HEALTH RISK

Air pollution: Let’s not be like Myanmar

Lack of environmental regulations on air quality a huge problem in developing countries.

In Summary
  • Regular blackouts, just like in Myanmar, might force people to invest in petrol-fuelled generators increasing carbon particles escaping into the atmosphere.
  • It is essential to attach a higher value to the lives of the citizens and address air pollution as a vital death risk.
A chumney emits smoke at a factory in Mombasa.
A chumney emits smoke at a factory in Mombasa.
Image: FILE

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country whose air is heavily polluted. I visited the country’s major towns and villages over the festive season and witnessed the pollution first hand.

The World Bank cites air pollution as a risk factor for death, saying it is twice as high compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. In 2017, more than 45,000 deaths associated with air pollution were recorded in Myanmar. The World Bank also estimates that forest cover declined between 1990 and 2015 at an average of 1.2 per cent annually, about 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres)

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second-largest city and a vital cultural and commercial centre. It was Burma’s royal capital before the abolition of the monarchy. But the city is heavily polluted. Air pollution is largely attributed to over-reliance on gasoline-fuelled generators powering gas stations, lighting and other domestic and commercial purposes.

The number of motor-bicycles powered by gasoline is high. Hybrid vehicles are countable. Electric bicycles are few in Mandalay, but their demand and use are on the rise in Bagan, a major attraction because of its old temples and stupas. Many factories have been set up right in the middle of Mandalay.

The poor air quality is probably one of the primary reasons many tourists avoid the town completely.

International regulations and agreements are being drawn up to check emissions and address climate change, but national standards are yet to be outlined and effected by many nations.

Whether you arrive by train, boat, road or air, as soon as you get close to the town, you will almost instantly notice the evident damage. Your eyes begin to sting and your nostrils are assailed by the smell of petrol. One can hardly see past a few metres. The air is toxic. I can only imagine what it is like for the people who work or live nearby. How is their health? What is their lifespan?

Many people have resorted to wearing masks to cover their noses and mouths. But one can only wear a mask for so long. Besides, how clean are the masks? Are they washed and reused or thrown away after a single use?

The situation in Myanmar needs serious attention. Other nations can learn from it. Lack of environmental regulations on air quality that govern against dangerous emissions is a huge problem in most developing countries that, if not checked, will cost many lives.

Kenya, for instance, should watch out for the potential repercussions of the increasing number of vehicles that use fossil fuels and the growing rural-urban migration to avoid ending up like Myanmar.

The regular power outages in Kenya, just like in Myanmar, might also force many people to invest in petrol-fuelled generators increasing the amount of carbon particles escaping into the atmosphere.

International regulations and agreements are being drawn up to check emissions and address climate change, but national standards are yet to be outlined and effected by many nations.

It is essential to attach a higher value to the lives of the citizens and address air pollution as a vital death risk. Apparent signs of contaminants in the air should not be ignored despite the enormous costs involved in cleaning impure air.

Environment scientist and blogger