Cross-border air pollution has become a pressing issue for Asia. Studies by ADB warned that pollution is “killing half a million Asians” each year.
This year’s sandstorm was the worst in three years for Beijing, and which affects Korea and Japan as well, including the form of acid rain. Hong Kong is experiencing investment flight as a result of coal-burning factories in the manufacturing centres of the Pearl River Delta in southern China.
Closer to home, similar impacts can be seen for Southeast Asia, especially with the transboundary haze pollution generated from uncontrollable forest fires inIndonesia. The fires and haze are a recurring disaster with great environmental, economic and public health costs.
At the First Governmental Meeting on Urban Air Quality held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last week, participating governments from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, pledged to attain more optimal air pollution abatement strategies. Observers from international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank (WB) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were also present at the meeting.
According to Dana A. Kartakusuma, the deputy director of technology and sustainable development at the Indonesian Environment Ministry, the meeting also recommended the development of a long-term vision on urban air quality in Asia, a review of ambient air quality standards and pollution indices, the development of road maps for fuel quality and vehicle emission standards for new vehicles, and strengthening, developing, and implementing strategies to control emissions from in-use vehicles.
Other recommended measures included promoting clean, alternative, renewable energy, encouraging the use of mass public transport systems and even promoting urban housing that lowers energy consumption and emissions.
Experts have opined that no such initiatives had existed before in Asia because of political sensitivities, questions over research findings and fears among the biggest polluters that such agreements would hurt their economic development. Michal Krzyzanowski, regional adviser for the WHO, also observed that there is 'no mechanism' to regulate the problem, since “you need to agree on emission ceilings... It will come. It took a decade or more in Europe (although) it was more evident there.”
Whilst data is scant on the economic losses of food crops to air pollution, an AFP report on December 18 noted that Jakarta is currently estimated to lose US$400 million per year in lost productivity and medical costs, according to a study in 2002. WHO’s Krzyzanowski also mentioned that the estimate of premature deaths caused by urban air pollution had been revised upwards to more than 750,000 globally, including more than 530,000 in Asia.
Recent ADB studies also that posted results that air pollution had reached 'serious' levels in several Asian cities, with the problem worsening due to increased urbanisation and motor vehicle use. China’s automobile boom – predicted to rise by as much as 15 times by 3.4 times – will generate an increase in carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 3.4 times while India’s 13-fold growth will generate an emissions increase by 5.8 times over the same period.
Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) has called for more research – as part of their strategy and action plan for 2007-2011 – on the impact of air pollution on vegetation as part of measures to improve the quality of air in Indonesia.
Chalid Muhammad, Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) executive director, however commented that "we need more concrete action from the government rather than yet another study on air pollution. Air pollution causes a deterioration in our respiratory system," Chalid said. "Significant actions to reduce air pollution will determine the future of this country," he added.
In spite of promising developments at the Governmental Meeting on Urban Air Quality, the delegates failed to discuss the transboundary haze pollution issue, which is regarded as the most urgent air pollution problem faced by Southeast Asia.
But Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib’s four-day working visit to Indonesia over the weekend has prompted some headway in the haze talks. Datuk Seri Najib told Malaysian reporters after a meeting with Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla that Indonesia is willing “to allow ASEAN countries to help it put out fires” and that they are preparing a framework to accept “water bombers and firemen” from any ASEAN countries.
DPM Najib expressed his hope that “the agreement will be finalised before the (next) hot season,” and added that Malaysia believed Indonesia was well prepared to provide guidelines to its local authorities as a preventive measure to avoid open burning. Najib also shifted focus away from finger pointing and shared that Malaysiais “ready” do its utmost to assist Indonesia.
Govt wants more air pollution studies (The Jakarta Post, 15 December 2006)
Indon yes to water bombers (The Star, 16 December 2006)
Outside help for Jakarta to fight haze (The Straits Times, 16 December 2006)
Asian nations commit to better air (The Jakarta Post, 16 December 2006)
Asia 'needs cross-border pollution pacts' (AP, 16 December 2006)
‘Stop blame game, help Indons fight fires’ (The Star, 17 December 2006)
Pollution 'killing half a million Asians' (AFP/ The Straits Times, 18 December 2006)