Why Air Pollution Is So Bad in Asia’s Cities Air pollution in Asia is deadly. Here’s why it’s so bad.

Beijing may have dominated headlines for its polluted air years ago, but now New Delhi, Dhaka, and several other Asian capitals have the smoggiest skies, endangering millions of lives.

The Asian continent is home to all ten capital cities with the highest concentrations of tiny, hazardous particles—known in the scientific community as PM2.5—that can penetrate deep into the lungs, according to a 2019 report by Greenpeace and IQAir, a Swiss company that collects global data on air quality and manufactures air-purification equipment.

What causes this noxious haze to hang over the region? Environmental factors are part of the problem. Many Asian cities are landlocked and situated on plains near mountain ranges that make it harder for pollutants to disperse, says Nandikesh Sivalingam, program manager for Greenpeace East Asia.

But man-made factors play a bigger role, he says, and there are a lot of them: burning biomass such as food waste or animal manure for cooking, high dependency on coal for electricity, an absence of regulations on industrial emissions, open burning of agricultural products, and many others. On top of that, many Asian cities are rapidly urbanizing, with more people crowding into tighter spaces, constructing skyscrapers and highways, and buying cars, all of which generate air pollution. Local governments have enacted some regulations to deal with emissions, but many aren’t enforced.

The consequences are dire. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately seven million people worldwide die from exposure to polluted air, which can cause heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and other serious health problems. Of those deaths, more than two-thirds take place in Asia. Children are disproportionately affected: air pollution causes nearly one in ten deaths in those younger than five years old, according to the WHO. In Southeast Asia [PDF], 99 percent of children breathe dirty air every day.

“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last year.

Here’s a closer look at the world’s most polluted capitals, the majority of which are located in South Asia:

1. New Delhi, India

New Delhi’s air was nearly twice as bad as other capitals on this list, with average concentrations of PM2.5 reaching unhealthy or very unhealthy levels most months in 2018. The most populated capital in the world, New Delhi’s air pollution problem is intensifying as the city’s growing middle class buys cars, poor households burn dirty fuels for cooking, and construction sites spring up.

But the crisis isn’t limited to New Delhi: northern cities just outside the capital, such as Gurugram and Ghaziabad, experienced higher levels of pollution. India was home to fifteen of the twenty most polluted cities in the world, according to IQAir’s report. The government has issued a five-year plan to significantly reduce air pollution in more than one hundred cities, but the report indicates a long road ahead.

Garbage dumps in New Delhi are some of the largest in the world, with four sites having accumulated about eighty billion pounds of trash. Fires at the dumps contribute to the city’s terrible air.
On days when air quality is especially poor, New Delhi’s government has banned construction activity to stop the spread of dust.

2. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Brick kilns are to blame for nearly 60 percent of air pollution in Bangladesh. Thousands of people use the wood- and coal-fired furnaces, most in and around Dhaka, to produce twenty-three billion bricks every year, primarily for domestic construction projects. Bangladesh’s Department of Environment is cracking down on illegal kilns [PDF] and encouraging kiln owners to transition to sustainable power sources. Construction and a growing number of vehicles also contribute to high levels of hazardous particles in the air.

People who work in or live near Dhaka’s brick kilns are more likely to experience respiratory illnesses or asthma.
Dhaka’s air quality is worse during the dry season, which runs from November to March, as dust picks up on roads and construction sites.

3. Kabul, Afghanistan

In the Afghan capital, air pollution is worse during winter months, when people burn wood, animal fat, and other materials to warm their homes. Making matters worse, the city’s population has tripled in the past decade, which has increased traffic and vehicle emissions. More than seventeen thousand people died from diseases caused by air pollution in Afghanistan in 2016, according to WHO data. Late last year, members of the Afghan parliament called on health officials to address Kabul’s deadly air. The Ministry of Public Health said the government plans to ban inefficient vehicles from roads and upgrade its air quality testing equipment.

During Kabul’s winters, when temperatures can drop below freezing, many people burn wood or other materials they find to stay warm.
When pregnant women are exposed to air pollution, especially indoor pollution, their children are at increased risk of low birth weight, stunting, and pre-term birth, according to the WHO.

4. Manama, Bahrain

Unlike many Asian capitals, where man-made factors account for high levels of PM2.5, the Middle Eastern cities on this list experience high levels of dust and sand in the air. Manama is no exception. With a much smaller population than in other capitals, at around 157,000 people, Manama suffers from poor air quality largely due to environmental factors. A UN report [PDF] found that emissions from industries including aluminum smelting and ship repairing are the primary man-made source of PM2.5 in Bahrain. Many citizens in Manama, where gas is relatively cheap, rely on private cars to get around, a major emissions contributor. A U.S. diplomat described the air quality as “a stinging cocktail that gives many residents red or teary eyes, a constant low-level cough, and post-nasal drip,” in a 2016 blog post.

The number of private vehicles registered in Bahrain has more than doubled since 2012. More than 2.5 million vehicles were on the road in 2017, according to a Hong Kong–based data analysis firm.

5. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The coldest capital city in the world, Ulaanbaatar can experience temperatures as low as -40° Fahrenheit and Celsius in the winter, and its air quality is the worst when people burn coal and wood in their homes for warmth. Trapped by surrounding mountains, the smog tends to loom over the city. Children living in Ulaanbaatar have 40 percent lower lung function than children in rural areas, a 2018 UNICEF report [PDF] found.

People in traditional ger districts, named after the felt-covered tents residents live in, burn coal or wood for heat. The government recently banned the use of unrefined coal, a major source of particulate matter.
Ulaanbaatar experiences the poorest air quality in Mongolia. The government has set an ambitious goal of ridding the city of all air pollution by 2020.

6. Kuwait City, Kuwait

Kuwait is particularly at risk for high levels of sand in the air—it’s one of the countries most affected by dust storms. The problem will likely get worse, with the United Nations predicting that the number of storms could rise in the next decade due to climate change and land and water mismanagement. Like other particles, dust can get into people’s lungs and cause respiratory problems and heart disease. Refineries, oil fields, and power stations [PDF] just outside the capital city also contribute to air pollution.

Intense sandstorms occasionally engulf Kuwait City, causing the air quality index to skyrocket to dangerous levels.
Fuel is relatively cheap in Kuwait, encouraging many citizens to drive rather than use public transportation.

7. Kathmandu, Nepal

Like Ulaanbaatar, Nepal’s capital is surrounded by mountains that prevent pollutants from dispersing for weeks. Even though it has a relatively small population, at around one million people, Kathmandu still suffers from air pollution caused by increasing vehicle traffic [PDF] and road construction. In an effort to curb vehicle emissions, the government reduced taxes on electric cars and more than doubled import taxes on gasoline-fueled vehicles.

Dust coats plants growing near a road in Kathmandu.
As part of their Maskmandu campaign, students in the capital have rallied for action on air pollution.

8. Beijing, China

Gone are the days when Chinese cities dominated media coverage for their smoggy skies and rising carbon emissions—well, kind of. Thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on sustainable development and ambitious emissions-reduction targets, average concentrations of pollutants in China’s cities fell more than 10 percent from 2017 to 2018. But 89 percent of its cities still have PM2.5 levels exceeding the WHO’s target, and China is the twelfth-most-polluted country in the world, according to IQAir’s report. Beijing remains one of the world’s most polluted capitals, with burning of dirty coal as a major contributor.

Like other cities that have cold winters, Beijing experiences far worse air quality when citizens depend on heating, usually coal-powered, to stay warm.
About 1.6 million children in China die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution, according to the U.S.-based Health Effects Institute.

9. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Like other cities on the Arabian Peninsula, Abu Dhabi experiences dust storms and high levels of sand in the air even on average days. Besides environmental factors, road transport and the production of aluminum, iron, and steel contribute to emissions, according to the city’s environmental agency [PDF]. To help minimize man-made pollutants, the government released a plan in 2016 to introduce electric and low-emissions vehicles and improve public transportation.

Emissions from refineries, aluminum and cement producers, and other industries account for about 42 percent of total PM2.5 in the air, according to an Abu Dhabi government report.

10. Jakarta, Indonesia

Greater Jakarta’s eight coal-fired power plants are major sources of air pollution, according to a 2017 Greenpeace report [PDF], and the government has proposed building more in the coming years. Jakarta’s motorized traffic also accounts for a significant portion of emissions—one report estimated 70 percent of hazardous particles came from vehicles.

Protesters have called on the Indonesian government to reduce air pollution, from this 2014 demonstration focused on coal to a December 2018 protest when activists threatened to sue Jakarta’s governor.
Jakarta’s government said in July 2018 that it will start work on a “grand design” to improve the city’s air, but the plan is yet to be released.

Clearer Skies Ahead?

Experts say it's not too late for governments and citizens to clean up the air. Many city governments have banned heavily polluting vehicles, stepped up air quality monitoring to alert citizens of dangerous pollution levels, and introduced more environmentally friendly options for cooking and heating.

All of the countries on this list signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, which committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming below 2°C (3.6°F) over preindustrial levels. Each country has set emissions-reduction goals, and many are working on national plans to meet those targets that include actions to minimize air pollution.

But as IQAir’s report suggests, more can be done. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) recommended twenty-five measures last year to address air pollution, including establishing stronger emissions standards for industry and transport, planting trees and other greenery to minimize road dust, and raising awareness about air pollution’s harmful effects.

“At the core of all of this is public awareness. We need more voices alerting people to the dangers of air pollution, in particular the effects of PM2.5, and demanding action to bring back clean air,” Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, the UNEP’s Asia-Pacific coordinator for air quality, told CFR.

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