Wed, Mar 26, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Blanket of pollution choking Asia’s cities

An acrid blanket of haze affects cities throughout Southeast Asia, where 700,000 people a year die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. Industry and climate change are being blamed, but governments are slow to act

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian, MANILA

“The fires are starting outside our forest concessions, but with the heavy, circular winds they’re jumping everywhere,” pulp and paper manufacturer April Indonesia president director Kusnan Rahmin said.

Sizer said: “Even if they did not start the fires, they are responsible for massive and dramatic clearing of forests in the regions that have been burning, and to some extent for the conflicts with local communities that may be starting fires to stake their claim to land awarded in concessions to the companies.”

“Once ignited, peat fires are extremely difficult to extinguish and generate massive air pollution that contributes to the choking haze now blanketing much of Sumatra,” said Rhett Butler, editor of the international forest conservation Web site Mongabay.

Scientists now fear that the Asian haze will intensify and become an annual event as the population of the region rises to an estimated 5 billion people and climate change bites over the next 30 years. Next week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the expected impacts of climate change is expected to warn of cities becoming unliveable for millions as temperatures rise. Droughts are expected to become longer and more intense and the number of extremely hot days to grow.

Still unclear is how far the haze from burning forests feeds into Asia’s rapidly worsening urban air pollution to form a semi-permanent toxic cloud, which is said to be thick enough to disrupt monsoons and weather patterns across the world and reduce sunlight and crop yields.

From being more or less accepted as the inevitable price of industrial development and poverty reduction just a few years ago, air pollution has risen dramatically up the region’s political agenda as the costs are counted. Asia is now the center of global air pollution, which, along with obesity, is the world’s fastest growing cause of death.

A recent Lancet report said that every year more than 2.1 million people in Asia die prematurely from air pollution, mostly from the minute particles of diesel soot and gases emitted by cars and trucks, as well as half-burned vegetation from forest burning. Of these deaths, 1.2 million were in East Asia and China, and 712,000 in South Asia, including India.

According to the Lancet report, by a consortium of universities working in conjunction with the UN, Asia loses more than 50 million years of healthy life from fine particle air pollution per year. Air pollution also contributes to higher rates of cognitive decline, strokes and heart attacks, it said. In a separate report last month, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed that Asian air pollution was now affecting climate around the world and making cities like Beijing uninhabitable and suggestive of what a “nuclear winter” might be like.

“Pollution originating from Asia clearly has an impact on the upper atmosphere and it appears to make such storms or cyclones even stronger,” said Renyi Zhang, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and a coauthor of the study with NASA scientists.

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