Interview: Dr Vasantt Jogoo

Interview: Dr Vasantt Jogoo – Consultant in sustainable development


“Physical Planning is a vital government function,

but successive governments have shunned that responsibility”

* “25% of our territory is already built up. Land prices are skyrocketing, pricing the majority of the population out of the land market. What will happen to our future generations…?”

Dr Vasantt Jogoo, consultant in sustainable development, with degrees in geography, urban planning and environmental management and a special interest in low-carbon development and land-use strategies, has served the African Development Bank as Lead Environmentalist before joining the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, as Adviser and Head in the Small States, Environment and Economic Management Section. Further, he chaired the Maurice Ile Durable (MID) Fund Committee from November 2011 to June 2012. In light of the latest report released by the UN agency on Climate Change, IPCC, we sought his views on the alarm bells that it has sounded, and the possible implications for Mauritius. He is worried that the economic imperative, important as growth may be, is trumping environmental concerns which should, in fact, guide such growth…

Mauritius Times: The worst is yet to come: that’s what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has concluded in its report released on March 30. “Ice caps are melting, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and the oceans are rising.” Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change, stated the chairman of the Panel, Rajendra K. Pachauri. It may be difficult to make adequate predictions, but can we look into the future and say how Mauritius will fare 20 or 30 years from now?

Dr Vasantt Jogoo: We have to acknowledge that climate change is a very difficult issue to address: it is not visible, not tangible until it creates irreversible damage.

Nonetheless, climate change is now a reality, as forcibly demonstrated by recent events across the world and Mauritius. Improved scientific understanding and major findings from working groups around the world point to overwhelming evidence on the causes and consequences of climate change, so much so that it has been described as the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. The recent findings contained in the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) submitted to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are in fact the most powerful published since the creation of the IPCC. Even in the country of deniers and sceptics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world’s largest scientific society) has come out strongly to warn about the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

 

There is a lot of uncertainty attached to climate change modelling and projections and, in the case of Mauritius, the paucity of observational data both local and regional makes it even more difficult to fully comprehend the changes, and their implications, happening now to our ecosystems. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand and assess the threats of climate change not just on land surfaces, but also on the large expanse of oceans that make up our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Unfortunately the Indian Ocean in general has not been the subject of intense studies (as has been the case for the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans) because the in-situ network of instruments for observation is not well developed. We do have several Global Sea Level Observing Systems (GLOSS) monitoring stations in the Southwest Indian Ocean though, and the recent deployment of a tsunami warning system across the Indian Ocean following the 2004 tsunami will definitely help to understand the climate in the region more fully and to follow associated phenomena like cyclones, storm surges and coastal flooding more effectively.

Based on available data, studies carried out locally and by international organisations such as the UK Meteorological Office indicate that mean annual temperature has increased by 0.6°C since 1960, while evidence suggests that precipitation during October – December has declined over the period 1960 to 2006, at an average rate of 7.7mm per month (8.7%) per decade. In terms of projections, it is estimated that the mean annual temperature could increase by 1.0 to 2.0°C by the 2060s, and 1.1 to 3.4°C by the 2090s. Projections also indicate substantial increases in the frequency of days and nights that are considered ‘hot’ as well as substantial decreases in the frequency of days and nights that are considered ‘cold’ in current climate. Results also show a discernable trend in sea level rise that will continue into the future (to the tune of +40 to +60 cm). Tropical cyclones in the region will most likely increase in intensity by about 25%, accompanied by higher storm surges. There is, however, great uncertainty in changes in frequency, storm tracks and their interactions with other features of climate variability (such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation).

It has to be noted that Mauritius is categorized as “highly vulnerable” to climate change and an estimate carried out in the context of the Africa Adaptation Programme puts the cost of climate change-related impacts to the Mauritian economy to a staggering USD 30 Billion by 2050 under a “do-nothing” scenario. It is therefore necessary to address deficiencies in the collection and analysis of observational data to be able to devise and implement evidence-based adaptation and mitigation strategies.

* The MID Programme, put up initially in response to the global energy crisis in 2007, may partly address the challenges posed by climate change. Would you say we are doing enough and as far as it is necessary to ensure future sustainability?

MID is dead. So the short answer is that it isn’t doing anything. Let me recall to you what the MID project was about: it was about changing the way we do business, it was about societal change, it was meant to be revolutionary. Our Prime Minister initially promised a ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ as “essentially a vision that seeks to transform the environmental, economic and social landscape of our country”. We were expecting an economic growth model that derives from this vision. What the MID Action Plan essentially boiled down to was the lumping together of ongoing and proposed projects of different ministries and sticking a MID label on it. Just look at the Environment Investment Programme 2 of 1999 or the 1998 Climate Change Acton Plan, and you will clearly see that today’s MID is just a rehash of our old or on-going projects.

To have a meaningful MID project that can ensure future sustainability, we need to change the way we do business. We need to examine alternative models of development that are more energy-efficient, that preserve and enhance our natural resource base, that make us more climate-resilient. We have none of that, unfortunately, despite all the resources spent on the MID venture.

* What do you think is actually required in terms of institutional and logistics support, technical and scientific knowhow (besides high-level political leadership) to address those challenges?

In fact, the most important requirement for a successful climate-resilient development strategy is political leadership, which is seriously lacking in Mauritius. We have had a climate change action plan as far back as 1998, but we never had the political commitment to ensure its effective implementation. We have a new framework adaptation strategy now, but how many people know of its existence? I am not sure that the ministers who approved the strategy even read it!

But of course, to be able to transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future, Mauritius needs not only strong policy, institutional and financial frameworks, but a good evidence base. A number of studies (including IPCC) has already stressed on the need to address deficiencies in availability of observational data. After three years of operation, an evaluation report of the AAP, for example, recommended that the participating countries continue to build information databases, consolidate and expand integrated planning frameworks and climate action intelligence initiatives, and strengthen information gathering and sharing nationally and across countries.

This therefore calls for the setting up of a centre to coordinate and analyse climate data. But I am convinced that such a centre would best serve its purpose if it is caters to the whole Indian Ocean Region. In fact, for a recent African Development Bank regional integration project, I had strongly advocated a Regional Climate Change Centre (to be managed by the IOC) as a Centre of Excellence providing services that will improve knowledge and decision-making, act as a repository and clearing-house for climate change information, be the focal point for climate change issues, and equip itself to forecast and analyse climate change trends and impacts. More importantly it will be able to synthesise scientific information and provide detailed assessments of potential impacts and response strategies. It could be modelled along the lines of the Caribbean Community’s Climate Change Centre.

* Around this time last year, 11 people lost their lives in the flash flood which occurred in Port Louis. Whatever the reasons and whoever the culprits responsible for such types of disasters that are likely to visit our island more often with the onset of climate change, a number of measures have been initiated at government level to improve our state of preparedness and other disaster risk management systems. Your views?

There is no doubt that extreme events like floods, storm surges, droughts, etc., will become more intense in the years to come. Because of the multitude of issues facing governments, climate change-related actions are, unfortunately, only reactive, responding to emergency situations on an ad-hoc basis. This is clearly not the way to go. We should avoid rushing into development projects without first assessing the likely impacts and ensuring that the impacts are fully mitigated. We saw what happened to the 1st phase of the Ring Road. We understand that the government is bent on implementing the 2nd phase. This is a dangerous stand when we know that the alignment of the 2nd phase will cross terrain that is even more sensitive than the 1st phase. We are not sure that a full environmental impact assessment has been carried out despite the fact that the initial environmental scoping report had warned us of the potentially negative impacts that the project could generate and be subjected to as well. We must not forget that the EIA is a decision making tool. So we are concerned that the responsible minister stated that the government would go ahead despite the fact that no full EIA has been undertaken.

* Environmental issues and climate adaptation strategies cannot be dissociated from effective town and country planning. We do not seem to be able to make definite progress on that score, do we? Why is that so?

For a highly vulnerable small island, an effective system of land management should constitute the core of sustainable development. In fact, almost all the working groups consulted for the MID project had recognised that “Land use is an important central element of MID, which affects all five Es” and that we need to optimise land use through an effective and efficient land use planning process. It is therefore with great concern that we note that this central issue is being totally ignored. There is definitely a lack of real political commitment to the orderly development of our territory. We can now fully appreciate the government’s intentions when it stated in its last budget its desire to “redraw the map of Mauritius”!! We must bear in mind that 25% of our territory is already built up. Land prices are skyrocketing, pricing the majority of the population out of the land market. What will happen to our future generations, when they will try to find land for housing or for some economic activity?

There are numerous morcellement projects under way. But we note that many plots of land remain vacant for years and thus become a nuisance to those who have invested in a home. Many of the new morcellements are so overgrown with vegetation that at times it is difficult to find your way around. We just witnessed an outbreak of dengue fever and it was acknowledged that those infected were living next to vacant lots. Ordering local authorities to ensure such plots are fenced and maintained is not the solution. What we need is action to stem land speculation. Make it an obligation on the part of the buyer to build on the plot within a certain period of time, say three years, after purchase. Then only can we ensure a fully developed neighbourhood, effective maintenance and fully operational services and amenities, and a decent quality of life for all those who have chosen to live there. Once again we find that the government is not attacking the root cause of a problem, but rather prescribing palliative measures.

Being business-friendly is good, but giving the private sector such a free hand to decide where and what to develop is quite dangerous!

* The latest list of investment projects fast-tracked by the committee chaired by the Financial Secretary again demonstrates our inability, except for one Aadicon biotech project, to move away from FDI inflows into IRS schemes – which may be good for our balance of payments, but at what cost?

It’s true that the highly speculative nature of our land market is attracting substantive FDI inflows that could have been otherwise channelled to more productive use. Much of the speculation is taking place on land that is environmentally sensitive. For the sake of a few billion rupees of FDI, the government is in fact jeopardizing the sustainability of the island. But this is unfortunately all part of the grand scheme by government to redraw the map of Mauritius!

* The projects being given the green light by the Fast Track Committee also speaks poorly about the initiative and drive of our own private sector – and its preference for easy money to be made from property development and commercial centres. Shouldn’t the government step in to spell out our priorities?

Government should, but it will not! Physical Planning is a vital government function, but successive governments have shunned that responsibility. The last budgetary exercise has clearly indicated that this government’s priority is economic growth and, with general elections round the corner, it is hard to imagine government subjecting its growth objectives to planning control, despite all the hype about Maurice Ile Durable. Fast-tracking is simply a ploy to circumvent all existing regulations and avoid due-diligence exercises.

We must not forget that, during our first phase of industrialisation, we did the mistake of relaxing planning and development control as well as environmental standards, to be able to attract much-sought after investments in the industrial sector. We followed the traditional “develop-create wealth-and clean up” approach. We, unfortunately, don’t seem to have learnt from our mistakes, despite the fact that the world over people have realised that the sole pursuit of economic growth does not guarantee well-being and happiness. We should have been wiser after almost three decades of treading along that path. We cannot afford to amend all our laws to fast track development and expect to clean up after the damage is done. We have seen the havoc that extreme weather conditions can create. We can lay the blame partly on nature’s whims, but much damage is the result of ill-thought development.

* It looks like we are not going to proceed with the Dream Bridge project after all though the Ring Road is partly up and running and the Light Railway Project will soon take shape. Right decision, would you say?

Well, the Ring Road is not partly up and “running”, but rather partly up and “crumbling”! You will recall that in an interview in this very paper on 2 May 2013, I had described the combined light-rail, ring road and dream bridge project as an “overkill”. Yes, the decision to shelve the dream bridge is a good decision. But did we have to waste 179 million rupees to reach that conclusion? Will someone be held accountable? Will someone tell us what sort of consultancy work was done to engulf such a huge amount? There is absolutely no transparency in government decision-making.

I am still not fully convinced of the need to invest in excess of 40 Billion rupees in a light-rail (LRT) project. We have to be honest and ask ourselves whether a light rail system is necessary when the whole of the island has a daily bus ridership of only 600,000 (according to the figure provided in the budget), the conurbation between Port Louis and Curepipe with probably half of that? Can’t we achieve higher goals by investigating and implementing alternative models of development? There are surely more effective and economical options we can implement to solve our congestion problem.

In fact, studies in cities with LRT have shown that the few benefits that commuters enjoy with such a system are far outweighed by the costs of providing those benefits. The economic value that is placed on the system is reflected by the commuters’ willingness to pay for it, and to stay in business, the operator must offer the service at a cost which is below what the commuter is willing to pay. Otherwise, the system has to be subsidized. Can anyone tell us what these costs are going to be? Or are we going to continue imposing levies on every litre of petrol to subsidise ridership?

* What does Citizen Jogoo think about the proposals made with a view to making our electoral system more fair and effective? Do you think it will change the way politics works here?

As a citizen, I am delighted that we finally have a document that will trigger some serious thinking. Like many others, I feel this is a step in the right direction. But is a step enough to address all the issues and strengthen our democratic traditions? I very much doubt it. I tend to think it is more like a tailor-made proposition that ensures the Labour Party’s dominance in an election battle that will have only two major contenders, and the stifling of smaller parties that could have otherwise grown as challengers. The 10% threshold to be applied as an eligibility criterion for PR seats seems very unfair. Basically, I don’t see the proposals as significantly changing the way politics works in the country.

* Would you be comfortable with the idea of sitting on a Party List, which effectively goes to strengthen the already significant power of the party leader over the choice of candidates for elections and subsequently over their political careers?

 

Personally, if I were to serve as a member of the Legislative Assembly, I would prefer to do so as an elected member with a clear mandate. I am deeply attached to my views and convictions, but at the same time I value different viewpoints and can perform effectively as a team member.

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