Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Clear Skies and Hazy Data - China & India !!

"Clear Skies and Hazy Data" says the Economist, published on August 14th, 2009, referring the pollution levels in Beijing, China and the pollution data in print. And the Guardian writes, "China's environment ministry says polluters are protected by a 'black box' of secrecy as local governments withhold information".

The Economist article continues that "A recent joint study by scientists from Peking University and Oregon State University found that pollution during the Olympics was 30% worse than had been reported, and that the air held two to three-and-a-half times more particulate matter than in the previous three summer Olympics." Recently, the air quality in Beijing made several headlines for what was observed during the summer Olympics, what was reported, and what is being observed now.

The challenge for the regulatory bodies in the monitoring. Most often, the cities are growing so fast that there aren't enough monitoring stations to observe and report the exact air quality in the city. A value monitored in one corner of the city is not the same and appropriate for the second corner. For example, it is common to observe higher particulate pollution levels along the main corridors (roads) in a city, but these numbers do not represent the levels in the residential areas. Similarly, what is observed during the daytime when the people are active and exposed the most to the harmful levels of pollution will be different from the night time pollution levels. Having said that, the data is always hazy for many reasons and is never enough. A twitter page is dedicated for reporting the air pollution levels and air pollution index in Beijing for every hour. Also, see reports, inquires, and discussions on the Beijing air quality at Live From Beijing.

The problems with availability of data and reporting in not confined to one country. A recent post (August 25th, 2009) on India Together by Mr. Shripad Dharmadhikary, reports on the findings presented in 2009 Environment Report of India. He writes about the the quality of the data available with the pollution department, "the report mentions that central and state pollution control boards have identified 1532 grossly polluting industries in India. But the source for this information is a World Bank publication, and that too of 1999. In fact, the MoEF should be the primary source of information on such parameters, since pollution is something the ministry itself is supposed to monitor! And its State of Environment reports should be presenting latest figures." What is missing here - is the ministry lacking the technical prowess or the funds to carry out the necessary monitoring themselves that they have to rely on external sources for information on their industries?

With the Commonwealth Games around the corner, a lesson from Beijing to Delhi, is very obvious. The involved institutions need to focus more on the air quality - not only improving the number of monitors that the city already operates, but also better understanding the sources, the contributions of in-city and outside-city pollution sources, the hot spots of industrial and residential areas, a series of interventions which could make effective air quality management (given Delhi will not be able to shut down industries nor stop half their in-use fleet during the games), and above all, an open data dissemination platform.

A major intervention that Beijing and Delhi are counting on is the extension of the metro rail system, to shift the motorized transport trends to the metro rail. The expected level of shift is uncertain, which depends on a number of factors, some of which are recently discussed on the sustran listserve. An analysis conducted by UrbanEmissions.Info reveals a possible reduction of at least 7 percent in the criteria pollutant emissions in 2010, by the introduction of expanded metro rail system in Delhi, India.

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