Friday, July 19, 2019

South Asia is smothered in toxic air, report finds

  • Kai Schultz, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-03-05 22:15:42 BdST

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A water bus emitting black smoke during a trip in the dark Buriganga water at Kamrangirchar in Dhaka on Feb 5, 2019. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

The planned city of Gurugram, one of India’s industrial hubs, has glass-sided office buildings and swanky, high-rise apartments. But now, according to a new report, it can claim a less desirable distinction: the city with the world’s worst air.

India holds 15 of the top 20 spots in that category, according to the report, which was released this week by Greenpeace and IQAir AirVisual, a software company that tracks air quality data. The Pakistani city of Lahore and Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, also made the top 20, making South Asia — where governments are routinely criticised for failing to limit emissions and coal use —an especially toxic region.

“At a country level, weighted by population, Bangladesh emerges as the most polluted country on average, closely followed by Pakistan and India,” the report said.

Details from the report, which looked at data from more than 3,000 cities around the world, offer more bad news for India’s nascent movement to curb air pollution. Average levels of the tiny, dangerous particles known as PM 2.5, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, were largely unchanged from 2017 to 2018 in many Indian cities featured in the report.

Even as apocalyptic images of smoggy Indian cities have spread on social media, officials have studiously avoided calling the pollution a health emergency.

During a string of days in 2017 when pollution levels in New Delhi, the capital, reached around 30 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit, India’s environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, went on television to say that data from international groups could not be trusted.

In January, the government unveiled the National Clean Air Program, a five-year plan to reduce air pollution in 102 cities by up to 30 percent from 2017 levels. But environmentalists said the initiative was underfunded and lacked clear mechanisms for achieving its goals.

China has made strides toward cleaning up its cities in part by bringing criminal charges against polluters. Among the Chinese cities featured in the report, average concentrations of PM 2.5 fell 12 percent from 2017 to 2018, with figures for Beijing, the country’s famously noxious capital, reduced more than 40 percent since 2013.

© 2019 New York Times News Service