes.
There are many foreign women, wed to low-income Singaporean men, who face problems ranging from family violence to poverty as well as an uncertain stay in Singapore.
These women remain “invisible and voiceless” largely due to their immigration status, as they have limited rights, protection and access to social benefits, said Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
She added: “Many lack knowledge of the rights and benefits that they are entitled to and are left feeling helpless in times of need as they do not know where to seek support for various challenges. This is compounded by the limited social networks they have in Singapore.”
Lowest family income, highest level of conflict
In 2019, 4,426 Singaporean men wed non-resident brides – making up one in five marriages involving at least one citizen, according to the Government’s Population In Brief 2020 report.
A recent landmark study on cross-national families by Professor Jean Yeung, founding director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, and PhD student Shuya Lu, shed light on these families.
In 2018 and 2019, the researchers interviewed 3,121 women who were the primary caregivers of Singaporean children aged up to six years old.
It found that 18 per cent of these families had a wife born overseas and a Singapore-born husband, and 57 per cent had both parents born here.
The other families are those with a Singapore-born mum and a foreign-born dad and families with both parents born overseas.
The top five countries the foreign-born wives in the study are born in are China (26 per cent), Malaysia (25 per cent), Vietnam (14 per cent), Indonesia (11 per cent) and the Philippines (7 per cent).
The study also found that the level of family conflict is inversely related to family income.
The pressures of making ends meet often stress a marriage, and families with a foreign-born wife and a Singapore-born husband had the highest level of family conflict.
Social workers say Prof Yeung’s study confirms what they have been observing on the ground for years: that many of the Singaporean men who marry foreign wives are older, less educated and are low-wage workers.
And given the financial, legal and other challenges many of these women face, the study confirms the vulnerability of these foreign wives, they say.
Shaky foundation to marriage
Foreign women married to low-income Singapore men are particularly vulnerable to family violence and marital woes, social workers note.
Women interviewed for this story said their marriages were not arranged by matchmaking or “mail-order bride” agencies.
The couples had met instead through friends, social media, or while the Singaporean was holidaying or working in their country.
One reason these marriages are particularly vulnerable is that the couples tied the knot after a brief courtship and do not know each other well.
Sister Sylvia Ng, case manager at the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, said some of these couples had “shaky foundations” to their marriages.
They may have met only a few times before saying I do or they may not even share a common language, she said.
Ms Amanda Chong, whose research study on migrant brides was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender in 2014, said that many of these women she interviewed told her they wed a Singaporean as an “economic strategy”.
Ms Chong, who co-founded Readable, a volunteer group that teaches children from disadvantaged families literacy and numeracy, added: “They feel that Singaporean men can provide for them and their children will have more opportunities here than in their own countries.”
The women often depend on their husbands to support them financially and to sponsor their long-term visit pass (LTVP), she added.
So some choose to stay in abusive or strained marriages, as they fear being separated from their children should their husbands cancel their LTVP if they ask for a divorce, social workers say.
Siti is a case in point.
The LTVP holder had once considered divorce, but banished the thought for fear of never seeing her children again.
“So I just tolerated everything,” she said, adding that her relationship with her husband has improved over time.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, however, has said that Singaporeans cannot unilaterally cancel their foreign spouse’s LTVP or long-term visit pass-plus (LTVP+) without their spouse’s consent – a fact which social workers say many foreign wives may not know.
Measures to help
Of course, there are many happy marriages between Singaporean men and their foreign wives.
And in the past decade, the Government has put in place policies and programmes to help foreign brides and their families.
For one thing, it is now easier for LTVP and LTVP+ holders to work here. Since December 2018, they do not need their employers to apply for a letter of consent for them to work and they are granted such pre-approved letters.
With these pre-approved letters of consent, their bosses just need to notify the Manpower Ministry when they start work.
Foreign spouses holding a LTVP or LTVP+ are not subject to foreign worker quotas or levies, which boosts their employability, said those interviewed.
Sister Sylvia said: “This is a great development as it allows foreign wives to be employed and contribute financially to their family.”
The Government has also improved the accessibility and affordability of HDB flats for transnational families, a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman said.
For example, since 2019, a citizen aged 21 and older marrying a non-resident spouse and applying for an HDB flat for the first time can apply for the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (Singles) of up to $40,000 when buying a resale flat. Previously, the Singaporean had to be at least 35.
More can be done
Still, those interviewed say more can be done for this vulnerable group of foreign wives.
For example, Kreta Ayer Family Services social worker Tan Ee Hiang said more healthcare subsidies can be extended to foreign wives holding a LTVP.
Aware’s Ms Hingorani said: “There should be clear and timed access to permanent residency and citizenship for migrant spouses, so as to secure more rights for this group of people who have committed themselves to being part of the Singaporean community.”
The MSF spokesman said that Singapore does not automatically grant immigration passes such as LTVP and LTVP+ to all foreign spouses, and it assesses each application on its individual merits.
The MSF spokesman said: “Our immigration policies must strike a balance between facilitating marriage and parenthood, and safeguarding against marriages of convenience that aim to circumvent our immigration framework.
“The family must also be able to support itself financially, and the marriage must be stable, among other considerations.”
For Siti, her life here became brighter after she took up a cleaner’s job – going against her husband’s wishes, she said.
He was angry at first but relented and allowed her to work as her over $1,000 monthly pay also paid for some of the children’s expenses.
She also has made more friends through work and says she now knows how to seek help from social workers if she needs it.
She said: “I’m happy I earn my own money, as I can spend it on myself and my children. And I have saved some money in case of an emergency.
“I have made more friends.”
‘I feel so blessed’
SINGAPORE – What should have been the honeymoon period of her marriage was instead eclipsed by homesickness.
Ms Khuong Thi Van, who moved to Singapore after marrying a Singaporean three years ago, missed her parents, who run a vegetable wholesale business, and her two younger brothers back in Vietnam.
The 24-year-old Vietnamese, who goes by the name Anna Ng, also missed Vietnamese food and had no friends here.
The high school graduate who speaks English said: “I felt very lonely during my first year here. I cried a lot and felt very lost.”
But her “buddy”, whom she met while attending a marriage support programme for transnational couples like her, was a lifeline.
The Vietnamese woman introduced her to other Vietnamese wives and showed her around. Mrs Ng also made more friends through the church she attends.
Mrs Ng met her 25-year-old husband Ng Bon Han, a sales engineer, through friends. During their year-long courtship, he often visited her in Vietnam.
“I feel I can relate to him,” said Mrs Ng, who is not working. “And he cares a lot about me.”
Their first year of married life was the hardest as they had to adjust to being man and wife.
For example, she initially wanted to have children immediately, as couples in Vietnam usually do, but he wanted to save up first.
They now plan to have children in five or 10 years’ time, as they believe it is costly to raise children here.
She said: “Even though we love each other, we still have differences. So we communicated a lot more to understand each other. Now our marriage is very stable.”
Other marriages on the rocks
However, a few of her Vietnamese friends’ marriages to Singaporeans are on the rocks.
Some wed Singaporean men in the hope of leading a better life here, after a courtship of as short as a month and without getting to really know their spouses before saying “I do”, she said.
One or two friends wed a Singaporean twice their age, and the couple have different sets of values and expectations about marriage, Mrs Ng added.
“I always tell my friends, marry the one you love and it doesn’t matter where he comes from. But many still feel marrying a Singaporean is a dream,” she said.
To help transnational couples start their marriage on a “strong foundation”, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) introduced a marriage preparation programme (MPP) and the marriage support programme (MSP) in 2014.
The programmes cover communication and conflict management in a cross-cultural context, and offer practical advice on living in Singapore, said an MSF spokesman.
The MPP is a half-day programme, while the MSP is a full-day programme, said Ms Isabelle Ng, social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, which runs the programmes.
Fei Yue also organises classes to teach the foreign spouse basic conversational English or Mandarin, organises outings and matches a buddy to those who want one.
Ms Ng said: “Due to cultural and language gaps, the marital difficulties faced can be magnified. So the buddy is a source of emotional and practical support for the foreign wife.”
After a review of the programmes in 2019, the MSF revised the content to focus more on managing cultural differences as well as relationship skills, such as communication skills and conflict resolution, among other things.
Mrs Ng is now a buddy to two Vietnamese women, as she found the marriage programmes run by Fei Yue helpful.
She said: “My buddy did a good job for me and now I can help others. I have more friends now and feel less stressed now. I feel blessed.”
To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Straits Times (Singapore) and was first published on March 8, 2021.
A Chinese migrant worker’s wearied hope of escaping the endless cycle of seeking day-to-day odd jobs to get by.
BEIJING – On some days, migrant worker Wei Xiaoqiang collapses into bed after getting home from work and falls asleep with his shoes still on, the day’s grime still on his face.
“I just wrap myself in a blanket and go to sleep,” said the 43-year-old from China’s northern Jilin province.
His reality now is a long way from the big dreams he left behind: As a boy, he aspired to be a journalist or a designer.
Mr Wei came to Beijing about half a year ago to find work, and has sorted parcels, loaded and driven logistics trucks, and worked in construction sites and factories.
There have been winter days when he worked until his perspiration hung like “frost on his jacket”.
When Mr Wei spoke to The Straits Times, he was working in a car factory where he was responsible for moving parts between different areas.
It is menial work, and like many of the migrant workers who end up in the Chinese capital, he finds these jobs at the Majuqiao labour market on the outskirts of the city.
There, employment agencies and recruiters line the street, shouting out job offerings or advertising them through posters, offering work that pays anywhere from 160 yuan (S$33) to 320 yuan a day.
These jobs are odd bits and bobs that the city requires to function – from sorting and loading parcels during China’s e-commerce festivals, to positions for temporary security guards and cleaners during the Chinese New Year holiday when many migrants go home.
The work is often informal and uncontracted, which experts say leaves these workers vulnerable to being exploited.
While there are no official figures on how many of China’s over 290 million rural migrants work under such conditions, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last week that there are 200 million Chinese workers under flexible employment.
Experts say a growing number are being drawn into informal work like these as they move to the cities seeking a better life.
These workers, mostly men between the ages of 20 and 40, fall above China’s poverty line – and so might not qualify for support under China’s anti-poverty drive – but unlike migrants with stable work, they live a hardscrabble life, seeking new jobs by the day to stay afloat.
‘That’s just my life now’
Some workers say they enjoy the freedom of not being tied to fixed working arrangements. Others like Mr Wei confess they simply cannot find any other work.
“I want to do something different, maybe be a supervisor in some company. Who wants to do work like this? But I don’t have the qualifications, so these are all empty dreams,” he told The Straits Times.
In Majuqiao, he looks out for work that pays about 200 yuan a day. There are higher-paying jobs but those are more physically demanding, he says. A typical workday is between eight and 12 hours long.
“If I were to do jobs that pay 320 yuan a day, the next day I would have to rest – I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed,” he said.
“Bosses think that since they are paying more, they want us to work harder… If we can’t keep up, they might withhold our pay.
“Sometimes, when I return home from work, I am just so tired. Not just physically tired, but also in my heart.”
Some employers would scold workers for drinking too much water and needing to use the toilet, and some would withhold wages if workers did not perform up to their expectations, he said.
Working five to six days a week, Mr Wei makes about 5,000 yuan a month – more than the 1,500 yuan he would have made back home doing the same odd jobs.
“It’s a lonely – incredibly lonely – lifestyle. In Beijing, you have no one to rely on. Your friends are always busy. We all go out early and come home late. We don’t get to meet. It’s a very lonely life,” said Mr Wei.
“I am getting older… Most people my age should strive to have a stable income and stop living such an uncertain life… I can only live by the day and hope my luck stays good.”
His home city of Liaoyuan used to be a coal-producing hub before the mines were depleted in the 1990s.
He dropped out of middle school to work and for almost 20 years, has been labouring in cities across China.
Bottom of the food chain
In Beijing, Majuqiao is a magnet for migrants from China’s north-east provinces like Mr Wei.
Such job markets are present in most cities – like the Sanhe job market in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, which made headlines a few years ago for gig workers there who lived a subsistence lifestyle romanticised as “work for one day and party for three”.
Mr Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for Hong Kong-based labour rights group China Labour Bulletin, said: “This casualisation of labour and the precarious nature of this labour, it’s not just an issue confined to major cities, it’s an issue you find in cities across the country.”
He added that these workers are not protected by legal contracts and live at risk of wage arrears. Their employers also do not make social security contributions for them, and they are unlikely to be covered by accident insurance.
“If they are working as day labourers, then they are very much at the bottom of the food chain.”
This trend towards short-term employment was flagged as early as 2012 in a Tsinghua University study that highlighted how a new generation of migrant workers were changing jobs more frequently, attributing it partly to poor pay and work conditions.
The proportion of rural migrant workers employed under formal contracts has also declined over the years, from 42.8 per cent in 2009 to 35.1 per cent in 2016 – the latest year that the National Bureau of Statistics released figures on this.
Upgrading prospects of rural youth
The plight of Mr Wei and other workers like him often goes unseen, but experts say it highlights a keen crisis that China faces – where millions of unskilled workers have flocked to cities for work as rural conditions decline, but find themselves able to do only the most basic work.
Unequipped to tap the opportunities offered in these urban areas, these mostly male workers remain trapped on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.
Mr Huang Tianlei, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, pointed out that this structural mismatch is expected to accelerate – demand for low-skilled labour will fall as a result of automation and other reasons, and structural unemployment could increase in future.
“The migrant workforce is extremely vulnerable to such crises as the pandemic, exactly because their skills do not allow them to adapt quickly,” said Mr Huang.
The central government recognises the scale of the problem and has made revitalising rural areas a key focus.
Beijing’s first policy document of the year, released last month, outlined the importance of developing rural industries so that rural workers can find work “close to, or wherever they are”, and improve the quality of rural education.
But it is an enormous challenge. The rural education system would have to be overhauled, said Mr Huang, adding that schools would have to teach rural students skills to be able to continuously learn to equip themselves to do future jobs.
“The rural youth will become the majority of China’s labour force tomorrow and, though improving, the education system is still not up to the task of educating this future labour force to be capable of adapting to the evolving demands of the labour market,” he said.
At the same time, Beijing will have to find ways to upgrade the skills of the hundreds of millions of workers like Mr Wei.
Failure to do that could lead to rising anger among workers who feel they have been left behind, which could lead to instability, said Mr Crothall.
Mr Wei, however, is not waiting for help to come his way. He recently bought a second-hand laptop and has been learning basic design skills online, to finally take a shot at his childhood dream.
Quoting a Chinese proverb, he said: “Even the murky Yellow River has days when it runs clear. My luck will eventually change.”
To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Straits Times (Singapore) and was first published on March 8, 2021.
India’s sewer cleaners speak up on their caste-ridden occupation, outlawed but not eradicated.
BANGALORE – Mr Pedanna G had just put his feet up on the bed in his two-room house in Bangalore when his phone rang for the fourth time that Sunday.
“Another person with a blocked toilet,” he said, hopping off the bed and slipping on his khaki work shirt and mask. Even before he had reached the end of the street, his phone rang again. It was the same person, confirming if Mr Pedanna was on his way. Could he hurry please? Could he take an autorickshaw instead of the bus?
“Rich people panic when their loo is overflowing. That is when they need me the most,” said Mr Pedanna, 55.
The man on the phone called Mr Pedanna “anna” (older brother), but after 20 years of cleaning toilets, drains and manholes, he knew that it was lip service.
As soon as clean water began to gush through the pipes and the customer was flooded with relief, their hierarchies would snap back in place.
“I just hope he gives me fair wages,” Mr Pedanna said, hailing a tuk-tuk, whose fare he hoped the customer would pay. He usually charges 1,000 rupees (S$18.30) per cleaning job, but without fixed wages, payments are always uncertain for freelance workers like him.
A caste-ridden curse
Mr Pedanna is what India calls a manual scavenger.
In cities and villages, it is common to see men and women cleaning latrines and sewers using brooms, sticks and, often, bare hands. These workers manually carry and dispose of human excreta from streets, gutters and septic tanks in homes, offices and hospitals. Some enter manholes with sewage water up to their necks to unclog pipes.
The work remains essential due to the country’s inadequate sewerage system and lack of home toilets, which leads to open defecation.
In rural India and slums, a third of the people relieve themselves in the streets and open fields.
Even in urban areas, only 30 per cent of households have toilets connected to waterborne sewer systems. Common latrines are often little more than holes in the ground, and when they get full, someone is needed to clear them out. Where it exists, the sewerage system is often old and easily clogged.
Some cities such as Bangalore have mechanised systems to fix major blockages, and corporations are banned from using manual cleaners.
But in old or rapidly growing neighbourhoods without proper drainage systems, people still call for someone to put their hand into faecal sludge or jump into a sewer to manually unclog it.
Unless poor, most Indians tend to employ someone else to clean their toilets and, by extension, their sewers. In a caste-ridden society, this work was often forced upon a sub-group of Dalits, a marginalised community of former untouchables.
To repair centuries of oppression, India today penalises such caste discrimination and has a system of affirmative action. The present Indian president is a Dalit man.
But to this day, Dalits in the country remain poor and shunned by society. The most oppressed groups among them are forced to clean sewers.
The work is disgusting – and dangerous.
In the past five years to December last year, 340 people have died from inhaling noxious fumes or slipping in manholes.
Thousands of others such as Mr Pedanna have had wounds and cuts all over their hands and legs, chronic aches and breathing difficulties. Unlike sanitation workers, they get no equipment or protective gear.
“But what hurts most of all is the humiliation we are subjected to,” said Mr Pedanna.
It is not uncommon for people to abuse or beat him up. As he waited for a cup of tea at a small shop, the store owner kept a wide distance and put the water jug away to prevent him from drinking from it.
“People hurl insults at my caste. When I take the bus, some don’t let me sit. Maybe I stink. Some won’t give me water to drink or wash my hands. Frankly, it is very painful. I keep a smiling face but at the end of the day, I feel depressed,” Mr Pedanna said.
“Why am I stuck doing this job?”
Manual scavenging is perhaps modern India’s greatest shame. Recognised as a form of slavery, it was outlawed in 1993. Since then, it has been illegal for anyone to employ manual scavengers.
Still, thousands continue to manually clear sewers and toilets due to their poverty and place in the caste hierarchy.
Officially, their numbers have dropped from 770,338 in 2008 to about 48,000 in January last year. But activists say this is a gross under-assessment, and put the number closer to around 1.2 million. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 has also identified 182,505 Indian households with the primary occupation of manual scavenging.
Incomplete and half-hearted surveys seek to make an already invisible community disappear from the records, said Mr Bezwada Wilson, one of the founders of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a nationwide movement to eradicate manual scavenging.
A November 2019 report by the World Health Organisation found that the Indian government’s attempts to show fewer Indians engaged in this dehumanising work had only driven manual scavenging underground.
Ms Vani Nagendrappa, managing director of a company the Karnataka state government formed in 2016 to offer loans and support to sanitation workers to shift to other jobs, said: “We do public awareness campaigns to inform citizens that if they employ manual cleaners for their homes, they will be jailed. But they continue to call them out of ignorance and habit, and the workers continue to go.
“We need citizens to report where it is happening for us to be able to stop it,” she said.
Dignity neither in life nor death
The workers’ lack of bargaining power, illiteracy, social vulnerability and poverty, combined with weak legal oversight, have led to the worst, riskiest sanitation jobs such as sewer cleaning being subcontracted to temporary, informal workers.
Manual scavengers working independently under the radar have no protections or safety nets.
Mr Narayanswamy Muniappa, a 66-year-old sewer cleaner, lost his 25-year-old son to the same job two decades ago.
“The municipality contractor had forced my son to enter a manhole. He felt faint due to the gases and fell. He drowned in the sewage before his partner pulled him out,” said Mr Narayanswamy, who cannot forget the black sludge oozing from his son’s nostrils throughout the funeral.
Accidents from losing consciousness and death by asphyxiation in septic tanks and sewers, pit collapse or falling masonry and wounds from sharp debris are shockingly frequent.
If a worker dies while performing such work, even with safety gear and other precautions, the police are required to investigate the case and get the employer to pay a million rupees to the family.
Mr Narayanswamy tried to collect the compensation, but the municipality asked for proof that his son was indeed hired for pit cleaning by the said employer. The municipality claimed the young man had died because he was drunk.
“I didn’t have the energy, money or time to fight it,” said Mr Narayanswamy. Since that day, however, he has kept a notebook with a neat list of names and addresses of people who call him for work. “If the police ask me for proof that I do this work, I will show them this,” he said.
He also quit drinking, a harder decision for pit cleaners than most can imagine.
Mr Munisamy Katappa, a 70-year-old worker in Mr Narayanswamy’s neighbourhood, said: “I drink so that I can endure the horrid stink of excrement, and the disgust and humiliation I feel.”
He nursed a swollen hand that had been cut by a piece of glass in a toilet chamber some weeks ago.
Many like him also work at night to avoid neighbours’ objections or ugly abuses.
These common practices exacerbate the risk of accidents.
In 2019 alone, even as India expanded a nationwide Clean India Mission to end open defecation, build toilets for homes in poor areas and mechanise sewage cleaning, 110 people died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
In the past decade, the average toll has been one or two each week killed by toxic fumes and accidents in slippery manholes.
Despite stringent provisions, few police complaints are filed when a manual scavenger dies, and employers who illegally force workers to climb into sewers often go scot-free.
“If employers force us to work without safety gear or go inside a manhole, we are helpless,” Mr Munisamy said.
Hard to break out
India introduced rehabilitation packages and skills training workshops in 2013 to manual scavengers who wanted to quit – one-time cash assistance of 40,000 rupees and loans of up to 1.5 million rupees at low interest. Last year, the Indian government also launched the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge, which aims to completely mechanise all septic and sewage tank cleaning operations in 243 cities across India by the end of this month.
But these policies have had little impact on the ground.
“The government gives the families of the manual scavengers 1 million rupees if they die at work, but what use is that? For them and their children to survive, the government should give them 5 million rupees and a decent job,” said Mrs Shakuntalamma, a social worker with the Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samiti, a committee that monitors manual scavenging in Karnataka.
“If the workers are illiterate, at least give jobs and a loan to their children. That would bring real change. Instead, we see no rehabilitation, and every day, people die in the sewers.”
Of the 87,913 manual scavengers identified in a 2018 survey in 14 towns, for instance, only 27,268 received any form of help from the Social Justice Ministry in charge of the rehabilitation programme. Activists say the programme is made redundant by too much bureaucracy and corruption.
At a union meeting in February in Bangalore, dozens of experienced sanitation workers who qualified for the state rehabilitation package said they had found the paperwork daunting.
Ms Nagendrappa said manual scavenging is largely fuelled by individuals and private businesses, and that the government uses only mechanised cleaning equipment. But the sanitation workers said the government cannot absolve itself of responsibility.
They asked why they were not included in the nationwide shift to mechanised sewer cleaning.
“The sewage department trained us one year ago to operate the jet-cleaner, but when residents call them for a cleaning, they rarely take us along. Private contractors who own the machines employ their own set of workers,” explained one worker.
Hopes for the next generation
It is no surprise that many manual scavengers pin all their hopes on their children.
“My kids and grandchildren should be educated so they get other job opportunities. That is my wish,” said Mr Munisamy.
His granddaughter Chandana, 17, said she wants to become a lawyer, if only “to shame all the people who call us names, close their nose when we pass by and don’t think of us as humans”.
“First, people left my grandfather no option but to clean their excrement, and then they said they won’t touch us because we are dirty,” she said. “We all have the same blood, eat the same food. I wish people would see human ability, and not box us in by caste.”
Mr Pedanna’s son Ravindra Kumar, 26, holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce, but found work only as a part-time garbage collector for the municipality.
“Once new employers know what caste we belong to, they refuse to give us anything other than sanitation work. But I want manual scavenging to end with my father. I will never do it,” he said.
After five jobs that Sunday, Mr Pedanna vigorously washed his hands and legs, and sat down.
As Mr Ravindra massaged his father’s calves with medicated oil, he said: “As a boy, I was ashamed to tell people that my father is a sewer cleaner. But now I know that he is actually a public servant, like a doctor or a policeman. I just wish people would respect him.”
To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Straits Times (Singapore) and was first published on March 8, 2021.
Japan’s ‘untouchables’ – descendants of a shunned caste from a long-gone era – are still ostracised in modern times purely because of their lineage.
TOKYO/NIKKO (TOCHIGI) – “Growing up, I was embarrassed by myself, by my family and by my living conditions.
“I was embarrassed by my grandmother, who could not read and write because she did not go to school. I was embarrassed by the jobs held by my neighbours. I was embarrassed by how my house was very small, rundown and shabby.
“I kept wanting to escape this life.”
Professor Risa Kumamoto, 48, has indeed come a long way from her childhood home – a hamlet of shunned “untouchables” – and escaped the grips of oppressive poverty and outright discrimination.
While no longer shackled by these visible identifiers, the burakumin were, for generations, stuck in lowly paid jobs, with poor educational opportunities and living in rundown housing.
Prof Kumamoto recalled never inviting friends home. On the way home together with her schoolmates, she would alight several bus stops away from her hamlet and walk the rest of the way home. “I just didn’t want them to know that I am burakumin.”
The pain of being burakumin hit home early in life for her. She was six when her parents’ marriage crumbled under social pressure.
“My mother was from a burakumin family in Fukuoka. My father wasn’t. There was huge opposition from my father’s family when they got married. After that, as husband and wife, they were looked down upon. Many things added up over time, leading up to divorce.”
The split made her acutely conscious of being burakumin, even as she and her mother continued living in the hamlet in Fukuoka. Thanks to government policies to help burakumin, she was able to get an education, but her ancestry continued to dog her.
Prof Kumamoto vividly remembers how, in university, her then boyfriend told her to hide her identity. “He told me, ‘You are a good person, but it is better not to mention your burakumin background to my family for your own good. This isn’t discrimination, but mentioning it draws unnecessary attention to it, so it is just better not to talk about it at all.’”
Hiding in plain sight
While buraku hamlets have been torn down in areas around and north of Tokyo, they still exist, albeit with facilities modernised and gates torn down, in western Japan areas such as Osaka and Kyoto.
Available official figures, from 1993, indicate that 4,442 such communities existed nationwide.
Today, the Japanese government recognises only those who still live in those hamlets as burakumin – about 900,000, by official estimates.
The Buraku Liberation League (BLL), however, said the actual number is closer to three million.
Many have long moved out of those hamlets and sought jobs without the stigma of what their forefathers had to do.
While most burakumin are no longer recognisable by their jobs or their addresses, prejudice against them manifests in both overt and covert forms.
They have been sent death threats, had their homes vandalised with obscene graffiti or been called names like “scum” and “maggots” on social media. There have also been cases where burakumin were purportedly targeted as convenient scapegoats for crimes without any evidence.
Mr Taro Murasaki, 59, who runs the Osaru Land theme park in Nikko, north of Tokyo, followed in his father’s footsteps as a monkey trainer – one of the so-called “unclean” trades associated with burakumin.
He said people sometimes still refer to him derogatorily as “aiitsu” – or “that person” – presumably because of his caste and profession.
In less-overt cases, burakumin can be bypassed for promotions at work, shunned by their associates or excluded from gatherings with friends. They may also be subject to background checks in employment or marriage.
Family registers kept at town halls could be accessed freely until just decades ago, while old documents with names and addresses of burakumin continue to be circulated on the black market.
Many burakumin will remember how the late former chief Cabinet secretary Hiromu Nonaka was blocked from becoming prime minister when political elite Taro Aso, who is now finance minister, said in 2001: “Are we really going to let ‘those people’ become the leader of Japan?”
BLL vice-chairman Akiyuki Kataoka, 72, told ST that many burakumin conceal their lineage to avoid societal discrimination. It is also common, he added, for many to have chosen not to tell their children of their ancestry in order to protect them.
A special law was passed in 1969 to provide public housing, public health and education facilities and scholarships for the burakumin, who had been routinely neglected for education, jobs and welfare benefits. Some 15 trillion yen (S$184 billion) was spent over 33 years until the law lapsed in 2002.
Preferential placement programmes also helped burakumin secure places in school and municipal jobs, helping their social mobility.
But sociologist Ryushi Uchida of Kansai University told The Straits Times that the law has been perceived as affirmative action by some and fuelled discrimination, while it has also been exploited by some burakumin with links to the yakuza mob. “There have been questions like: ‘Why do those people deserve special treatment?’”
Same case, different place
For Prof Kumamoto, her decision to come out as burakumin came about after she went to Canada to further her studies in the 1990s. Meeting indigenous peoples, immigrants and sexual minorities, she “saw how they had a history of fighting against discrimination”.
It was a huge turning point for her. “Instead of running away, discrimination must be confronted head-on,” she said.
“In the past, I ran away. I hid. I was disgusted by my lineage. But now, I see that my friends can look at society through me. And they can learn about history from my experiences.”
Still, “there is a difference between ‘choosing to come out’ and ‘being outed’ ”, she said, using terms regularly used by the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community – terms also often used by the burakumin in Japan.
The fact is, efforts to ferret out the burakumin still persist, often in the name of academic research and freedom of speech.
Some 248 persons of burakumin lineage – some of them professors and some others businessmen – have brought a class-action lawsuit against publisher Tatsuhiko Miyabe, 42, for disseminating their names and addresses online. A verdict is due in September.
One of the plaintiffs is Mrs Tami Kamikawa, 41. Her parents were born in buraku communities in Mie and Osaka prefecture, and had met after moving to Tokyo as young adults in the hope of more favourable prospects.
They would have hoped for their daughter to not live through discrimination for being burakumin, but Mrs Kamikawa, who founded non-profit group Buraku Heritage in 2011 to counter the spread of hatred, said hate speech is still disseminated online.
She, too, has struggled with micro aggression in the form of people who deny the struggles of her lineage.
She recalled being upfront about her identity and the struggles her family had faced to her friends and teachers in school. She only learnt about the existence of her aunt in secondary school, after her father told her that she had severed all ties with the family as a condition for marriage – to prepare her for the types of discrimination she may face.
She raised this with her teacher in school, but was plainly accused of exaggerating her concerns.
She recalled being told: “Such buraku prejudice is a historical issue. You must be lying if you say this still exists.”
Mrs Kamikawa told ST: “There are a lot of pent-up feelings from when I have been told to stop imagining things.”
She has not, however, been imagining things.
A government survey in 2017 found that just 11.8 per cent of Japanese believe burakumin discrimination no longer exists, with 40.1 per cent seeing such prejudice in marriage and 23.5 per cent in jobs.
Another, by the Tokyo metropolitan government in 2014, found that 26.6 per cent would oppose their children marrying someone of burakumin lineage.
When it is not just free speech
Led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Diet passed an Act in 2016 to “promote the elimination of buraku discrimination”.
The law recognises “the fact that buraku discrimination still exists even today and that the situation has evolved with the increasing use of the Internet”, and seeks to “improve the understanding of each and every citizen on the need to eliminate buraku discrimination”.
It does not, however, impose any punitive measures, and lawmaker Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, 66, who heads the LDP’s sub-committee on buraku issues, acknowledged that the law is “not forceful enough”.
“There is still discrimination when burakumin are getting married or finding jobs. We need to hasten our efforts for more effective laws,” the six-term lawmaker, whose ward in Hyogo prefecture is home to many buraku industries like leather production, told ST.
Mr Yamaguchi, who is not of buraku lineage, added that even the passage of the watered-down law was problematic.
“The idea of including prohibitive clauses was contentious in the LDP, especially among the more conservative and in the face of the ‘freedom of speech’ counter argument,” he said.
“The law only came into being because (secretary-general Toshihiro) Nikai was driving it. Even (then Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe used to oppose it.”
Asked if Japan was ready for a prime minister of buraku heritage, Mr Yamaguchi told ST: “If one’s great-great-great-grandparent lived in a buraku community, who cares?”
Some municipalities have been more progressive in terms of anti-prejudice ordinances.
Kawasaki, to the south of Tokyo, which is home to a large zainichi (ethnic Korean) population, became the first municipality to ban hate speech last year. Last month, Mie prefecture became the first municipality in Japan to ban the outing of LGBTQ individuals.
For abattoir worker Yuki Miyazaki, this offers a ray of hope for eradicating discrimination against burakumin.
“This momentum must spread nationwide,” he told ST. “Some people defend discrimination as their right of free speech. But how can one person’s rights come at the expense of another’s?”
Mr Miyazaki, 38, who has been working at the Shibaura Meat Market in Tokyo for 20 years, wields a deft hand at preparing cuts of pricey wagyu beef. He has had slurs thrown his way because of his profession – even before he came out as burakumin.
“People can do anything they want to me, but if they attack my two children, I can’t always be there to protect them. I am cautious about revealing my identity because I need to keep them safe. This is a shame as I am proud of my roots and my work.”
Calling for more education at all levels of society, he said: “There is a school of thought that the problem will eventually wither up and disappear if people keep silent, with the idea of ‘not waking up a sleeping child’. I don’t think so. It is important to tell people accurately about history and reality, and have them face up to their own prejudices.”
In the spotlight
Mr Murasaki, the monkey theme park owner, recalled: “When I was young, I always had trouble meeting or dating girls. Once their families knew of my background, they always stopped their daughters from going out with me.”
He took on the job knowing full well that it would be a clear marker of his status as an “untouchable”.
In time, Mr Murasaki found fame appearing on television in his 20s, showing off his monkeys performing skits and playing football and table hockey.
Besides operating his theme park in the city of Nikko, north of Tokyo, since 2015, he and his simian troupe have also been invited to perform abroad.
Despite the insults that he sometimes encounters, he will not hide his lineage.
“With a rise in awareness in human rights and anti-discrimination movements, I want to be true to myself. Rather than hiding in the shadows, it is important to push society to realise there is no reason behind its prejudices,” he said.
“Isn’t it unbelievable that a democratic country like Japan is so stuck?”
High-rise living is not just for humans in Singapore.
An eight-storey fish farm – the tallest in Singapore and the region – started operations in the first quarter of this year.
The opening of the new facility by homegrown fish farming company Apollo Aquaculture Group comes amid a governmental push to get farmers here to use technology to improve yields.
Singapore wants to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs with local produce by 2030 – up from less than 10 per cent today. The goal is to boost food security by improving local production, so it is more resilient to global food supply shocks.
Mr Lucky Phua, senior director for international and corporate development at Apollo Aquaculture Group, said the facility’s first phase of operations will involve farming mainly hybrid grouper and coral trout on the first three storeys of the building. The expected output is up to 1,000 tonnes of fish a year.
This is more than six times the yearly output capacity of 150 tonnes of fish from Apollo’s three-tiered pilot farm in Lim Chu Kang, said Mr Phua.
When all tanks across eight storeys are operational in 2023, the total output capacity would be 2,700 tonnes a year, he added. For context, some 4,707 tonnes of fish were produced in Singapore in 2019.
Apollo’s $65 million fish farming facility looks nothing like the “kelongs” (offshore fish farms) people here usually associate with the rearing of fish.
Painted a bright blue, it appears to be the tallest building in the rural Neo Tiew Crescent area, and would not look out of place in an industrial park elsewhere in the country.
Inside, screens on a wall in an air-conditioned control room showed camera footage of the tanks – some of which now house hybrid grouper fingerlings – while others displayed water parameters such as pH value (a measure of how acidic or basic the water is), temperature and salinity.
Farming fish on land may be more expensive, but it allows for higher productivity because of vertical expansion and also affords farmers greater control over water quality, said Mr Phua. “In the sea, water quality depends on what the currents bring. Temperature and salinity also fluctuate,” he said.
Apollo has developed its own recirculating aquaculture system and equipment so the water can be treated and reused.
Farming in this controlled environment also means the farm can grow fish without the need to use hormones, antibiotics or vaccinations, to prevent diseases, said Mr Phua.
Apollo’s seafood currently costs slightly more than imported varieties. For instance, its hybrid groupers usually sell for between $18 and $28 per kilogram or fish, while the coral trout is sold for between $70 and $90 per kg.
But Mr Phua said costs will come down as production goes up.
He expects the new transformation fund to cover a broader scope than a push for productivity, and hopes there will be greater efforts to increase Singaporeans’ appetite for local produce.
Dr Ritu Bhalla, senior manager at Republic Polytechnic’s Agriculture Research and Innovation Centre, said fish is most economically farmed in natural water bodies, but these options are limited here.
“Farming fish in urban settings like Apollo (is doing) may very well be the way forward for us,” she said. “Being entirely self-contained, it allows for complete control and monitoring of all growth parameters. This can bring benefits like optimised feeding regime to reduce feed, zero pollution to our local water systems, and potentially better produce quality.”
Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems like Apollo’s are more energy intensive, but are highly flexible to meet potential food supply emergencies, provided there are ready sources of fast growing fish fingerlings, she said. “In the interest of diversifying our food sources and enhancing Singapore’s food security, the slight cost premium can possibly be justified in the longer term.”
Getting to school as a boy growing up in Singapore in the 1970s could be soggy affair at times.
Tropical downpours overwhelmed drainage systems, leaving parts of the island impassable. Students braved the rains and rising waters, turning up wet and bedraggled, if they made it at all.
Thankfully, this became a thing of the past by the late 1980s. Massive flood alleviation efforts caused this story to recede from newspaper front pages, as a modern city-state emerged.
Yet, decades on, we seem to be heading back to the future.
Severe storms are now becoming more frequent.
The result: last month, pictures and videos of upscale districts in central Singapore inundated hit the headlines again, causing much consternation.
But even as the authorities rushed to unveil plans in response to the public concerns, a minister warned that as intense rainfall was becoming more common with global warming, people might have to get used to flash floods from time to time.
Rising sea levels is an existential issue for this low-lying island, about a third of which is less than 5 metres above the mean sea level. The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has estimated that over $100 billion (Singapore dollars) might be needed over the next decades to tackle the rising tides caused by warming seas and melting ice sheets.
But Singapore is not alone. New York City declared a “flash flood emergency” earlier this month after record levels of rain in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
Over 300 people were killed in China’s Henan province in August, when a year’s worth of rain fell in three days, leaving many trapped in underground train carriages and road tunnels, as water levels rose.
Devastating floods in Germany and Belgium, droughts in Brazil, heatwaves in India, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wild fires in California and Canada, as well as across the Mediterranean and Amazon regions – such extreme weather events, once the stuff of movies, have been playing out across the planet this year.
Get used to it, say the climate scientists, for these are signs of what’s to come.
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Hoesung Lee, summed up the grim scenario this way: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather more frequent and severe.”
“It also shows that climate change is affecting every region on our planet,” he said, following a UN report in August, dubbed a Code Red warning for humanity and an urgent call to action.
Yet, who can blame a weary world for being distracted, with so many countries still in the grip of a rampaging virus that refuses to yield.
But, as the IPCC’s Dr Lee rightly notes, the Covid-19 pandemic is a “foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and our lives”.
“Both climate change and Covid-19 have shown us the risks of an unthinking and rapacious approach to nature and its resources.”
Lamentably, while the world’s scientists were quick to step up to the Covid-19 challenge, delivering effective vaccines, efforts to curb the outbreak have been hampered by populist politicians, global inequalities, and a pandemic of misinformation.
Divisions and delays have compounded the challenge: the virus has continued to spread, mutate, and unleash new waves of infections.
The Covid-19 experience has made plain how difficult it will be to forge a global consensus on tackling the climate crisis.
The signs of this looming challenge, and the science behind it, grow clearer by the day. But here too, politics, inequality and misinformation confound concerted action.
This is where professional newsrooms have an important role to play.
And it is why this year’s World News Day on September 28, will focus on the climate crisis.
Some 500 newsrooms from around the world will come together to tell the story of how climate change is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, and how they are grappling with it.
Professional newsrooms, with resources and expertise, are best placed to tell these stories in clear, compelling and credible ways.
One of the best examples of this, in my view, is the recent BBC documentary, The Truth about Climate Change. In it, environmentalist David Attenborough sums up the facts and makes the case for action, in his friendly-scientist-you-can-trust way.
“In 4,500 million years, our world has gone through many natural changes. Now, it is changing once again,” he warned.
“But this time, we ourselves are contributing to those changes. We are causing the world to heat up.
“If we continue to behave as we are doing, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with potentially catastrophic changes.
“The vast forests of the Amazon could wither and burn. The oceans could turn acid, destroying much of the life they presently contain.
“The Arctic could be transformed. Its ice could melt and its most famous animals vanish forever.
“Rising tides could cast millions of people adrift. Many of our coastal cities could be flooded, and drowned.”
There is still time to act if the world is to minimise these changes, he adds. But time, that most non-renewable of resources, is running out.
Sir David, 93, has been making such pleas for some time.
Now is the time to hear him, and heed.
Warren Fernandez is Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, the leading English language news title in Singapore, and President of the World Editors Forum (WEF).
The vision is grand, the outcome could be just what the planet needs: investing billions of dollars to save vanishing nature and fight climate change at the same time.
The foundations of such a market already exist. Called the voluntary carbon market, it focuses on the ability of nature to soak up huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2). Developers of conservation projects earn a return by selling carbon credits to buyers, usually big companies, to help them meet their climate goals.
Essentially, you are offsetting a portion of your own carbon emissions by paying someone else to do it for you.
The market, though still small, has shown it works. Scores of successful nature-based climate projects exist which avoid or lock away millions of tonnes of CO2.
Now, faced with the twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss, investors want to remodel the market and channel huge sums into protecting and rehabilitating rainforests, mangroves and grasslands, and greatly expand the volumes of carbon credits, or offsets, for sale.
By the end of the decade, the market could be worth billions of dollars a year and Singapore is aiming to be a regional carbon credit investment and trading hub.
Efforts are well under way in Singapore and around the globe to make the market more transparent, more efficient and improve the quality and verification of the nature-based climate projects to entice large-scale investment. If done well, it could be a win for the fight against climate change and curb the loss of nature.
Trust and transparency
To get there, the market must overcome questions about transparency and concerns over ensuring every project does what it claims: reduces or locks away CO2 in a fully verifiable way.
And investors also need reassurance that the conservation or replanting projects are fully protected and not destroyed by fire or cleared for agriculture or logging. That’s where technology such as satellite monitoring comes in.
While existing projects have proved the model, the concern is whether vastly scaled-up investment will undermine the integrity of the market in the rush for carbon gold.
Carbon credits represent a tonne of CO2 reduced or locked away. It’s an attractive idea for customers such as car manufacturers, tech firms, banks and pension funds keen to hedge their future carbon costs.
A key focus, particularly in South-east Asia, is on saving natural ecosystems rich in carbon and with a high capacity for soaking up CO2, such as peat swamp forests. These forests and replanted areas need to be protected over the long term from logging, illegal clearing for palm oil and fires. Which is why well-run projects hire staff to monitor the project area on the ground, and in space using satellites.
Ultimately, the idea is about putting a value on ecosystems, a value that helps them compete with mining, industrial agriculture and logging interests.
The higher the carbon price, the greater the return – and the incentive for investors to take the risk.
The Singapore connection
“Thanks to their rich forest, wetland and mangrove ecosystems, South-east Asia and Asia generally are set to become one of the largest suppliers of natural climate solutions (NCS) globally. The region houses a third of the cost-effective NCS supply potential from both the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India,” said Mr Mikkel Larsen, chief sustainability officer for DBS Bank.
That makes Singapore a natural centre for investing in these projects and trading the credits – this explains why Temasek, DBS and others are looking at ways for Singapore to capitalise on revamping the market.
The idea is to leverage Singapore’s long history in commodities trading and its well-regulated financial market. Singapore firms could use offsets as part of their emissions reduction strategies and, one day, carbon credits might be included in the nation’s carbon tax scheme.
Temasek has been helping to guide Singapore’s evolution into a carbon services hub and has bought offsets from two forest carbon projects to meet its internal emissions targets.
A Temasek spokesman said multiple approaches should be used in the fight against climate change, including carbon offsets. He added that Temasek hopes to support natural climate solutions and carbon projects that are of high quality and meet other social and environmental aspects, such as conserving and restoring important ecological systems like peatlands, rainforests and mangroves.
Preserving and rehabilitating these areas also reduce the risk of fires and haze, and are good for local communities.
Investor interest is being driven by mounting pressure on companies and governments to meet stringent climate targets. Globally there’s been a surge in pledges to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. To get there, you’re going to need nature.
“Eliminating the 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere every year requires an enormous amount of global momentum and investment,” said Mr Dharsono Hartono, co-founder of the Katingan-Mentaya forest preservation project in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.
“This is going to involve entirely rethinking how we produce energy, how we travel and how societies operate. But it also means rethinking how we treat nature. To keep global warming well below 2deg C, we must protect nature,” he added.
The Katingan-Mentaya project, comprising mostly carbon-rich deep peat swamp forest, is about twice the area of Singapore. Saving it from destruction by palm oil companies means about 7.5 million tonnes of CO2 are prevented from being emitted every year. Selling carbon offsets to big corporations, including VW Group, Shell and Bank of America, helps run the project and fund community programmes.
Mr Dharsono’s project, though, represents a fraction of the true potential if huge investment is channelled into well-managed and well-funded projects.
South Pole, a Swiss firm that has developed more than 800 carbon offset projects globally, sees big opportunities for investment.
“Nature-based solutions – such as forest protection and restoration – can actually provide over a third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2 deg C very cost-effectively. So investing in a cost-effective solution that can mitigate over 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions seems like a no-brainer,” said Ms Leah Wieczorek, South Pole’s business development lead for Asia, who is based in Singapore.
Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, nearly 200 nations agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 deg C and aim for 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels if possible.
Professor Koh Lian Pin runs the Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore. He and his team have analysed areas of the planet that could yield good returns for investors.
In a recent study published in Nature Communications, Prof Koh and colleagues show that at an initial carbon price of US$5.80 (S$7.70) a tonne, the protection of tropical forests can generate investible carbon amounting to 1.8 billion tonnes a year globally – roughly the annual emissions of Japan and Australia combined.
Financially viable carbon projects could generate return-on-investment totalling US$46 billion a year, with the highest returns in the Asia-Pacific at US$24.6 billion, followed by the Americas and Africa.
And the higher the carbon price, the greater the area of forest carbon sites that could be conserved.
The recent surge in interest in carbon offsets is pointing to higher prices, especially buyers locking in future flows of offsets at higher prices for high-quality projects.
Groups such as former Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s task force on scaling up the voluntary carbon market foresee exponential growth over the coming decade.
“In 2019, just over US$300 million worth of trading took place on the voluntary market when these projects should be measured in the tens of billions of dollars per year,” he told a green finance summit in London last November.
Investors such as HSBC and Australia’s Pollination group, a climate change advisory firm, agree.
Last year, both teamed up with the aim of creating the world’s largest dedicated natural capital asset management company. They are launching a natural capital fund to invest primarily in regenerative agriculture and sustainable forestry projects. A second carbon fund is also planned aiming to ramp up investment in carbon offset projects. Overall, the intention is to raise up to US$6 billion in funds.
“We take the view that there is a huge amount of demand and very little supply such that investment is required in the underlying projects to scale them up rapidly,” said Mr Martijn Wilder, Pollination’s founding partner.
The funding model for nature-based projects has to change, he said, with significant upfront funding crucial to ensure projects get off the ground, are well managed and well protected.
“Protecting a rainforest is an infrastructure project. That’s what you’re doing.”
HSBC said escalating risks to the climate and biodiversity have changed mindsets.
“Today, nature is undervalued and overlooked by our investment community. This must change,” said Ms Melissa McDonald, the bank’s global head of responsible investment.
How to scale up
The existing voluntary carbon market has been around for about two decades and has strict standards for offset projects. But trading has always been small and opaque because it’s purely between buyer and seller and not on an open exchange. That needs to change, market players said.
The main standard-setting body that certifies offset projects, Washington-based Verra, has issued offsets representing 622 million tonnes of CO2 reduced from 1,697 projects to date. That’s the equivalent of taking 132 million cars off the road for a year.
And the market is growing. “We’ve seen that in terms of the volumes of the projects coming through the door. That’s definitely growing. We’ve seen in the last few years an increasing trend towards natural climate solutions,” said Verra CEO David Antonioli.
South Pole’s Ms Wieczorek said interest is growing in Asia, too. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in clients in Asia looking to make carbon reduction commitments,” she noted, adding that some clients are looking to lock in long-term offtake contracts.
“The vast majority of humankind’s carbon emissions are currently unpriced, so having a dedicated budget for offsetting also helps companies set or at least consider an internal price on carbon,” she added.
For now, though, Mr Carney, who is the United Nations special envoy for climate action and finance, said the voluntary carbon market still struggles with low liquidity and scarce financing.
To scale things up, Prof Koh said the market must overcome “pain points”. “The market will grow with our ability to improve the quality of those nature-based credits, our ability to reduce the cost of validation, of certification, to improve the transparency of monitoring those projects.”
Mr Larsen of DBS agrees.
“The thing that has plagued the voluntary carbon market for the longest time is issues around trust and integrity. The quality and integrity of the projects is believed to be too low,” he said. People buy a project and it doesn’t do what it is said to do, that’s the integrity. Or it creates problems and social issues, that’s the quality, he said.
“There’s no doubt that carbon offsets projects, if done right, do work, and they do sequester carbon,” he said. But he also feels that transparency around pricing and verification is needed. Technology can help by improving the science and technology around projects, around verification of carbon stock, for example finding ways of improving carbon sequestration.
One firm that has brought price transparency is Singapore-based AirCarbon Exchange, a digital platform that trades fully verified carbon offsets. The exchange treats carbon offsets like a commodity with a range of offsets available for trading.
“The current market construct fails to send a strong price signal due to a fragmented project-based trading environment. A strong price signal will unleash pent-up capital to finance climate mitigating projects,” said Mr Bill Pazos, AirCarbon’s chief operating officer and co-founder.
Few in the market question the integrity of the standards set by Verra – it’s more that the problems lie elsewhere in the market as it has evolved. “These standards have been around for 15 to 20 years. They are very robust. They are constantly evolving and improving themselves,” said Pollination’s Mr Wilder.
Verra’s Mr Antonioli said they are constantly updating their standards according to changes in technology, regulations and latest scientific evidence.
Some conservation groups say offsets are just a dodge, allowing polluters to buy their way out of making deep emission cuts to their operations.
That is untrue, key players said.
“It is impossible right now for most companies to achieve climate neutrality, a key milestone on the journey to meet net-zero pledges, without the use of carbon credits,” said South Pole’s Ms Wieczorek.
Offsets from well-run, fully verified projects can help firms that are already cutting emissions go the last mile.
For DBS’ Mr Larsen, carbon credits are responding to an urgent need. “We talk about carbon offsets as a potential point of delay and inaction. And I always really struggle with that because with a football field of rainforest being cut down every six seconds, the inaction lies in not trying to help.”
Mr Wilder said that for now, carbon financing remains a vital source of funding for conservation, despite the detractors. “The global climate is in crisis and we have to do everything we possibly can to reduce the risks. We shouldn’t be ideological about offsets and how we do it, provided the actions are real and have integrity.”
Covid-19 may have caused delays to shipments of key equipment, but that has not derailed the timeline set out for building Singapore’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) system to date.
Spread across 10 solar-panel islands – equivalent in size to 45 football fields – on the surface of Tengeh Reservoir, it is also one of the world’s largest inland floating solar PV systems.
It is set to be operationally ready in a few months, with national water agency PUB poised to tap the farm’s 122,000 solar panels to power its water treatment plants which convert reservoir water into drinking water.
The farm can produce enough electricity to power around 16,000 four-room Housing Board flats for a year.
Last year, solar PV systems generated only 0.56 per cent of the total electricity generated nationwide.
Then Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is now Education Minister, announced a climate target – a quadrupling of solar energy capacity to 1.5 gigawatt-peak (GWp) by 2025.
That would power about 260,000 households annually, meeting about 2 per cent of Singapore’s projected electricity needs in 2025.
The target accelerates the country’s goal of deploying 2 GWp of solar energy by 2030.
Since 2015, the capacity of solar PV systems that have been contributing to the national grid has grown from around 60 megawatt-peak (MWp) to around 428 MWp at the end of last year.
This newest solar farm in Tengeh, which has a capacity of 60 MWp, will lead to carbon savings equivalent to removing 7,000 cars from the roads and contribute 4 per cent to the 2025 target.
Ms Chong Mien Ling, chief sustainability officer and director of policy and planning at PUB, said Tengeh Reservoir was chosen for this large-scale project because of its size. The farm occupies around a third of the reservoir’s surface.
Building the farm
PUB – Singapore’s water agency – will purchase clean energy generated by the farm from the national grid. The solar energy is not directly supplied to PUB’s infrastructure.
Energy company Sembcorp, which won the tender, took just about half a year to build the farm, with the bulk of the construction starting last December.
Ms Jen Tan, head of integrated solutions in Singapore and South-east Asia at Sembcorp Industries, told The Straits Times: “The beauty of a solar farm is that it has no moving parts. With a service lifespan of 25 years, this means that the farm should behave in the same way for the next 25 years if properly installed. No major maintenance is required.”
But the solar panels have natural degradation, with the power generated falling by 0.5 per cent to 0.6 per cent every year.
“So we are expecting the system to still be able to perform around at least 80 per cent of its original capacity at the end of 20 years,” said Ms Tan.
Being the first in Singapore to undertake such a large-scale project, Sembcorp faced a steep learning curve. “Early this year (amid the pandemic), assembling just 1,200 solar panels a day was difficult,” Ms Tan recalled.
The engineers then came up with their own techniques to boost productivity, such as by inventing a custom-built jig that saw the number of solar panels assembled peaking at around 1,800 to 2,000 a day.
A digital monitoring system will be set up to monitor the health of the solar farm. And as dirt on the panels can reduce operational efficiency, they are tilted at a slight angle to allow rainwater to wash off the dirt.
Drones with thermal-imaging capabilities will also be deployed to detect any faulty panels.
PUB said that as operationalising a sprawling solar farm may throw up environmental concerns such as the disruption of aquatic life, it took pre-emptive steps by looking into the feasibility of “solarising” Singapore from as early as 2011.
In 2015, the agency started studies to determine the potential impact on biodiversity and water quality of the reservoir, and subsequently started a 1 MWp solar testbed in Tengeh in 2016.
“We wanted to look at the impact on water quality, such as dissolved oxygen levels, nutrient levels and water temperature; how biodiversity is affected, if there is any noise generated and so on. We concluded that there was minimal impact,” Ms Chong said.
These studies gave PUB the confidence to scale up implementation of the panels, and in 2019, it invited private developers to come on board to install the Tengeh floating solar PV system.
Sembcorp also ensured sufficient gaps between the panels, facilitating good airflow and sunlight into the water.
Materials used to build the farm were carefully selected. For instance, the floats used are food-grade certified – meaning that they are non-toxic and safe for consumption. This prevents water quality from being compromised in the long term.
Nature groups were consulted, and the results of the environmental study were shared with them to allay their concerns.
The Tengeh solar farm intentionally avoided the south of the reservoir so as not to encroach on the nesting area of the grey-headed fish eagle, a near-threatened species.
“The farm was not built near that area to preserve the eagle’s habitat – an understanding which PUB has with the nature groups after we consulted them,” Ms Chong said.
In 2019, Sembcorp and Singapore Polytechnic also agreed to collaborate on researching and commercialising Singapore’s first solar panel recycling process. This involves extracting recyclable materials from parts of used solar panels after their lifespan of 25 years.
Powering the future
PUB is currently constructing two floating solar PV systems at Bedok Reservoir and Lower Seletar Reservoir, with each having a capacity of 1.5 MWp.
“We are also trying to maximise the solar PVs on our rooftops,” said Ms Chong.
Earlier in March, sustainable energy provider Sunseap Group announced that it had set up a sea-based floating 5 MWp system in the Strait of Johor, off Woodlands.
Meanwhile, Sembcorp is ready to scale up and build more farms. With a substantial amount of learning that came out of the Tengeh project, the company is confident about undertaking future projects of such scale, Ms Tan said.
Tweaks will be done as each environment is different and there is no one-size-fits-all design, she noted. For instance, whether the farm is out at sea or in a reservoir will determine the materials used as freshwater and seawater have different salinity levels.
“We have the knowledge, we know the challenges, how to mitigate them, and we intend to document all of these and apply it to other farms,” Ms Tan said.
The article was shared by The Straits Times as part of the World News Day initiative.
A Growing environmental problem emerges amid Covid-19 pandemic.
Part one of a special report.
When you think of the Covid-19 pandemic, one item probably symbolises it more than any other: the disposable mask.
Across the globe, mandatory mask wearing has saved countless lives and made everyday life safer.
But the surge in mask use has a dark side. It is estimated that billions of masks are used daily across the globe and this is creating a growing environmental problem that could last much longer than the pandemic.
Disposable masks are made from plastics, which can take decades to break down in the environment.
In addition to mask usage, the pandemic has led to a surge in other plastic waste, from single-use food containers and bags to huge amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) from hospitals and businesses.
Conservationists and non-governmental organisations are increasingly concerned that a lot of the plastic waste, especially Covid-19-related waste, is ending up in landfills, waterways and oceans, adding to the millions of tonnes of plastic waste already dumped into the world’s oceans every year.
Dr George Leonard, chief scientist at US-based Ocean Conservancy, said: “Without question, pandemic-related gear like gloves and masks are hurting sea life.
“Sea birds, turtles and other ocean animals can get tangled up in mask elastics, or choke on masks and gloves that end up along shorelines or in the water.”
Mr Subhash Chandran, 32, knows the threat well. He has been diving underwater to clean up the seabed in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Last November, when volunteers did their first underwater cleanup during the pandemic, they saw the ocean choked with masks, gloves and empty medicine sachets.
“Normally we find a lot of plastic bottles and wrappers. After the pandemic, we found 1,500kg of mostly N95 masks, surgical masks, tablet packets and gloves.
“I consider the ocean my second home, but it is a Covid-19 dump yard today,” Mr Chandran said.
In Jakarta and Manila, large amounts of Covid-19 waste, from masks to gowns, are dumped in landfills or along the roadside. Some find their way into rivers and seas.
While officials have been trying to improve on collection and disposal, especially from hospitals, large amounts are still being dumped rather than incinerated.
The Philippines ranks second in South-east Asia with the most number of Covid-19 cases after Indonesia.
“We can just imagine how staggering the figures would be for the disposable personal protective equipment being used daily and discarded,” said Ms Gloria Ramos, vice-president of conservation organisation Oceana Philippines.
“Single-use plastic is already a problem. What we’re seeing on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg.”
“There’s so much lying on the ocean floor, and now not just plastics but face masks too,” said Ms Ramos.
Unmasking the threat
So how great is the threat from masks?
That is still unclear but evidence from The Straits Times correspondents in Indonesia, India and the Philippines point to worrying signs. ST also interviewed a variety of experts who point to an emerging problem.
Dr Denise Hardesty, a marine plastic waste scientist from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, said more data is needed to get a clearer picture.
“One would anticipate that it would be an issue, particularly because people are going to be much less likely to want to pick up a littered mask on the ground than they would, say, a candy wrapper, because people would have fear around Covid-19,” she told ST.
She noted that the coronavirus outbreak has led to a huge increase in mask usage but in South-east Asia, it was already common to wear masks prior to the pandemic, so more data is needed on pre-pandemic and current mask usage.
What is clear, though, is that masks and other PPE waste are already washing up on beaches around the globe.
International Coastal Cleanup run by Ocean Conservancy has recorded tens of thousands of pieces of PPE as of early November, with more detailed data expected in the coming months, Dr Leonard said.
In a separate coastal cleanup, thousands of PPE items, mainly masks and gloves, were also recorded during a three-week waste collection exercise involving participants from 78 countries during September and October last year. The cleanup was organised by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry body.
Mask manufacturing has rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar industry to meet spiralling demand.
Last June, researchers estimated that 129 billion masks were used and disposed of every month. At roughly 3.5g each, that equates to 451,500 tonnes of masks a month and would cover an area roughly three times the size of Singapore.
One of the authors of the study, Professor Tony Walker from the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada, told ST that estimate may now be conservative.
“Now it’s a full-blown pandemic. With many countries having mandatory non-medical mask wearing in public places, the numbers would be even more staggering.”
A study published last September by British site finder.com estimated that Britons were sending more than 1.6 billion disposable masks to landfills each month.
With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, single-use masks will continue to be used in large numbers for some time to come.
“We are in a health crisis at a global level and there’s a strong encouragement across all countries in terms of the use of single-use or reusable masks. And I think that number will only go up as we go forward,” said Mr Jacob Duer, chief executive of the Singapore-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is working on solutions to reduce plastic waste globally and boost recycling.
But he said in the long term, single-use mask usage will not necessarily continue to rise. “I think it will see a flattening out at one point because we will transition to reusable masks.”
Asia remains a key focus for the group because of the huge amounts of mismanaged plastic waste in the region.
The Burangkeng dumpsite on the eastern edge of Indonesia’s capital provides an example. Surgical masks and rubber gloves are mixed in with daily household rubbish, as goats scavenge the trash for food.
Waste picker Oom Komalasari, 48, said prior to the pandemic, she often found medical waste such as needles and intravenous fluid bottles scattered among other garbage. Now, there are more.
“Nearby factories dispose of their masks and gloves here, and many more have been thrown here lately,” she said.
For Dr Leonard, the surge in production and use of Covid-19-linked single-use plastics will likely haunt humanity and the environment for years to come. “Perhaps what’s so troubling is that plastics never break down, so we really can’t operate with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude,” he said.