Air pollution has become commonplace in most cities across the developing world in the 21st century. It is decimating the citizens’ quality of life, while causing long-term health issues and raising public concern.
Qrius has long covered the air pollution problem in India’s capital, Delhi, which oscillated between ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ this winter. The government has considered many novel approaches to tackle the problem: from regulating the license plate numbers that are allowed to run on any given calendar date and creating a policy to popularise electric vehicles in the city, to considering artificial rain that will help the particulate matter (PM) settle!
Here’s a roundup of other cities from the developing world that are suffering a similar fate, and responding to it different ways.
A public health concern in Kabul
The citizens of the capital of Afghanistan are no strangers to strife—suicide attacks, air bombings, the looming threat of war…they have seen it all. However, this year’s harsh winter has brought in a toxic smog that has hung over Kabul for weeks now. Many of the residents are burning garbage just to stay warm, feeding into the vicious cycle of air pollution.
The country’s health ministry reports that 3000 people die every year as a result of air pollution. Children are especially susceptible to respiratory and lung-related ailments that are caused by toxic air particles like sulphate and black carbon, as their immune systems are under-developed.
In previous years, 30 to 40% of our patients were suffering from acute respiratory infections, but this year it has jumped to 70 to 80%.Akbar Iqbal, doctor in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the Indira Gandhi children’s hospital, Kabul, according to NDTV.
A seasonal lack of rain and snow is exacerbating the conditions, which peaks in the evenings and early in the morning when the temperature plunges below zero. The World Health Organisation (WHO) prescribes an air quality index of 100, above which it is considered problematic. Kabul’s readings have reportedly been as high as 300, while shooting up to 600 on many days this winter season.
The conditions have become so alarming that in December 2018, the Parliament summoned officials from the Ministry of Public Health and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) over Kabul’s air pollution. Besides the lack of precipitation, burning of low-quality, non-standard fuel by industries and the people, alongside the use of old vehicles, has been blamed.
Chinese cities are ‘unhappy’ with air pollution
A research team from the MIT Future City lab recently published a paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, correlating high particulate matter (PM) pollution to geotagged tweets (are they still tweets if they are not from Twitter?) from China’s microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. The tweets were gauged for their sentiment using a machine-trained sentiment analysis algorithm, and represented as a ‘happiness index’. When compared with the PM 2.5 and weather data from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, they noticed that pollution has an emotional cost.
“The takeaway is simple,” declared Siqi Zheng, the lead author of the MIT study. “Higher levels of air pollution lower people’s happiness in the world’s most populous country.” Some trends that were observed include women shown more sensitivity to higher air pollution, as were the people living in the cleanest and dirtiest cities accounted for in the study.
Given that the data studied was between March and November 2014, and the persisting problem of deteriorating air quality in Chinese cities, it is safe to assume that Chinese urbanites are unhappier than ever, going into 2019.
This is, of course, besides the public health issue raised by a study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong last year, which pegged 1.1 million premature deaths annually to the air pollution in the country. The study also calculated various social costs, which take the form of early deaths and food production losses among other parameters, amounting to USD 38 billion dollars being shaved off from the Chinese economy ever year, as a result of air pollution.
How China’s politicians will respond to these studies and the citizens’ demands for cleaner air is yet to be seen.
Thai authorities induce artificial rain in Bangkok
People watch artificial rain from the comfort of their homes in Bangkok! The city’s air quality index (AQI) climbed up to a dangerous 182 on the morning of January 14, 2019. This reading was higher than those recorded in contemporary Asian cities that routinely complain of air pollution, including New Delhi and Beijing.
However, when the AQI hit 227 a few days later, the government decided to make it rain for the particulate matter to settle. Using a process called cloud-seeding, the Thai air force sprayed 3000 litres of water over the city.
Nonetheless, weak winds and fog-prone winter weather is likely to make matters worse in Bangkok, throughout January.
The Air Pollution gap
According to a 2016 report by WHO, 98% of the cities in the developing world (categorised as low- and middle-income nations) do not meet its air quality standards. The data collated by the report underscored the ‘air pollution gap’, wherein the AQI in developed countries averaged close to WHO’s prescribed standards, while in countries like India and China, the recorded particulate matter pollution levels were 10 times higher. Since the sources of pollution are often the same, the situation warrants a discussion on whether the development model that ferried the ‘developed world’ through the industrial revolution will work in a world concerned with climate justice.
After a rather disappointing COP24, many commentators and activists are closely following the World Economic Forum at Davos as they hope for meaningful discussions and outcomes regarding the twin issues of climate change and inequality.
With the effects of climate change and air pollution disproportionately being felt across the developing world, 2019 is expected to be the year of collective political action to address the same.
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior-sub editor at Qrius.