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Sustainability challenges in Southeast Asia

Arnfinn helping on reforestation projects in Thailand. Photo: Supakorn Aurprayoon

Arnfinn helping on reforestation projects in Thailand. Photo: Supakorn Aurprayoon

Arnfinn Oines, Corporate Conscience for Soneva Resorts, talks to us about what he sees as some of the main sustainability challenges in Southeast Asia.

What do you do when there are no proper municipal waste facilities or public water available? For Soneva, this was the reality when the company developed its resort Soneva Kiri 7-8 years ago in Thailand. And the challenge is something many hotel developers face in Southeast Asia, even in the more developed countries like Thailand.

Lack of municipal water

Water is a significant issue for any resort. It is used in all areas of operations, including showers, toilets, dishwashing, laundry and swimming pools. Having access to clean water is paramount. It can also be very costly if there is not easily accessible municipal water.

Municipal water is of course available in larger cities and main tourist areas, but even in popular destination like Samui and Phuket in Thailand municipal water is not available across the island. Phuket, a major destination with 5 million annual visitors, has plenty of water on the island stored in old tin mines. However, the local government does not have enough water to supply the whole island.

As a result, particularly in the dry season, resorts are forced to buy water from private water trucks. For larger resorts monthly water bills can easily be in the region of USD 30-40,000 or more - a significant cost even for a high end resort.

We knew when we built Soneva Kiri that there was no municipal water available on Koh Kood, Thailand. To make sure the resort has access to potable water, we constructed a water reservoir to collect rainwater as well as several deep wells. The immediate benefit is that the water bill is minimal given that rainwater is free.

Poor municipal waste facilities

Poor municipal waste facilities are unfortunately the norm rather than the exception in Southeast Asia. Singapore and Puerto Princessa in Palawan, Philippines are examples of places with good municipal waste facilities, though for most places waste is poorly handled and ends up in unsecured landfills with few items recycled.

Some items such as paper, metal and plastic are recycled as they have monetary value. You will find people that buy these items to resell to recycling companies, but as legislation does not make this mandatory, they are often salvaged from landfill waste.

Although recycling of paper, metal and plastic is good, it usually only counts for 10-20% of total waste, whereas organic waste typical counts for 50% or more. Unfortunately there are very few places that deal with organic waste even though it has huge potential either to create biogas or fertile composting soil.

At Soneva Kiri, we recognised that setting up a waste facility at the resort was important. We call it ‘Eco Centro - Waste to Wealth’. Nearly 80% of waste is recycled. Organic food and garden waste is composted, vegetable oil is turned into biodiesel and paper, metal, plastic and glass is recycled. Even woody materials are turned into bio charcoal and used for barbecues.

Responsible food sourcing

As well as dealing with waste, composting also produces fertile soil. We use this in the Soneva Kiri vegetable garden, which provides the kitchen with fresh and tasty herbs and vegetables. The market value of this produce is about USD 10,000 a year, though the freshness is priceless.

Southeast Asia is in general blessed with lots of good local food products, though freshness can be an issue as transportation facilities often lack refrigeration. It is therefore important to purchase food products from as close proximity as possible.

Lack of labelling also makes food procurement challenging in Southeast Asia, which makes it harder to know whether a product has been produced sustainably. Rather counter-intuitively, it sometimes makes sense to import certain products to guarantee that they have been produced in an environmentally friendly way.

However, evaluating the pros and cons can be challenging. To get a better understanding of our supply chain, we have developed an Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) at Soneva Kiri. The EP&L looks at the environmental cost associated with products, taking into consideration land usage, water consumption, carbon emissions and energy consumption associated with different food types.

Carbon footprint

The balancing act of keeping a low environmental impact is complex for resorts in Southeast Asia. Most companies do not account for the environmental impact of guests travelling to the resort. For resorts like Soneva Kiri that rely on large number of guests from Europe, the CO2 emissions for long-haul air travel can easily count for 75% of their entire carbon footprint.

The most impactful ways to reduce its carbon footprint is to have guests staying longer – thus reducing the turnover of guests and the numbers of journeys taken - and arrive from destinations closer to the resort, but that it not necessarily possible in practice. The reality is that the resorts have little influence over these emissions, hence, most ignore them.

Soneva does acknowledge these emissions. Soneva Kiri charges guests an environmental levy that is invested through the SLOW LIFE Foundation into projects that compensate for these emissions. Projects the SLOW LIFE Foundation has been able to implement as a result of funding from Soneva resorts include the Soneva Forest Restoration project and the Myanmar Stoves Campaign.

Since 2011, the Soneva Forest Restoration Project has planted 511,920 trees of 90 different local species in Northern Thailand, which will mitigate 255,000 tonnes of CO2. The Myanmar Stoves Campaign, which is the first Gold Standard carbon credit project in Myanmar, will mitigate around 350,000 tonnes of CO2. Benefits of the project to the local community are extensive including monetary savings for households, protection of biodiversity, training and employment opportunities and health benefits from significantly reduced indoor air pollution.

These projects offset far more CO2 than emitted from Soneva Kiri’s operations including guests’ air travel to the resort. Additionally they have a positive impact on the communities where they take place.

So even thought there are sustainability challenges for resort developments and operations in SE Asia, and other parts of the world, there are sounds ways to overcome them.

For more information go to Soneva's SLOW LIFE Foundation [1]or read more about Soneva Kiri [2]. Alternatively read more articles about Soneva on Green Hotelier [3].