Battling disease

Rich countries solved this problem decades ago, but now millions of poor people are dying from it

Pollution killed nearly 8.9 million people in 2012.

This year, industrialised countries will spend $10.4 billion helping poor countries cut carbon emissions and brace for the impact of climate change. Meanwhile, the world shells out tens of billions a year combating infectious diseases like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, spending which continues to rise.

What hardly anyone’s spending on is pollution ‒ even though it’s the most lethal force on the planet, killing nearly 8.9 million people in 2012, the last year for which there was data. Here’s how unnatural causes of death stack up globally:

To be more precise, rich countries do spend on cleaning up the environment ‒ mainly just their own, though. Yet poor countries suffer the majority of pollution’s lethal impact: 94% of the people that are sickened by toxic air, soil, and water each year live in the developing world, according to a report just published [pdf] by the Blacksmith Institute, Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, and Green Cross Switzerland, three non-government organizations.

Part of the problem is that the nations with egregious pollution woes tend also to be the poorest. Most can only allot no more than 1-2% of their national annual budget to dealing with it ‒ often equal to a few hundred thousand dollars ‒ says David Hanrahan, advisor to GAHP.

Another is that, unlike specific infectious diseases, pollution causes a broad range of symptoms, says Green Cross Switzerland’s Nathalie Gysy. “Pollution is not a priority concern in poorer countries in part because it’s often invisible to the eye and doesn’t leave a clear fingerprint on its victims,” she says.

And since rich countries have long since forgotten their own struggles with crippling levels of pollution in the 1950s and ’60s, they tend to neglect it in their foreign aid, adds Gysy.

That doesn’t mean rich countries are necessarily insulated from the pollutants sickening their poorer neighbors. China’s airpocalypse is now turning up in Los Angeles, as well as in Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, mercury runoff from small-time gold mines and coal plants in Asia and Latin America shows up in the wealthy world’s tuna rolls, just as arsenic sometimes taints its rice.

Then there’s the impact to global GDP. The report estimates that the health consequences of air pollution alone costs low- and middle-income countries 6-12% of their GDP a year. Foul air and water are clearly not boosting long-term productivity, either. A growing body of evidence suggests that pollution reduces IQ, including a 2013 study that estimated nearly 200,000 children in seven Asian countries suffered a reduction of between five and 15 IQ points [pdf] as a result of lead poisoning.

By comparing the destructive effects of pollution to those borne by climate change and infectious disease, the groups hope to attract the attention and funding of wealthier countries and organizations. These pollution problems can be relatively inexpensive to combat, say the three groups. For instance, cleaning up a village’s hazardous waste and educating villagers can cost as little as $20 per person.

But poor countries also have a ways to go in recognising pollution’s toll. The 17 “sustainable development goals“ ‒ economic development priorities many such countries helped set, and which the UN will likely soon adopt as its own agenda ‒ include combating climate change and using natural resources sustainably; pollution barely gets a mention.

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Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.