29 Aug 2023, 04:59 pm
Since 2013, India has been responsible for about 59 percent of the increase in global air pollution, says the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute’s (EPIC) Air Quality Life Index Annual Update 2023.
The report highlighted that the South Asian region, which accounts for almost a quarter of the global population (22.9 percent), is grappling with the dire consequences of air pollution. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, all part of this region, face an unsettling reality—the AQLI data indicates that their citizens can expect a decline of approximately 5 years in their life expectancy if pollution levels persist unchecked.
India’s Northern Plains stand out as the epicentre of pollution in the country, housing over half a billion individuals or 38.9 percent of the nation's populace. Residents of this region face the prospect of losing about 8 years of their life expectancy if pollution remains unchecked. This region includes Delhi, which was grappling with an alarming annual average particulate pollution level of 126.5 μg/m3, over 25 times higher than the WHO guideline, in 2019.
However, particulate pollution’s footprint has spread beyond India’s Northern Plains, according to the report. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, home to a cumulative population of 204.2 million, have experienced pollution surges of 76.8 percent and 78.5 percent, respectively, since 2000. In these regions, the average individual faces an additional loss of 1.8 to 2.3 years of life expectancy, contrasting with the scenario if pollution levels from 2000 had persisted.
South Asia remains a glaring hotspot showcasing the persistent challenge posed by air pollution, where pollution continued its upward trend in 2021. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan are the countries with the highest air pollution in the world.
Notably, the detrimental impact of high air pollution in South Asia is responsible for more than half, specifically 52.8 percent, of the total global years of life lost due to this environmental crisis, says the report. The average South Asian would live 5.1 years longer if the four countries reduced pollution to meet the WHO guideline, it added.
The toll of air pollution on life expectancy in these regions far surpasses that of other significant health risks. For instance, tobacco usage shaves off up to 2.8 years of life expectancy, while unsafe water and sanitary conditions contribute to a loss of up to a year. Alcohol consumption, another health concern, is linked to a reduction of half a year in life expectancy.
The average resident of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan is exposed to particulate pollution levels that are 51.3 percent higher than at the turn of the century. Had pollution levels in 2000 remained constant over time, the residents in these countries would be on track to lose 3.3 years of life expectancy—not the 5.2 years that they stood to lose in 2021.
With the inclusion of revised 2021 satellite-derived PM (particulate matter) data, the report indicates that India's pollution ascended from 56.2 μg/m3 in 2020 to a concerning 58.7 μg/m3 in 2021, a figure that exceeds the WHO guideline by more than tenfold.
While certain parts of India grapple with the world's most polluted air, Bangladesh has the dubious distinction of being the world's most polluted country. Despite a marginal 2.1 percent decline in particulate pollution from 2020 levels, Bangladesh's pollution levels have consistently hovered at approximately 14 to 15 times the WHO guideline for the past decade.
Over the last two decades, rapid industrialisation, economic growth, and population expansion have fanned the flames of energy demand and fossil fuel utilisation across the South Asian region. India and Pakistan have witnessed a fourfold increase in vehicles on the road since the early 2000s, with Bangladesh trailing closely by tripling its vehicular count between 2010 and 2020. The combined electricity generation from fossil fuels in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan has tripled from 1998 to 2017. Alongside, practices such as crop burning and industrial activities such as brick kilns have exacerbated the surge in particulate emissions in the region.
African nations Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Republic of the Congo are amongst the ten most polluted countries in the world. Air pollution is now as much of a health threat in Central and West Africa today as HIV/AIDS and malaria.