Air pollution a threat to quality of life in GCC states
I recently came across some facts and figures that stunned me. According to the World Health Organization’s website, 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to air pollution, 3.8 million die each year from household exposure to smoke from dirty cooking stoves and fuels, and 91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality does not meet WHO limits. And this doesn’t count deaths from other types of pollution (in waters and lands).
Pollution of the air we breathe can cause ailments ranging from difficult breathing and asthma to pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections (such as pneumonia), lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Last month, an academic study concluded that air pollution also negatively affects people’s cognitive abilities (particularly children’s learning abilities).
Last year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, referred to the air pollution problem in his city as “a matter of life and death” and concluded that “the government has one last chance to put it right.” Indeed, it is estimated that 40,000 people die each year in the UK from causes related to air pollution, with 9,500 of those living in London. Children are most at risk, and so a campaign to improve air quality in schools was launched.
What causes this silent and invisible calamity? Industrial and domestic activity, as well as transportation (cars and planes) using fossil fuels, releases large quantities of toxic gases and tiny carbonic and metallic particles (from fuels, engines, roads, tires, etc.). The main culprits are sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and fine sooty grains that are only a few microns (a few thousandths of a millimeter) in size. All of these toxins end up damaging our lungs, our hearts, and our brains.
What about the Arab world? Is the problem serious in our region, or is it mostly affecting the industrial world — the West, China, India and other countries with numerous factories, cars and planes? I went and researched this question.
Last year, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development released a report of more than 200 pages titled “Arab Environment in 10 Years,” which was an update of its 2008 report. In it, an informative and enlightening chapter by Farid B. Chaaban (a professor at the American University of Beirut) was devoted to air quality. There one can find a number of tables with interesting, if depressing, data.
With carbon dioxide emissions four times higher than the world average and eight times more than other Arab countries, the GCC needs to take strong measures to reduce air pollution
Most telling was the table of carbon dioxide emissions per capita for 20 Arab countries. The difference between emissions in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab non-Gulf countries immediately jumps out at the reader. The average for the Arab world (in 2013, the year for which the data was given) was exactly the same as that for the whole world: 5 metric tons per year per person. However, the average for the GCC was 19.7, while that of Arab non-Gulf countries was 2.5. The same trend can be seen in gasoline consumption and other indicators. Moreover, several Arab Gulf cities are listed among the 20 cities with the most polluted air in the world.
With carbon dioxide emissions four times higher than the world average and eight times more than other Arab countries, the GCC needs to take strong measures to reduce air pollution. Interestingly, Prof. Chaaban provides data from 2007 and 2013, and the data shows good improvements by four of the GCC countries (especially the UAE, with a 17.3 percent reduction over the six years) but unfortunately increases in Saudi Arabia (by 20 percent) and in Bahrain (by 9.7 percent).
What should be done? Governments need to tighten regulations on air pollutants released by factories and industries. Governments should also greatly increase and improve public transportation systems in order to reduce the reliance on cars (data also shows the Gulf dwarfing other countries in cars per capita) and the resulting gases and smoke that are thus emitted. Furthermore, the development of non-polluting energy sources (solar, wind, hydraulic) is important for the sake of our health, quality of life, and environment.
On an individual level, each of us needs to take measures in our daily life to decrease our carbon footprint, such as: Use bicycles more, whenever the weather permits; conserve energy through more heat-efficient houses and residential areas; reduce meat consumption; buy electric or hybrid cars, as prices become more attractive; and recycle.
There is a risk that the major improvements made in the quality of life in our region over the last few decades will be negatively affected by this air pollution problem if we do not act properly. Let us all, individually and collectively, work to correct this situation before it becomes a major socioeconomic disaster.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum