After India shut down in response to Covid-19, people started posting stunning photos of the Himalayas, visible from 200 kilometres away in Punjab for the first time in decades. Photos flooded Twitter, the Indian and global media.

Environmental activist Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal captured the excitement. “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs. And not just that, stars are visible at night. I have never seen anything like this in recent times,” he told the SBS Hindi news service. Seechewal is a veteran campaigner against air pollution with more than 30 years’ experience.

Newly-clean skies have stirred hopes that regional action on South Asia’s lethal air pollution may be possible despite years of false starts and failure. Furthermore, links between poor air quality and chronic health conditions that jeopardise the survival of Covid-19 patients now make tackling pollution more pressing than ever.

“The whole pandemic experiment and resulting shutdown of human activities have shown us that clearing the air is possible, with both short- and long-term planning and implementation of environmentally friendly policies,” said Pawan Gupta, a research scientist studying transboundary airflows with the Universities Space Research Associations at The NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, USA.

Covid-19 risks of heart and lung disease

NASA’s Terra satellite observed a 20-year low for deadly aerosols – tiny, airborne particles that can penetrate the lungs and heart – in northern India’s Indo-Gangetic Plain at this time of year. Gupta who studies trans-boundary airflows and pollution, said a drop was expected but “I have never seen them so low.”

Data from the Terra Satellite’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) shows aerosol optical depth (AOD) measurements over India from March 31 to April 5 each year from 2016 to 2020. The sixth map shows a strong anomaly in AOD in 2020 compared to the average for 2016-2019

Air pollution routinely kills millions each year – it contributed to more than five million deaths or up to 22% of all deaths in South Asia in 2012, according to a scoping study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Furthermore, if Covid-19 becomes established, without a vaccine or cure, air pollution will exacerbate the death rate in any outbreak. Clinical experience so far, and early studies suggest patients with pre-existing heart and lung problems are more likely to die.

Crisis brings an opportunity

“Many understand that we’ll have a new normal. We need to take advantage of that, and enforce, even accelerate, some policy shifts. I think states should implement those policies they have, as those exposed to air pollution are more vulnerable,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, the founding director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

“The Indian Prime Minister has called upon the region to use the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ) framework to fight coronavirus. We can follow this framework to solve what is essentially Covid in slow motion, i.e., air pollution,” she added.

Air pollution crosses national boundaries, but attempts to tackle it at the regional level in the past have come up against political tensions.

“Air pollution cannot be effectively reduced unless India and Pakistan cooperate. I fear politicians are abandoning their responsibilities by playing politics. You can’t cooperate if you’re blaming one another for the problem”, said Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and Yale World Fellow from Pakistan.

Regional airflows push pollution far from its source. Pollutants – including smoke from crop burning – are regularly driven southeast by seasonal post-monsoon winds crossing over Pakistan and north India into Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. The transported pollution often reaches parts of southern India and Sri Lanka too. An inter-governmental data sharing agreement could provide a basis for countries to establish baseline data and reliable reports, and recommend solutions, possibly using SAARC’s existing framework.

Data sharing

Although satellite data like that studied by Gupta is freely available, it needs to be supplemented by continuous ground-based observations, which are lacking. Civil society attempts to monitor air quality using machines that NGOs and individuals have bought “cannot replace reference-grade equipment,” he said.

India currently shares some data online but it is patchy. Ground measurement in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are insufficient, and Afghanistan lacks a ground measurement network.

“Given the bitter political discourse in South Asia, it is best to focus on things that can be done and create a sense of trust and momentum going forward,” said Alam. “South Asian cooperation in the shape of a South Asia Data Network could be simply recording and sharing data, and carrying out joint research into health impacts,” he explained.

There are good reasons to pursue modest goals, as political animosity between India and Pakistan has derailed hopeful regional initiatives before.

In 1998, the governing council of the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme adopted the Male Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and its likely transboundary effects on South Asia. Irfan Tariq, an ex-director general at Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change, said, “Pakistan met the financial obligations and on the basis of it, we generated data on air quality.” He added that India was a major shareholder in the Male declaration, yet “they never shared any data, and the UN environment officials backed out of the agreement. Without India’s collaboration, the contribution by Nepal and Sri Lanka wasn’t significant.”

Pakistan stopped sharing air quality data in 2013 after internal politics dealt a blow to its own data collection. Environmental matters ceased to be a federal responsibility and were devolved to the provinces following an unrelated constitutional amendment. “The capacity was diluted and the monitoring mechanism was affected,” said Tariq.

Alam said that because Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments have to cooperate, “It may take 15-20 years to come up with a basic vision statement that everyone agrees on, something longer than a political cycle, so that it can stand the test of time.”

Meanwhile, there may be other international frameworks that can be built on. He cites the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed in 2002 and ratified by all signatories by 2014, as an example of how to get antagonistic neighbours to the table. “Indonesian crop burning severely affected Singapore. In the ASEAN agreement, Indonesia became the tenth country to enter the agreement for monitoring and health studies. That is an enabling mechanism.”

Alam favours building cross-border trust by installing air quality monitors in Afghanistan and sharing the results with universities. “Cooperation and trust may lead to emission reductions, improving fuel quality along the Grand Trunk (GT) road, which runs from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Kolkata” in India.

A toxic political atmosphere can heighten sensitivities around data sharing. “Determining the emissions produced by any country and its role in global warming is a sensitive matter, which countries may not wish to share,” Tariq pointed out, citing how past research has shown coal-fired power plants in India contributed to smog in Pakistan. Hostility within Pakistan over westward flowing dirty air during the monsoon is a problem, agreed Alam (the prevailing winds later reverse to post-monsoonal south easterlies).

In such situations, the solution is to look inwards, Tariq said, citing Pakistan’s first electric vehicle policy and an initiative to clean up the brick kiln sector as “successful examples.”

See: Two cheers for Pakistan’s electric vehicle policy

Abandon or revive

Bidya Banmali Pradhan worked on the implementation of the Male Declaration and wants it revived. She heads the Air Pollution Solutions Programme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental institution with eight Himalayan member states, including China. She believes it is easier to revive an existing ministerial-level agreement than invent a new one.

“ICIMOD was assisting the Ministry of Environment of Nepal to implement it. It had a robust system, (but) somehow the Male Declaration could not be implemented as it was envisioned. Air doesn’t respect boundaries and we must revive that agreement. We could look at the drawbacks of this one and try to improve it.”

There are also other, more modest ways to grow regional cooperation and data sharing outside international treaty structures, through sub-national bodies such as cities and provinces, as well as academic institutions.

ICIMOD is working to create an air pollution dashboard providing the public with data for the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) and South Asian countries, and was part of setting up the Federation of Asian Brick Kiln Association, which has Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal on board.

Chaturvedi also advocates municipal and civil society links, teaming up similar cities like the coastal cities of Mumbai, Chennai or Karachi with Sri Lankan cities “to see how they can fight this. This means scientists, pollution boards, environmental protection agencies and civil society – each has a role.”

Learning from the lockdown

Talking during the Covid-19-forced lockdown, Abdus Salam, a chemist at the University of Dhaka, says, “We are learning a lot looking at which industries and activities are closed right now, and finding out which the bigger pollutants are.”

As a steering committee member of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry’s networking group for Monsoon Asia and Oceania, Salam has seen the benefits of collaboration, sharing data through scientific meetings and running a training programme for young researchers to involve them in air quality research.

Activists and analysts also take heart from the lockdown itself, as it has shown that lifestyle changes are possible and raise questions about how to make them economically sustainable. “This has provided an opportunity to think differently,” said Pradhan.

Like many, she hoped it will prompt sustained changes in work and travel, investment in cleaner fuels for transport and cooking, changes to supply chains, systems to evaluate home-working and renewed South-South cooperation – she is a firm believer in pressing for coordinated governmental action – to learn and share good practices.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a masters in international journalism from Cardiff University. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]. Ankita Anand is a recipient of the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali Media Prize and can be contacted at [email protected]

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