Victoria Solbert

international sustainable development professional

Dying to Breath

By vicsolbert | April 4, 2016 | 0 Comment

City through the haze - even in the northern mountain city of Darjeeling, thick haze blocked our views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

I recently returned from a 3-week holiday to India for a friends wedding. I managed to avoid any significant illness for the whole trip (despite at least one mouth full of Ganges river water while spending the festival of Holi in Varanasi), except for coming down with a respiratory infection shortly upon returning home. This was unsurprising, as my friends and I often spoke of how the best part of our India travels coming to an end would be being able to breath again. I was fortunate to be able to escape the smog-choked air that was at fault for our complaints, as the Indian population who must deal with it for all their lives suffer the highest death rate in the world from chronic respiratory diseases as a consequence.

I had primarily heard of India’s air pollution problems in relation to concerns over the country’s rapidly increasing carbon emissions. I ranked countries like China or Mexico higher for problems with air quality. Most interventions I knew of targeting respiratory health issues in India focused on indoor air quality, such as clean cook stoves, not broader air pollution. Stepping off the plane in Kolkata, I quickly realized this isn’t for lack of problem, but rather a lack of a solution.

Among the many things that first assault your senses landing in an Indian city is the thick, humid, brown air. The heavy layer of smog began as a minor annoyance; however the longer we stayed in the city it seemed to grow increasingly oppressive to lungs, nose, and eyes. Every day I woke it took longer to clear my aching throat. And this was only Kolkata, not New Delhi or Mumbai where the air quality index is two to three times worse than the Southeast region[1]. In fact, India’s air pollution problem is worse than China’s. Data recently published by the World Health Organization shows that 13 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities are all in India, and the concentration of small particulate mater (PM2.5) in these cities is higher than those in China[2].

Darjeeling toy train

The coal powered steam “toy train” in Darjeeling. An historic narrow gauge rail line and a World Heritage Site, but do we really need to preserve the horrific pillar of soot coming out of it?

As much as you read about an issue, nothing can drive home its importance like experiencing it for yourself. We got a small taste of the extreme air conditions in Guwahati, the largest city in the Assam region we thankfully only stopped in overnight on our way north. Hurtling through the chaotic streets in search of our hotel with the taxi windows rolled down for the heat, I was thankful scarves were a common fashion accessory for women. Even my husband was borrowing the end of mine to wrap across his nose and mouth to protect from the onslaught of smoke and particulates spewing into the air all around us. I pitied my friend who wore contact lenses, as just stepping outside the conditioned hotel made my eyes burn.

Even though my encounter with India’s poor air quality was minimal, the immediate impacts on my energy and health were noticeable. I could not help but wonder how much the constant day-to-day assault on their airways was negatively impacting the lives of 1.3 billion Indians. In addition to increased rates of lung disease, asthma, and other related illnesses that would cut lives short, how many people simply weren’t able to fully function because their energy was being sapped by the constant exposure? How much could India improve livelihoods and economic performance simply by having cleaner air?

All geared up to take a scenic train ride through the hills.

All geared up to take a scenic train ride through the hills. Even the mountain town of Darjeeling was covered in haze that blocked our views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

A new study in Economic & Political Weekly shows that Indian’s are paying a high price indeed. The study estimates that air pollution in the most impacted Indian cities is reducing life expectancy by 3.2 years, on average[3]. For the 660 million people living in areas where PM2.5 levels exceed the (lax) national air-quality standards, that’s over two billion lost life years! And these numbers do not include the years of decreased quality of life due to illness. While the precise link between poor air quality and years of life lost to death and disability is not fully understood, it is clear that this burden has a significant negative impact on the country’s people, and likely on economic growth as well.

For an economy like India however, achieving better air quality is not as simple as stricter emissions regulations. While the Prime Minister has recently pledged to increase controls on power plants, a majority of which are coal powered, a quarter of the population still does not even have access to electricity. To reach these unconnected populations and meet the needs of increasing individual demand, the number of power plants is only going to continue to grow. Emissions controls would at best moderately reduce the associated growth in pollution. For all economies, energy consumption is closely tied to economic growth. The government would be hard pressed to limit new plants at the expense of economic growth, given the long list of problems driven by poverty that the country must face.

Even considering stricter emissions regulations on vehicles, as was so effective for cleaning up Los Angeles’ smog problem, is unlikely to be manageable. Regardless of the difficulty of enforcing such laws, the economic burden imposed by the regulations would be felt much more acutely by most of India’s population. The average income is just 272 INR a day[4], barely $4, and over 20% of the population is living on less than $2 a day[5]. Driving through the chaotic streets, it is clear that every car, bus, scooter, and other unclassifiable motorized vehicle is driven past the point where any amount of duct tape, wire and elbow grease can keep it functioning. People simply would not have the resources for the significant upgrades required to clean up these engines, and certainly not for a whole new vehicle. Even the numerous clean cook stove projects have met with limited success because people cannot afford the upfront cost of switching despite the potential for long-term savings.

India is trying to increase investment in solar. It is home to Asia’s largest solar plant, and the government sees the industry as a potential job creator. India won’t be able to achieve nearly the scale of clean energy resources needed without help however. The country is currently a ripe testing ground for distributed energy technologies. If these projects can attract the investments needed to scale, new energy models that could be replicated around the world will be developed. This will take a great deal of luck and time however, and no short-term solutions are immediately apparent. Hopefully clearing India out of my own lungs won’t take quite so long.

[1] http://aqicn.org/map/india/

[2] http://www.vox.com/2015/2/24/8094597/india-air-pollution-deaths

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/opinion/cutting-through-indias-smog.html

[4] http://www.tradingeconomics.com/india/wages

[5] http://data.worldbank.org/country/india

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