Most cities in South Asia are struggling to control the growing number of vehicles on their roads, many of which are driven on polluting diesel. Maintaining urban air quality and protecting their sustainable urban commuting practices are some of the toughest challenges facing these cities.
These cities still have the chance to grow differently and avert the crisis by encouraging bus use, non-motorised transport and walking where possible. For this, the current pro-car policies and tax emissions standards need to change urgently. Any further delay can worsen air pollution and mobility crisis in the region.
Journalists and their media organisations can play a key role in South Asia’s quest for cleaner air and healthier cities by raising public awareness and keeping the pressure on policy makers.
These points were emphasized in a media briefing held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, today on the ‘Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities’.
Organized by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP), it brought Sri Lankan journalists together with senior officials, experts and activists working on air quality issues.
Helpful, but not enough!
“Colombo has already initiated its first generation action to clean up its air. This includes mandatory annual vehicle emission testing programme launched in 2008, import ban on two-stroke engines; conversion of three-wheelers to LPG/electric; construction of refinery that can produce Euro IV diesel by 2012; and planned introduction of Euro IV in 2012. This has led to a drop in PM10 levels in Colombo.
“Both Colombo and Delhi need urgent policies to protect and build their strength. The second generation reforms will need tough action.”
- CSE’s analysis of air quality challenges in Colombo
Read Press Note
CSE, one of India’s leading environmental think-tanks, released a new analysis of Sri Lanka’s urban air quality and mobility related problems. It noted that Colombo, like Delhi, is facing a serious air pollution problem. The toxic risk is arising mostly from the rapidly growing numbers of vehicles, many of which run on low quality diesel currently used in these two countries.
In Greater Colombo, vehicles are responsible for 60 per cent of the air pollution. The transport sector contributes the most to increases in sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. They are also a source of suspended particulate matter (SPM).
But Colombo is more fortunate than Delhi -- it has the advantage of the cleansing effect of the sea breeze and also has its strength in high usage of sustainable public transport.
The city has the opportunity to build on this advantage and strength. It can, in fact, learn from Delhi’s experience and initiate preventive policies quickly, CSE’s analysis said.
“Both Colombo and Delhi need second generation action -- leapfrog in vehicle technology and fuel quality, fuel economy regulations, scaling up of public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraints and walking,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director - research and advocacy.
CSE has been in the forefront in combating air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities for two decades. In the mid 1990s, its ‘Right to Clean Air’ campaign kicked off a sequence of events which resulted in India’s capital getting one of the largest CNG-run public transport service in the world. Air quality registered a visible improvement following this transformation.
However, recent data indicates Delhi is fast losing out on the gains from those transport reforms, largely due to its spiraling numbers of private, especially diesel-run, vehicles.
“Delhi, while having made some significant strides in meeting air quality challenges, has slipped and made terrible mistakes as well,” Roychowdhury said.
Professor Oliver A Ileperuma, attached to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Peradeniya, confirmed that air pollution levels in Colombo, Kandy and other urban areas in Sri Lanka are indeed rising. He confirmed CSE’s analysis that vehicle exhaust emissions are principally responsible for urban air pollution in Sri Lanka.
The phenomenal growth of vehicle numbers is causing urban congestion and deteriorating air quality at the same time, he said.
“We have a new motor bicycle being registered every six minutes, and a new three-wheeler every eight minutes. Most of these use the two-stroke engines that are particularly polluting,” he added.
Unfortunately, inadequate and inconsistent air quality monitoring hampers evidence-based policy and decision making. Sri Lanka, an island roughly the size of Ireland and with 20 million people, has only 2 air quality monitoring units, both in the capital Colombo. One has broken down and non-functional for several months.
There is compelling secondary evidence to suggest that air quality levels continue to deteriorate, said Prof Ileperuma.
“Forty five per cent of the total outpatient cases in our leading public hospitals is due to respiratory problems. The public healthcare costs resulting from polluted air is already enormous – and keeps growing,” he cautioned.
He urged the annual vehicle emission testing requirement to be extended to cover larger vehicles including buses, lorries and container trucks.
The two lead presentations were followed by a panel discussion that involved Dr Don S Jayaweera, Director General (Development Finance), Ministry of Finance, Sri Lanka (and former President, Clean Air Sri Lanka); Ms Priyanthi Frenando, Executive Director, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka; and Dr T L Gunaruwan, Senior Lecturer, University of Colombo (former Secretary, Ministry of Transport and former General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways).
The panel engaged participating journalists on a wide range of related topics, including the priority development of mass transit systems (both buses and railways), proper land use planning and traffic engineering, taxation policies on vehicle imports and improving the quality of fuel (especially diesel).
Two panelists, themselves cyclists, lamented the absence of cycle lanes and a safer road environment for more people to use non-motorised transport methods.
A better informed public can exert pressure on politicians and policy makers to take the right action to both remedy past mistakes and prevent similar blunders in the future. Everybody agreed on the media’s role in disseminating information and sustaining public discussion and debate.
“The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options,” said Nalaka Gunawardene, Director and CEO of TVEAP.
He added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”
The Colombo media briefing was the part of the series of media meetings that CSE is planning across the South Asian region. These meetings will focus on environment and development issues of country-specific and local relevance and interest, said CSE’s media team which organised this event.
Gasping for Fresh Air - Agenda for Colombo Media Briefing
Anumita Roychowdhury’s PowerPoint Presentation
Professor Oliver Ileperuma’s PowerPoint Presentation
Nalaka’s PowerPoint Presentation
CSE’s analysis of air quality challenges in Colombo Press Note
Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVEAP Image Archive