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Grappling with Asia’s ‘Tsunami of the Air’ 28 December 2006

Posted by Nalaka Gunawardene in Asia, Asian environment, media, science writing, Sustainable Development.
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Consensus is being reached on the health, environmental and economic costs of Asia’s air pollution. How can this complex, technical story be communicated to Asia’s busily mobile billions? Nalaka Gunawardene suggests one strategy: make the story intensely personal.

This story has been published by One World South Asia. It is reproduced here with more weblinks to original sources and references.   

Close to a thousand people from all over the world converged in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for a few days in mid December 2006. They discussed and debated one of Asia’s biggest development challenges: how to clean up its fouled air.  

The historic city -– close to the World Heritage Borobudur temple — had been badly shaken by an earthquake only a few months earlier, in May 2006. And as Better Air Quality 2006, Asia’s leading event on the subject, got underway, results of the December 11 election in Aceh Province dominated the local media headlines. 

The mention of earthquakes and Aceh inevitably triggered memories of the Asian Tsunami two years ago. Of the 230,000 people who perished in that disaster, more than two thirds were in Indonesia. Aceh was the worst hit -– ‘ground zero’ of Nature’s fury. 

In Yogyakarta, the world’s leading public health and environmental experts again issued dire warnings about the mounting toll of air pollution in Asia. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reiterated its estimate that at least 800,000 people die prematurely due to health complications triggered or worsened by bad air. Three quarters -– or approximately 600,000 people -– are in Asia. 

That is more than twice the combined death toll of the Tsunami.    

Death toll probably higher 

“Polluted air is silently and slowly killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. Yet no one has declared war on this mass killer,” said Dieter Schwela, Senior Scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute’s centre in York, UK. He couldn’t resist adding: “Yet America under Mr Bush went to war in Iraq over a few thousand lives that were tragically lost in 9/11.” 

Schwela, who earlier worked with WHO, told a media training workshop that the agency’s estimate was too conservative; the actual figure is ‘probably much higher’.  He is the principal author of Urban Air Pollution in Asia Cities, a new assessment of 22 selected metropolitan areas in Asia. The 4-year study found that while air quality has improved in some cities, air pollution remains a threat to health and quality of life in many others.

Transport is the major contributor. One particular challenge: although vehicle emissions are improving in most countries, the number of vehicles is growing rapidly everywhere. The Asian fleet is set to double in the next five to seven years. 

As Asia rises economically, so does the pall of fumes and smoke that emanates from the world’s largest region. Greenhouse gases among tem will worsen global climate change for decades. In the short to medium terms, meanwhile, certain pollutants make us sick and kill us, slowly. Air pollution can sicken economies too.

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank and the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities estimated that the economic costs of urban air pollution ranged from 2 to 4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Asian countries.   In September, the Chinese government acknowledged for the first time that economic losses caused by environmental pollution totalled 511.8 billion yuan (US$ 65.6 billion approx.) -– or 3 per cent of China’s GDP in 2004. Air pollution accounted for slightly less than half of this staggering number, bigger than the entire GDP of many smaller countries.

The first ever Green GDP Accounting Study Report 2004 also calculated that the cost of treating pollution would total 287.4 billion yuan (US$ 36.7 billion approx.), or 1.8 per cent of China’s GDP. Although the report was cushioned in the usual caveats of statisticians, the message was clear: Asia’s air pollution has now become a matter of life and death for individuals, societies and economies.

Communicating billions to billions

Now that the experts and officials seem to agree on impacts and costs, we have to get the word out. Millions and billions might impress -– or, in this case, alarm -– specialists and activists. But how can the rest of us get a grip on the story, relating the macro with micro, and linking sulphur dioxide or particulate matter with the loss of a loved one? 

As Joseph Stalin infamously remarked, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths become a mere statistic. During our media training workshop on cleaner air, experts admitted that scientific data, technical analysis and statistics alone cannot engage the public’s attention on air pollution. To be effective, media coverage and public discussion need a human dimension.  

That’s nothing new to journalists: we try to personalise our stories. And we look for metaphors. 

In the wake of the Asian Tsunami, some development and humanitarian groups used the phrase ‘silent tsunami’ to describe slowly unfolding emergencies that rarely attract much media coverage or global compassion. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made frequent, passionate references to the ‘daily tsunami of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation.’ It’s easy to call Asia’s air pollution induced sickness and death another silent tsunami.

Except that there is nothing silence about it: the lung-corroding, heart-threatening, cancer-causing and blood-poisoning pollutants are released with a thunderous roar from the region’s cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and other motorised vehicles. Anyone who has stood in a busy intersection in an Asian megacity knows exactly what I mean.

Slow murder – or mass suicide?

For the want of a phrase, we might call this Asia’s ‘tsunami of the air’. And this one is very much of our own making — let’s acknowledge now and here that we are all part of the problem, some more than others. It makes us culpable for what India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) once termed ‘slow murder’ by dirty air.

Particularly polluting is the two-stroke engine that drives vehicles of popular choice in South and Southeast Asia. Before his own untimely death, CSE’s founder and journalist-activist Anil Agarwal publicly asked a leading Indian manufacturer of such vehicles: “Surely Mr Bajaj, you do not want to make money in a way that occasions mass murder?”   

That made headlines, but it’s not only Mr Bajaj and his ilk who engage in mass murder in slow motion. We all do.   Each time I step inside a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw or ‘tuk tuk’ on the streets of Bangkok, Colombo, Dhaka or elsewhere, I am personally responsible for emitting partially burnt exhausts.  

And I am already paying the price. As I reach out to my inhaler several times a week, I often think of my friend Saneeya Hussainjournalist, women’s rights advocate and environmental activist from Pakistan. She and I shared a lot more than asthma, but it was this chronic ailment that finally drove her away from Kathmandu, Nepal, where she headed the non-profit Panos South Asia for three years.  

Saneeya relocated to Sao Paulo, Brazil, but as it turned out, she couldn’t outrun the bad air. While there she suffered an acute asthma attack on 7 April last year.  Husband Luis rushed her to hospital as fast as the rush hour traffic would allow him. It took him 20 minutes to cover 2 kilometres — she stopped breathing half way, and never regained consciousness. She was only 50 at the time of her death.  

Not all victims of air pollution may have such rapid or widely reported exists. But the same story plays out at different speeds for millions of Asians, and no one –- rich or poor, good or bad -– is immune.  

Every time I see my 10-year-old daughter’s growing dependence on her inhaler, I realise that the demon we collectively unleashed has literally come home. 

Nalaka Gunawardene co-organised the media training workshop during BAQ 2006, and campaigns for cleaner air out of self interest.