Beyond China: Asia grapples with air pollution
Share this on

Beyond China: Asia grapples with air pollution

DATA recently released by the World Health Organization (WHO) documents how air pollution is rising in many of the world’s poorest cities. The organization’s data also demonstrates that the worst urban air pollution exists in low and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean. While Chinese cities are still some of the most polluted, air quality has improved in much of the country since it began implementing anti-pollution measures five years ago.

The most polluted cities are in India

In terms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels, the standard for measuring air pollution, five of the world’s 11 cities with the most polluted air are in India, while two are in China and two in Saudi Arabia. The WHO ranks Zabol, a city of just over 130,000 inhabitants in eastern Iran that suffers from severe dust storms, as having the worst air quality on Earth. However, as noted in a report by the Guardian, due to the lack of air quality monitors in many of the world’s cities, the data cannot be considered by any means complete.

From an official statement issued by India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE):

This indicates air pollution is now a national crisis and needs strict and aggressive nation-wide action across all cities of India.

—Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, CSE

Vietnam’s motorbike problem

In 2012, a French pollutant analysis company called ARIA technologies named Hanoi as the most polluted city in Southeast Asia as well as having one of the worst air quality levels in all of Asia. According to Vietnam’s Centre for Environmental Monitoring, it is road traffic that is responsible for 70 percent of Hanoi’s air pollution. As with China, rapid economic growth has caused motorized vehicle use — especially motorbikes — to explode in Vietnamese cities, a stark contrast to the days where nearly everyone travelled on bicycles.

Official stats put the number of motorbikes in Hanoi at 5.3 million, almost 10 times the amount of cars in the city. Cars are expected to almost double, while motorbikes will continue to rise by nearly 2 million by the end of the decade. In order to deal with this increase in motor vehicles, Hanoi will need to spend an estimated US$20 billion expanding roads over the next five years.

For a so-called socialist republic, that is a very strong move towards the private sphere and away from the collective nature of public transportation.

From Channel News Asia:

Almost everyone has a motorcycle, while public transport is limited and not very popular. The habit of walking is anything but common here. People use motorbikes even for very short distances.

—Hoang Duong Tung, deputy general director, Vietnam Environment Administration

Official efforts to curb vehicular air pollution in Vietnam include a recently instituted 200 percent tax on automobile purchases as well as plans to construct eight new metro lines in Hanoi.

More tidbits of air pollution news from around Asia

  • Air pollution causes an estimated 44,000 deaths in Vietnam each year (National Traffic Safety Committee)
  • In a bid to curb air pollution, temples around Taiwan are stopping the traditional burning of incense. It is common for both visitors and clergy at Taoist and Buddhist temples to burn large quantities of incense on a daily basis and while the practice may not seem like pollution due to its pleasant fragrance, incense smoke contains unhealthy pollutants that cause human lung-cell inflammation among other health problems. Incense burning happens on such a large scale in Taiwan that environmental groups would like to see the practice stopped, along with the tradition of burning paper money at temples.
  • Still suffering from radioactive — as well as political — fallout from the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Japan plans to build dozens of new coal-fired power plants over the next 12 years. The plan has been strongly criticized by Greenpeace and Japanese environmental NGO, Kiko Network. The organizations argued that the coal plants would cause many thousands of premature deaths during their operation cycles. An Oxford University study also pointed out the risky economics of investing heavily in coal power in an age where cutting carbon emissions and transitioning to renewables may make coal passé.
  • Air pollution in Asian cities is also contributing to phytoplankton blooms in the Pacific Ocean, which create low-oxygen “dead zones”, further depleting already-threatened fish populations.

Topics covered: