Haze: United Nations urges swift remedy

The Star, 22 Jun 2013

NEW YORK: The United Nations is calling for a swift remedy to improve air quality in Southeast Asia as haze from Indonesia blankets cities in Singapore and Malaysia.

The record high levels of smog was having a serious impact on the health of people in the area and the governments in the region must take urgent and effective action to tackle the challenge, said Noelen Heyzer, the executive secretary of the Bangkok-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in a statement.

She said the current haze was “symptomatic of a much wider challenge for the (region’s) countries.”

“Cross-boundary pollution is politically complex, but it must be urgently addressed. We need more effective frameworks to manage ecosystem services, such as air and water, which transcend administrative and political boundaries,” she said.

Adding that such matters were regional issues which must be tackled at the regional, as well as national and local levels.

According to ESCAP, the toll in terms of lives lost through pollution caused by vehicles, industries and energy-production activities in Asian cities is heavy, with an estimated 500,000 premature deaths occurring each year.

With over 1.7 billion people in the Asia Pacific region depending on dung, wood, crop waste and coal to meet their basic energy needs, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use is considered to be one of the causes for over 1.6 million deaths, with fatalities particularly among women and children being high.

Heyzer emphasized that health was the “single most important enabler of development”, and it was important to build a more sustainable region by prioritising the prevention of “pollution of our air, water, food and other common regional goods”.

She cautioned the futility of making investment in healthcare systems and, yet, at the same time destroying the most basic environmental resources on which human health depended.

Carbon dioxide emissions had dominated regional and global air quality discussions in the context of increasingly severe climate change, reminding that one of the most serious and directly damaging issues of air pollution, especially in the rapidly urbanising region, is the concentration of particulates, which greatly increases the risk of heart and lung diseases and cancers.

“Our commitment to sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific will ultimately stand or fall on our response to these issues,” she said, and added that through strengthening existing mechanisms, and through inclusive intergovernmental platforms, such as ESCAP, that the challenges could be best addressed to the benefit of all the people of the region.