Cooperate regionally to curb air pollution – 10 Mar 2023

Direct economic gains of better air quality far exceed the cost of measures needed to reduce air pollution

The smog season has now ended in in major South Asian cities such as Lahore and New Delhi. But like the other seasons, the now all too familiar murky smog will return next winter as pollution will once again become trapped into the lower atmosphere due to temperature inversion. As South Asia is home to 9 of the world’s 10 cities suffering from worst air pollution, it is time to take concrete steps to contend with this widespread problem which is wreaking havoc on the health of millions of people, and has many related adverse impacts.

The World Bank’s latest report ‘Striving for clean air: Air pollution and public health in South Asia’ highlights how air pollution in the region is not relegated to specific localities within the tidy confines of national boundaries. Instead, this polluted air is a transboundary problem for the entire region. The report estimates that over half of the air pollution in South Asian cities originates elsewhere.

Several other experts have pointed out that air pollution travels in a complicated pattern which crosses varied man-made boundaries, depending on wind patterns and a range of other climate-related factors. The World Bank points out how nearly a quarter of fine particulate matter that residents of Patna in India are exposed to originates in a neighbouring state. In other seriously polluted cities, such as Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu, merely a third of air pollution is being emitted within these cities. On average, 30% of the air pollution in polluted Bangladeshi cities like Dhaka and Chittagong can be traced to be coming in from India. Similarly, 30% of air pollution in Indian Punjab is estimated to be coming in from the Pakistani side. But when wind patterns change, the air pollution in cities like Lahore also spikes.

The World Bank report has identified half a dozen major airsheds in South Asia where air quality interdependence is particularly high. One such airshed includes both the Pakistani and Indian sides of the Punjab. Southern Pakistan, Western Afghanistan and Eastern Iran comprise another airshed.

Sources of air pollution in the broader region include industrial emissions, the use of bad quality fuel, unchecked automobile emissions, burning of solid fuel such as wood for cooking and heating, and the operation of smaller industries such as brick kilns. The ineffective disposal of municipal waste, including burning of garbage, also emits significant hazardous fumes.

South Asian countries are trying to varying degrees to implement emission standards for vehicles, import better quality fuel, and even require power plants and industrial units to use air filters for larger industrial boilers. To achieve more progress, implementation of these efforts will need to become more robust. However, to create more significant difference all regional countries will have to undertake coordinated pollution control measures. For instance, substituting excessively costly measures at hotspots by more cost-effective measures in areas upwind of hotspots is one cost saving strategy which cooperation can enable. Operationalising such efforts will also require significant effort focusing not only on evident polluters such as industry or the transport sector at large, but on curbing air emission in small manufacturing, and enabling poorer households to use cleaner cookstoves instead of coal or wood. Lessening release of secondary particulate matter through effective fertiliser and manure management and dealing with municipal waste in a more environmentally friendly manner could also make a significant contribution to cleaning up the air.

The World Bank rightly argues that the direct economic gains of better air quality far exceed the cost of measures needed to reduce air pollution. The World Bank would probably be willing to offer more loans to implement market-driven means to contend with regional pollution. Ideally, entities like the World Bank should be giving out grants instead of providing more loans to address pollution-related problems, especially those emerging from the inability of international donors to integrate environmental sustainability into their growth-obsessed development strategies.

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