Residents in Karachi also suffer from very high levels of air pollution. (Getty)

Air pollution in South Asia: The spectre looms large

People know the air in South Asia is polluted. New technology proves that it’s not just unhealthy, it’s perilous

“Combine data with emotions and you have a better outcome”. That’s Govindraj Ethiraj’s philosophy. Ethiraj and a few friends founded five years ago to introduce sensor journalism to India, a new tool to gather data on air quality. Sensor journalism, in general, refers to a method of generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story.

“People are oblivious, ignorant. We are in a crisis situation. The air we breathe in directly affects our lives”, says Ethiraj. What started as a mere experiment is now a credible source for information on air quality in India. Ethiraj, a senior journalist, believes that though his project is still in early stages, it is the best thing he has done in his life. is the country’s first data journalism initiative. The idea is simple but effective. Sensors gather enough data to paint a clear picture of pollution levels, then portray this data powerfully so it’s more likely to push the government to act. It is rapidly becoming an agency of record.

India now realises the pressing need for data systems to study environmental changes. The Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, while speaking at a valedictory function at “India Water Week” in New Delhi, said, “We must prioritize resilient ecosystems, modern data management systems and innovations in technology”.
But air pollution is a very big and complex issue, and it affects South Asia more than anywhere. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh have cities where the air is so toxic, it kills. According to a 2015 study by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in 2012 air pollution accounted for 3.3 million deaths worldwide. Out of these, 2.2 million were in South Asia.

The 2015 Climate Summit in Paris endorsed a historic pact to shore up defences against the impact of global warming. The agreement identified climate change as an urgent and a potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet. The goal now is to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial Revolution levels, and to strive for 1.5 degrees Celsius.
At a local level, more in Asia are considering eco-homes as a way to check the region’s deteriorating air quality, especially in China and India, where rapid urbanisation takes precedence over environment.
Helping in this is SISACS, an Australian Company that has patented eco-friendly air management systems, which not only clean air, but simultaneously cool and recycle it. Stuart Innes, the company’s Chairman, is looking forward to visiting China soon as part of a trade delegation. Innes says “an estimated three million children under the age of five in China die each year from respiratory disease caused mainly by air pollution. Such is the problem that AQI is constantly compromised”. SISACS also plans to venture into the Indian market, the world’s second largest.
Prasanto K. Roy’s home in New Delhi is one hundred per cent eco-friendly. The first one in India. Roy is head of media at Trivone Digital Services, and has promoted the idea of green homes since 2009. But living in a green home isn’t defence against a polluted world. On days when the Air Quality Index (AQI) tops 500, which is considered hazardous, he uses his air purifier. One lone green home isn’t enough to change the skies, but if big construction firms adopt the concept on a large enough scale, there is hope for change.

A United Nations report states that buildings are responsible for at least 40 per cent of energy use globally. This is something clear to Roy, but not to everybody. “Most construction companies have no clue about green buildings. I now motivate people to build eco-friendly homes differently. I tell them it’s not about the environment because nobody gives a damn. It’s pure economics”, says Roy. An eco-friendly home, if constructed strategically, is not more expensive. For instance, installing solar panels might entail extra investment upfront, but it pays for itself over time.

In 2015, Beijing issued its first red-alert pollution warning. In response, Beijing limited car use, closed schools and halted all outdoor construction. The US Embassy’s air pollution monitor in Beijing reported the intensity of tiny particles, known as PM2.5, was at 291 mg per cubic meter — 12 times over the safe limit. PM2.5 are ultra-fine pollution particles that can get lodged in the lungs and reduce breathing capacity over time. They are linked to cardiac conditions like strokes and heart rhythm disorders.
Recognising the imminent crisis, China tightened its air pollution monitoring standards. According to a 2015 report published by businesses committed to renewable electricity, China has wasted no time in directing billions of dollars into its clean energy sector. Currently, the country is the world’s leading investor in renewables. In 2014, China also led the world in new wind and solar installations. By 2020, the world’s largest energy user plans to have 100 GW of solar and 200 GW of wind installed.

Beijing also keeps a close eye on air quality. The website,, whose main office is in China, shares comprehensive air quality index data. The site collates data from more than 16,000 known air quality monitoring stations from 60 countries. Out of these, 8,000 monitoring stations provide PM2.5/PM10 data. The idea is to raise air pollution awareness by posting free, real-time, and accurate information.

Not all countries are equally devoted to analysing air quality. While China, America, Turkey, and many European nations share data from hundreds of monitoring stations, many countries share no data at all. India only has a handful of monitoring stations. But having launched its own air quality monitoring system this year, more information can be expected. Pakistan has very few. Several universities have successfully installed sensors to monitor air quality in various cities. Not every country makes air quality data public.

Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka trail. Nepal’s story is no different from the rest of South Asia. The valley has experienced rapid urbanisation and population growth over the last few decades. The government had only six ambient air quality monitoring stations in 2002. After most monitors malfunctioned, only a few stations remain.

Bangladesh too is paying the price for rising air pollution levels, particularly the capital city, Dhaka. The World Bank reported that air pollution results in 15,000 deaths annually in Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh was one of the first few countries in Asia to enact an ambient air target of PM2.5 standard, what they actually achieved on this and other particulate related standards was poor. Bangladesh hasn’t been collecting air quality data long enough to analyse trends.

While no available data or study proves that monitoring air quality necessarily improves it, awareness must be raised. While technology has produced fancier ways to measure air pollution, it should be enough to know that it’s killing people every day. Especially in Asia, where both population and pollution is rising fast. Hopefully awareness of the problem grows just as quickly.