Sunday, November 28, 2021

Farm Fires Make Pollution Worse in Delhi and Lahore

Why does the air quality in New Delhi and Lahore ranks among the world's worst at this time of the year? The answer to this oft-repeated question can be found in the satellite maps constantly updated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Indian government recently estimated that 36% of  pollution was contributed by farm fires. Here's how NASA Earth Observatory explains it: "The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."

Farm Fires Seen By NASA Satellite. Source: FIRMS

Farm Fires:

The latest image downloaded from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Information System (FIRMS) show farm fires burning in both India and Pakistan. These fires are particularly intense in Indian and Pakistani provinces of the Punjab. These fires contribute significantly to the high level of particulates in Delhi and Lahore. Indian government recently estimated that 36% of the PM2.5 particulate matter was contributed by stubble burning by farmers.

South Asia's Vulnerability:

South Asia is particularly susceptible to pollutants that hang in the air for extended periods of time. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images show dull gray haze hovering over northern India and Pakistan, and parts of Bangladesh. It is believed that emissions from solid fuel burning, industrial pollutants and farm clearing fires get trapped along the southern edge of the Himalayas. NASA Earth Observatory explains this phenomenon as follows:

"The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."

Trapped Smog. Source: Al Jazeera 

Urgent Actions Needed: 

South Asian governments need to act to deal with rapidly rising particulate pollution jointly. Some of the steps they need to take are as follows:

1. Crack down on stubble burning to clear fields. Incentivize use of machine removal of stubble. 

2. Reduce the use of solid fuels such as cow dungwood and coal to limit particulate matter released into the atmosphere.

3. Impose higher emission standards on industries and vehicles through regulations.

4. Incentivize transition to electric vehicles.

5. Increase forest cover by planting more trees.

6. Encourage the use of more renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, nuclear etc.

The cost of acting now may seem high but it will turn out to be a lot more expensive to deal with extraordinary disease burdens resulting from rising air pollution.

Pakistan NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) For Climate Goals. Source: UN

Pakistan at COP26: 

Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's special assistant on climate change, said recently in an interview with CNN that his country is seeking to change its energy mix to favor green.  He said Pakistan's 60% renewable energy target would to be based on solar, wind and hydro power projects, and 40% would come from hydrocarbon and nuclear which is also low-carbon. “Nuclear power has to be part of the country’s energy mix for the future as a zero energy emission source for a clean and green future,” he concluded. Here are the key points Aslam made to Becky Anderson of CNN:

1. Pakistan wants to be a part of the solution even though it accounts for less than 1% of global carbon emissions. 

 2. Extreme weather events are costing Pakistan significant losses of lives and property. Pakistan is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

3. Pakistan is moving towards renewable energy by converting 60% of its energy mix to renewable by 2030. Electric vehicle (EV) transition is also beginning in his country. 

4. Aslam said:  “We are one of the world leaders on nature based solutions. However, the World Bank (WB) in its Report yesterday came up with really good numbers in a comparison of countries who are shifting their mainstream development towards environment friendly policies and Pakistan came atop among them,” the SAPM explained. 


Movement of pollutants does not recognize national borders. It has severe consequences for both India and Pakistan.  The only way to deal with it is for the two nations to cooperate to minimize this problem.

South Asia accounts for more than a third of all PM2.5 pollution related deaths in the world. The sources of particulate pollution range from solid fuel burning to crop clearing fires and use of dirty fuels in vehicles and industries. Recognition of the growing problem is urgent. Failure to act could be very costly in terms of impact on human health and economy. Pakistan needs to follow through on its commitments made at COP26 conference recently held in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Here's a video of Malik Amin Aslam's interview with CNN"s Becky Anderson:

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

South Asia Investor Review

Pakistan's Response to Climate Change

Pakistan Electric Vehicle Policy

Cutting Methane Emissions From Cow Burps and Farts

India's Air Most Toxic

State of Air 2017

Environmental Pollution in India

Diwali in Silicon Valley

India Leads the World in Open Defecation

Heavy Disease Burdens in South Asia


Riaz Haq said...

Toxic #smog turns #India's capital "into a gas chamber". Farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds have left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the #Delhi capital region. #pollution #health #Modi via @CBSNews

Authorities in India stepped up efforts on Friday to address deteriorating air quality as farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the Delhi capital region. Factories, construction sites and primary schools were ordered to shut down and Delhi authorities urged people to work from home as dangerous fine particle pollution filled the air.

Delhi's 24-hour average air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of very fine particles know as PM2.5 in the air — particularly harmful pollutants as they're easily inhaled and can settle deep in the lungs — crossed 470 on Friday, per the state-run Central Pollution Control Board.

Anything over 300 is classed as "hazardous" on the international AQI rating system, and at "severe" levels, air pollution "affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases." On Friday, many parts of Delhi recorded an AQI of more than 600.

Authorities also restricted the operation of diesel-powered vehicles and sent out trucks equipped with water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to try to control the smog.

"We are also mulling over implementing the odd-even scheme for the running of vehicles," Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, said. That would see about half of Delhi's privately owned vehicles ordered off the roads, with odd and even-numbered license plates allowed to operate on alternating days.

Even the air quality monitors installed at the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, which sits in one of the cleanest and greenest patches in the city, registered an AQI over 360 on Friday, well into the most dire, "hazardous" level on the AQI chart displayed on the embassy's website.

Residents of the Indian capital weren't likely to see much improvement quickly, with weather conditions expected to remain calm and the seasonal crop stubble burning likely to continue.

India's Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, on Wednesday blamed the opposition-run northern state of Punjab for failing to stop farmers burning off the remains of their harvested summer crops.

"There is no doubt over who has turned Delhi into a gas chamber," Yadav said in a tweet.

Punjab's top politician, Bhagwant Mann, defended his administration, saying it only took office half a year ago and calling for a collaborative effort by state and federal authorities to address the problem.

The Delhi government is following a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to combat air pollution in the city. The stricter measures were taken Friday as the average air quality worsened to "Severe Plus," with the AQI over 450.

"It is the responsibility of all of us to take initiative at every level to stop pollution," said Delhi's state environment minister Gopal Rai earlier in the week.

Riaz Haq said...

One of #India’s #trash mountains is on fire again & residents are choking on its #toxic fumes. Firefighters in city of #Kochi in the south are toiling to control toxic fumes from spreading after a landfill burst into flames 5 days ago #pollution #Modi

Last year, firefighters worked for days to extinguish flames after a fire broke out at Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill – the capital city’s largest.

Standing at 65 meters (213 feet), it is nearly as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in its own right and an eyesore that towers over surrounding homes, affecting the health of people who live there.

And methane emissions aren’t the only hazard that stem from the landfill. Over decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the ground, polluting the water supply for thousands living nearby.

At Bhalswa, one of Delhi’s other large landfills, residents have complained of deep, painful skin gashes and respiratory issues from years of living near the hazardous mound.


The towering Brahmapuram landfill in Kerala state is the country’s latest trash mountain to catch fire, causing dangerous heat and methane emissions, and adding to India’s growing climate challenges.

Authorities advised residents in the city of more than 600,000 to remain indoors or wear N95 face masks if they head outside. Schools were forced to close on Monday as a result of the pollution, officials said.

The blaze broke out last Thursday, according to Kerala’s fire department. The cause has not been established, but landfill fires can be triggered by combustible gases from disintegrating garbage. Images and video released by officials showed workers racing to extinguish the billowing flames that sent thick plumes of toxic smoke rising high into the sky.

While the fire has been largely put out, a thick cloud of smoke and methane gas continues to cover the area, reducing visibility and the city’s air quality, while emitting a lingering, pungent odor.

Some firefighters had fainted from the fumes, the fire department said.

Kerala’s top court said it will take up the case on Tuesday.

India creates more methane from landfill sites than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors emissions via satellites. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide – but it is a more potent contributor to the climate crisis because it traps more heat.

As part of his “Clean India” initiative, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said efforts are being made to remove these mountains of garbage and convert them into green zones. That goal, if achieved, could relieve some of the suffering of those residents living in the shadows of these enormous dump sites – and help the world lower its greenhouse gas emissions.

But while India wants to lower its methane output, it hasn’t joined the 150 countries that have signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, a pact to collectively cut global emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists estimate the reduction could cut global temperature rise by 0.2% – and help the world reach its target of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

India says it won’t join because most of its methane emissions come from farming – some 74% from farm animals and paddy fields versus less than 15% from landfill.

In 2021, India’s environment minister Ashwini Choubey said pledging to reduce the country’s total methane output could threaten the livelihood of farmers and impact the economy. But environmentalists say the country is facing a dire climate challenge from its steaming mounds of trash.

India’s trash mountains
Brahmapuram is just one of some 3,000 Indian landfills overflowing with decaying waste and emitting toxic gases.

Riaz Haq said...

#India's Pay-to-Breathe market is soaring. Facing #toxic #air, wealthy #Indians are buying air purifiers, creating a booming market. But 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, below the World Bank’s median #poverty line.

The mild winter months are always busy for Mumbai-based pulmonologist Revathy K, but these past few months have been especially hectic. In November, a sudden drop in ocean temperatures slowed the winds that normally shift the city’s construction dust, debris, and traffic fumes. The Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a bridge that connects the center of the city to its northern suburbs, disappeared behind a curtain of smog as the city’s air quality dropped to “very poor,” briefly overtaking Delhi, the world’s most polluted city.

“A lot of patients were coming in with a wheeze,” K says, something she usually sees in patients who have asthma or smoking-related disorders. Within the span of a few months, from November through January, Mumbai doctors reported seeing a rise in chronic and persistent coughs, alongside the annual flu season. “These are patients who’ve never had any allergic symptoms in the past but are now coming in with [symptoms resembling] acute bronchitis,” says K (who, like many Indians, uses an initial as her last name.)

India’s air pollution is a rolling disaster that shows no sign of slowing down. A 2022 report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air think tank found that “almost the entire population of India” is exposed to air pollution above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization. In 2019, air pollution killed an estimated 1.6 million Indians.

As attempts to fix the problem at the source fail, a new kind of inequality is taking hold in Indian cities. Facing potentially deadly air quality outside, wealthier Indians are paying to breathe free, creating a booming market for air purifiers that is forecast to grow 35 percent to $597 million by 2027. But in a country already economically divided along caste, gender, and religious lines, where 63 percent of people pay for health care out-of-pocket and the top 10 percent of the population hold 77 percent of the wealth, paying for breathable air isn’t an option for most.

“We are normalizing a world that hardly values nature and natural rights—basic necessities like clean drinking water, fresh and unpolluted air, space to walk for pedestrians is neither part of urban planning nor [do they] concern our collective conscience,” says Suryakant Waghmore, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Waghmore says air purifiers purify air for the privileged “while the public is left to decay and degrade.”

As a cold spell swept through Mumbai in January and people donned sweaters and balaclavas to keep warm, a dusty haze hung in the air, occasionally caking onto leaves and piling into mounds on street corners. Roads remained choked with traffic, and the city’s poorer residents resorted to dumpster fires, burning scraps of wood, rubber, and plastic to stay warm.

Riaz Haq said...

#India's Pay-to-Breathe market is soaring. Facing #toxic #air, wealthy #Indians are buying air purifiers, creating a booming market. But 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, below the World Bank’s median #poverty line.

Timothy Dmello, who spends 12 hours a day outdoors as a paid dog walker, says he started to notice the worsening air pollution as he went up and down the Carter Road promenade, a palm-tree-lined stretch flanked by Bollywood celebrities’ apartments looking out onto the Arabian Sea. He says you can’t see the horizon clearly.

Dmello’s wife is on kidney dialysis; he took a job as a dog walker because the flexible hours meant he could spend more time with her and their 14-year-old daughter. At home, dust from outside builds up, while outside he’s exposed to fumes and particulates. Demello says that sometimes breathing is a problem.

He has seen air purifiers in the hospital, but the cost—cheaper models start at 6,000 rupees ($72)—is out of reach. Like most people he knows, he fell ill with a cough and cold this winter and couldn’t work.

Sixty percent of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, below the World Bank’s median poverty line. Not counting farm workers, 18 percent of the country’s population work outdoors.

Exposure to high levels of ambient PM 2.5 (particulate matter under 2.5 micrometers, which gets stuck in people’s lungs) can cause deadly illnesses such as lung cancer, strokes, and heart disease. Deaths linked to PM 2.5 pollution have more than doubled in the past 20 years, claiming 979,900 lives in 2019. What’s more, according to the World Air Quality Report 2022, air pollution costs India $150 billion a year.

In 2019, when 102 cities in India failed to meet the country’s air pollution standards, the government launched a National Clean Air Programme. Less than five years later, the number of failing cities has grown to 132.

National and state governments have tried unsuccessfully to address the air quality crisis. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party, which runs the city, tried an “odd-even” scheme in 2016, when the air quality dropped considerably. Private vehicles with registration plates ending in odd numbers could drive on odd dates, and those with even numbers on even dates. Environmentalists say it had minimal impact on air pollution levels. Delhi, as well as nearby Gurugram, which is a major tech hub, have also tried technological solutions. In 2021, the Supreme Court ordered the Delhi government to install two massive, 24-meter-high “smog towers” to filter particulates from the air, while Gurugram has put outdoor air purifiers in place. In February, Mumbai’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, announced plans to install 14 outdoor air purifiers across the city.

However, experts believe these measures are a dead end. “Purifiers don’t work,” says Ronak Sutaria, founder of Respirer Living Sciences, an urban data startup that monitors air pollution. “I think there’s broad consensus amongst the research in the scientific community that purifiers do not solve the problem.”

Outdoor purifiers are a last resort when other methods of controlling pollution have failed, according to Pallav Purohit, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “It makes sense to use air purifiers only when traditional methods of pollution control are insufficient,” he says. “The shortfall with most outdoor air purification systems is a limited area of coverage, limited efficacy, and high cost.”

Purohit says the purifiers create narrow columns of purified air that only really benefit people who are close to them for an extended period of time.

Following Mumbai’s air quality crisis this winter, critics accused the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board of moving air quality sensors to “cleaner” parts of the city.

Riaz Haq said...

#India's Pay-to-Breathe market is soaring. Facing #toxic #air, wealthy #Indians are buying air purifiers, creating a booming market. But 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, below the World Bank’s median #poverty line.

Purohit says the purifiers create narrow columns of purified air that only really benefit people who are close to them for an extended period of time.

Following Mumbai’s air quality crisis this winter, critics accused the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board of moving air quality sensors to “cleaner” parts of the city.

Meanwhile, India’s wealthier residents have taken matters into their own hands. Air purifier brands have become a common topic of conversation among middle-class residents. People who can afford to do so move from air-purified homes (where each room often has its own purifier) to air-purified shops and malls, driven in air-purified cars. Brands have enlisted cricket stars and Bollywood celebrities, advertising in English-language newspapers, on social media, and on billboards.

If the combination of advertisements and news coverage is to be believed, breathing air in India’s capital is equivalent to 50 cigarettes a day during Diwali, a Hindu festival where many people burst firecrackers, and 10 cigarettes a day during the winter. For an Indian Independence Day advert, Sharp suggests “Impurities Quit India,” referring to the “Quit India” movement from India’s freedom struggle. News articles meet every spike in poor air quality with air purifier advice: “Delhi air quality turns severe: 5 Air purifiers that will help you breathe clean air,” reads one; “Planning To Buy An Air Purifier Amid Falling AQI? Know the Costs, Other Factors” reads another.

Deekshith Vara Prasad, founder and CEO of Indian-made air purifier AirOK Technologies, says his company’s sales have grown 18 percent since 2018. (AirOK Technologies’ air purifiers are largely used in hospitals and offices.)

Prasad says surging demand has led to substandard products in the market. To work on the air in India’s cities, purifiers need to filter out fine particulate matter, fungus, bacteria, viruses, and toxic gasses like sulfur and nitrous oxides. There are “hundreds” of pollutants, he says. “If I remove two pollutants, I can claim I ‘remove pollutants.’”

The borders of private spaces, like offices and, increasingly, hotels—which sometimes market themselves based on their air purification—are a stark illustration of the unequal access to clean air. Door attendants, valets, bellhops, and security guards working the entrances and exits to these buildings don’t breathe the purified air available to those inside.

Waghmore says this division intersects with India’s social inequalities around status and caste and that air purifiers only consolidate the ideology of “purity” as something that is central to the lives of dominant caste.

Such inequality has severe consequences, as those from disadvantaged castes already face considerable barriers in accessing health care.

Waghmore says the heightened sense of privileged individualism—where the rich have the means to fend for themselves—“has the worst consequences in poor countries, where governments are yet to invest morally and economically in public infrastructure and transport to counter environmental degradation.”

K, who regularly treats those suffering from India’s air pollution inequality, puts it more succinctly. “I don’t think people should live with this,” she say, adding that everyone needs to take demand solutions. “If you don’t get something as basic as fresh air, then what’s the point of living in our country?”

Riaz Haq said...

Rich cities #London, #Paris, #LosAngeles, #HongKong breathe cleaner #air. #India is host to 12 of top 15 most #polluted cities in central & south Asia regions. N’Djamena, #Baghdad and #NewDelhi are suffering higher levels of #pollution than last year

Residents of Paris, London, Los Angeles and Hong Kong are breathing cleaner air than a year ago, while N’Djamena, Baghdad and New Delhi are suffering higher levels of pollution, the latest report on global air quality shows.

Roughly 90 per cent of the world’s population is still breathing air that poses a risk to health but the gap between high and low income cities is widening, the annual study by IQAir, the Swiss-based air technology group found, using 30,000 ground level sensors from more than 7,000 cities.

The study measured the concentration of fine particulate matter with diameters of up to 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, one of the most hazardous pollutants as it may be able to enter the bloodstream.

In richer countries, air quality was improved where industry was complying with stricter World Health Organization guidelines, and transport was being electrified, it concluded, but developing countries were struggling.

“Biomass and agricultural burning are the number one reason for stubbornly high air pollution levels in the developing world,” said Frank Hammes, IQAir chief executive.

In Europe, where Berlin and Rome had slightly worse air quality levels in 2022, household burning of wood accounted for a large proportion of winter smog.

China had managed to achieve impressive reductions in air pollution for the past seven years, Hammes said, based on a crackdown on polluting industry and a focus on renewable energy and electric vehicles, though continued burning of coal still caused serious air pollution.

In the most recent year, China’s air quality improved as extensive Covid lockdowns suppressed economic activity, leading to lower emissions.

“In 2023, it remains to be seen if China can further reduce air pollution, or if the pressure of increased economic activity leads to stagnation or an increase in air pollution,” Hammes cautioned.

The WHO estimates that poor air quality accounts for 7mn preventable deaths a year, while the World Bank has put the economic cost at more than $8tn.

New Delhi and Baghdad’s concentration of pollutants in 2022 were almost 18 times higher than the maximum safe level recommended by the WHO.

N’Djamena in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, earned the dubious accolade of being the most polluted capital, replacing New Delhi even though air quality there also continued to deteriorate. The surge in PM2.5 concentration in N’Djamena was attributed to massive dust storms from the Sahara Desert, the report found.

India remains host to 12 of the top 15 most polluted cities in the central and south Asia regions.

Vietnam’s capital Hanoi reported the second worst air quality in south-east Asia and was in the bottom 18 globally. Vietnam has been expanding its industrial activity rapidly in recent years as big tech companies such as Apple, Google, Dell and their suppliers invest in new factories to diversify away from China.

Several Middle Eastern capitals ranked among the 20 most polluted cities globally. These included Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha, which all saw air quality worsen in 2022.

Meanwhile, Canberra in Australia overtook Nouméa, in the Pacific island of New Caledonia, to report the world’s best air quality last year. Fewer fires and dust storms helped to deliver its residents cleaner air, researchers found.

Other nations among the 13 out of 131 surveyed that met WHO’s air quality guidelines included Guam, New Zealand, Estonia, and Finland. Of the cities surveyed, Hamilton in Bermuda, Puerto Rico’s San Juan and Reykjavik in Iceland had the freshest air.