By Liao Bowen
Indonesian authorities declared a state of emergency in July when 84 forest fires broke out in regions known for palm oil and rubber producing because of dry weather. According to Jakarta Post, thousands of firefighters and emergency response teams were deployed to prevent a repeat of the smoky haze that blanketed much of Southeast Asia four years ago.
The smoke from Indonesian forest fires floated north to shroud much of Singapore and Malaysia, where the air pollution index (API) reached 100 points (moderate air pollution). The Singapore Environmental Agency reminded people to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise and other activities to reduce the impact of the pollution on health. Malaysian state governments also warned citizens to take precautions and avoid all kinds of waste incineration activities that could worsen the situation.
In Southeast Asia, dry weather causing forest fires and the accompanying air pollution has not been that common, but the deterioration of air quality in recent years has resulted in great concern.
Is Your Air Fresh?
In March and April 2019, Chiang problem in seven days. “Haze in the city usually dissipates within a week or two, but this time it has been going on for weeks,” commented Kwanchai Suparatpinyo, director of Chiang Mai University’s Health Science Research Institute, “This is the worst situation we’ve seen throughout history. It is quite dangerous and threatens human health.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PM2.5 concentration should stay below 10 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). During the recent fires, the concentration of PM2.5 in the air of northern Thailand reached 379 μg/m3.
Indonesian capital Jakarta experienced serious air pollution several times in June. Air Visual, an independent air quality monitoring website, reported Jakarta’s air quality index (AQI) on June 25 as 231 (heavy air pollution), worse than in the Indian capital New Delhi. Jakarta’s air quality subsequently further deteriorated on June 28, leaving it with the most polluted air in the world. A group of fed-up Jakarta residents is suing the government to take immediate action to solve the problem.
The same month, 15 students and staff from a religious school in the Malaysian state of Johor experienced breathing difficulties and vomiting suspected to have been caused by air pollution created by the exhaust from the chemical plants in their neighborhood. Malaysia’s Ministry of Education subsequently announced that 16 local schools would be closed for three days. Local lawmakers requested that the state government issue an order for the suspension of the operation of all chemical plants.
Deteriorating air quality has triggered widespread vigilance. In 2019, WHO called air pollution the greatest environmental risk to health. Microscopic pollutants in the air are penetrating people’s respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging their lungs, hearts and brains, killing 7 million of them per year. Around 90 percent of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries.
Protecting Blue Skies
“We have been seeing more blue skies these days,” claimed Beijing resident Auntie Zhang while jogging in a park. “The face masks and air purifiers I bought are now useless.” She recalled that the smog in the winter of 2016 was so thick that it was difficult to breathe behind masks covered with dust.
In China, air pollution has been a topic of great concern to all people since it began affecting the daily lives of residents in some regions. With the serious air pollution every winter, the scientific term “smog” became well-known to the general public. Types of masks and their respective performances became hot topics of daily conversations. With the improvement of air quality, Beijing residents have added terms like “APEC Blue” and “Two Sessions Blue” to their vocabularies after witnessing how clean their air could be.
Since 2012, China has taken a series of measures to introduce relevant air pollution control rules and regulations to promote coordinated economic, political, cultural, social and ecological advancement. Protecting blue skies has been listed as one of the three major tasks for environmental protection. In 2013, the State Council released an Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (a 10-chapter list of measures). With joint efforts from all of society, all its objectives have been met comprehensively.
To effectively solve outstanding air pollution problems, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) organized a team of 5,600 Mai, a tourist city in northern Thailand, was shrouded in haze. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the city during an inspection tour and provided directions for the local government to solve the environmental law enforcementofficials from across the country to carry out intensive air pollution prevention and control supervision in April 2017, known as “the largest-scale air quality supervision operation directly organized at the national level in history.” The operation mainly focused on seven aspects of air pollution prevention and control including the performance of local governments at all levels and relevant departments, performance of facilities controlling stationary sources of pollution, installation, networking and operation of automatic supervision facilities of high-chimney emissions, closing or rectification of small, poorly-managed and heavily polluting enterprises and the suspension or partial suspension of iron and steel, aluminum and cement production during the winter heating season in northern China. Since the beginning of the supervision operation, the MEP has periodically disclosed information on problem enterprises. “Supervision has helped us see the big picture,” commented Chen Guang, a member of the task team. “It has also exerted intense pressure on small, poorly-managed and heavily-polluting enterprises.”
A Deutche Welle report commended the early success of China’s air pollution control program with reminders of the arduous work ahead. A series of measures taken by China have significantly reduced exhaust emissions, said the report, owing largely to the reduction of coal use, strengthening of supervision and restructuring of heavy industries. Previously, the Chinese government had also strengthened the management of heavy-polluting enterprises, dust-intensive construction sites and road traffic, which led to a significant improvement in air quality. The situation has improved significantly not only in Beijing, but also in northern Chinese provinces and the Yangtze River Delta.
Li Xiang, a division director of the Beijing Municipal Ecology and Environment Bureau, has seen Beijing’s overall air quality steadily improve in recent years. However, pollution discharge still exceeds environmental capacity, and the city’s air quality is still dependent on meteorological conditions. Heavy air pollution occurring frequently in autumn and winter remains a problem.
On March 9, before the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report titled “A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing,” as its third independent assessment of Beijing’s air quality. The report described the effective measures of Beijing’s air quality management program amid its rapid economic and social development from 1998 to 2017. The annual average concentration of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and inhalable particles (PM10) decreased by 93.3 percent, 37.8 percent and 55.3 percent respectively. The report outlined the experience, policies and actions that can help with pollution control in other cities around the world.
Dechen Tsering, director of UNEP’s Asia Pacific Regional Office, opined that Beijing provides solid examples of ways a large city in a developing country can balance environmental protection and economic growth.
Air pollution is no longer an internal affair of a country or a region. It is related to the survival and future of humanity and all living beings on Earth. Control of air pollution requires multilateral cooperation among different countries, regions and organizations in a community with a shared future for mankind.