Clean air, hazy vision

Smog Alert
March 7, 1997

There is a glaring contradiction at the heart of this book, which may be illustrated by looking at its first two charts. These represent "world cities expected to reach a population exceeding ten million in 2000" and some atmospheric pollutants in "selected world cities, 1988-1992". In both cases, the number of Asian cities far outnumbers cities from other parts of the world. In the former case, 14 out of 24 cities are Asian, in the latter, 13 out of . Yet the four "smog city" case studies in the book are of Athens, London, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. At the risk of sounding parochial, no book that allegedly "provides a comprehensive analysis of how healthy air quality may yet be achieved in the world's cities'' can afford to ignore the air pollution problems of the poverty-stricken cities of Asia, which are of a very different nature from the smog problems faced by cities elsewhere in the world.

Even Mexico City, the poorest of the case-study cities, is nowhere near as deprived - in terms of economic, scientific, or technological resources - as some of the cities of what Elsom calls the South. These, incidentally, would include several cities in Africa, the other continent that is unrepresented in the case studies.

The numbers of cars in the megalopolises of the South, primarily in Asia, are nowhere near those of the cities of the North - with perhaps a few exceptions among the emerging Asian economic "tigers'' and Japan. Moreover, the appalling poverty of the majority of these southern cities' inhabitants means that most of Elsom's suggestions for reducing urban air pollution are, quite simply, unworkable in these cities.

Having said this, one must acknowledge that for environmentalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and the powers-that-be of those cities where vehicular emissions are the major source of air pollution, Smog Alert is likely to be an useful work of reference containing some pertinent and thought-provoking observations, diagnoses, and suggested remedies for reducing air pollution.

Elsom tells us: "The health of as many as 1.6 billion people living in urban areas throughout the world may be at risk from poor air quality.'' The book's final chapter suggests ways and means of turning this dismal scenario into a healthy and sustainable one for the next century. Here too, the suggestions made are more applicable to relatively affluent cities. That Elsom is not wholly unaware of this is evident from his assertion that selecting "the most cost-effective policies and measures'' for air pollution control "is difficult'' since "economic and political factors clearly influence the choice''.

But a reading of Smog Alert will not help in our understanding of the air pollution problems of the poor, rapidly expanding cities of the so-called Third World. There are several reasons for this, apart from Elsom's neglect of factors other than the internal combustion engine in causing urban air pollution. For instance, he assumes that legislative measures (usually) work. Sadly, anyone who has lived in a large Asian city like Calcutta, as this reviewer has, can testify that enforcing laws is far, far more difficult than framing them. Also, Elsom does not mention the relationship between urban air pollution, rise in urban populations, and agrarian problems. The growing pauperisation of the rural poor in developing countries is very likely to continue, adding to their urban populations and thus make a mockery of pollution control measures in these nations. This is true for the world's two most populous countries - China and India - which, between them, account for something close to two-fifths of the world's population. It also holds true for several other Asian and African nations. A more complex and nuanced look at the political economy of developing countries' environmental problems is essential for a realistic appraisal of urban air pollution problems in the world as a whole.

Smog Alert is a book with a limited domain which it surveys very well. However, by claiming universality, it serves only to undercut its strengths and expose its weaknesses.

Samantak Das, a lecturer at Visva-Bharati University, India, was formerly on the Eastern Region Committee of the World Wide Fund for Nature, India.

Smog Alert: Managing Urban Air Quality

Author - Derek Elsom
ISBN - 1 85383 192 1
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £14.95
Pages - 226

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