Curbing deadly air pollution: 4 nations draw up roadmap

Curbing deadly air pollution: 4 nations draw up roadmap

Four South Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan – have agreed to drastically reduce their countries’ annual average levels of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in their air to 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2030.

The reduction would mean better air quality and a lower health burden, which will help countries meet the World Health Organization’s interim target.

For countries struggling with severe air pollution, the WHO has set an interim target of 35 µg/cubic meter PM 2.5.

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Supported by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the World Bank, government delegates from the four countries met in Nepal on December 14 and 15 to discuss the Kathmandu roadmap to improve air quality in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the foothills of the to create Himalayas. They discussed the issue for two days and finalized the plan on December 15th.

PM 2.5, which is essentially dust and other matter generally smaller than 2.5 microns, is considered to be the most harmful. The particles penetrate deep into the lungs and get into the bloodstream.

Currently, the annual average of PM 2.5 in Bangladesh is around 85 to 90 micrograms (mcg) per cubic meter.

If the level reaches 35 mcg/cubic meter or more within 24 hours, the air is considered unhealthy and can cause problems for people with breathing problems such as asthma.

“This is the first cross-border initiative between the four countries. It is a major and important initiative to reduce air pollution in the world’s most polluted areas,” Md Amirul Kyser, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, told The Daily Stern yesterday. He was part of the Bangladeshi delegation.

He said the four countries had agreed to take both national and regional steps to reduce PM 2.5 to 35 mcg/cubic meter by 2030.

“This initiative was urgently needed and timely,” he said, adding that countries agreed to share their experiences and also the tools used to curb air pollution.

Kyser said the four countries also agreed to meet regularly to monitor efforts and results, as such coordination efforts would help enable regional initiatives and policy harmonization across the region.

“Although four countries have joined, we initially expect the other four countries of ICIMOD – China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan – to join the initiative,” he added.

The World Bank on Wednesday released a report titled “Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia,” which said the prevailing northwest-southeast wind direction accounts for 30 percent of air pollution in Bangladesh’s three largest cities – Dhaka, Chattogram and Khulna – originate from India.

The report also mentions that when it comes to air pollution in Dhaka, the capital is responsible for only 10 percent while 25 percent comes from other countries.

According to the report, while existing government measures can reduce particulate matter, a significant reduction is only possible if areas that span the airsheds — areas affected by the same air mass — implement coordinated measures.

Currently, over 60 percent of South Asians are exposed to an average of 35 µg/cubic meter of PM2.5 annually. A rise to as high as 100 micrograms/cubic meter has been observed in some parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) — nearly 20 times the WHO recommended upper limit of 5 micrograms/cubic meter, says the World Bank report.

The report examined several air pollution reduction scenarios with varying degrees of policy implementation and cooperation between countries.

The most cost-effective solution would reduce the average exposure to PM 2.5 in South Asia to 30 mcg/cubic meter at a cost of US$278 million per microgram per cubic meter of reduced exposure and save more than 7,50,000 lives annually.

Air quality experts welcomed the move, saying the big question is how sources of pollution will be addressed.

“We have been calling for such an initiative for a long time. It’s a very good move. But how are the initiatives taken to curb pollution? Target?” said Professor Abdus Salam of Dhaka University, an air pollution researcher.

Earlier this month, the World Bank said in another report, “Breathing Heavy: New Evidence on Air Pollution and Heath in Bangladesh,” that air pollution in Bangladesh kills about 80,000 people each year by causing respiratory problems as well as depression and wiping out around four percent of the population GDP of the country.

Children under the age of five and older people with comorbidities such as diabetes, heart or respiratory diseases are most at risk, it said.

According to the report, air pollution was the second leading cause of death and disability in Bangladesh in 2019, costing the country about 3.9 to 4.4 percent of its GDP.

Syed Nazmul Ahsan, director of air quality management at the Ministry of Environment, said a national air pollution control committee had recently been formed and the committee will certainly draw up a detailed roadmap.

On November 28, a national committee headed by the cabinet secretary was formed to advise the government on controlling air pollution.

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