Chongqing: bring a gas mask
The first time I was in Delhi, in 1970, the air was so unbelievably filthy that I got out of town as fast as I could. Like many cities-- Los Angeles and Bangkok being two good examples-- Delhi is a lot cleaner now. But not so much, apparently, as I thought it was when I was there last year. According to the World Bank in 2004 it still had the second worst air pollution of any city in the world. Numero uno was Cairo. Here's the list of the 20 most polluted:
Twelve are in China and five are in India. I'm finishing up on Robyn Meredith's NY Times best selling book on the economic changes in India and China in the last two decades, The Elephant And The Dragon and she has a lot to say about the overwhelming pollution in both countries.
Nothing can prepare visitors for the pollution in China... One of the worst places to breathe on the planet is the world's biggest city: Chongqing, China, with a population of 30 million people counting the exurbs, about the same number of people as live in the entire state of California. There the New China coexists with the Old China: skyscrapers and construction sites decorate downtown, but scrawny bong-bong men wait for work on street corners. Bong-bong men are paid sixty cents an hour to ferry heavy loads-- from building materials to groceries-- up and down the city's hilly streets using bamboo poles slung over their shoulders. They must have powerful lungs, not just strong legs: the city is half dark most days. Sunlight barely reaches the ground, dimmed by thick, gray smog. Skyscrapers just three blocks away are mere outlines because of air pollution. Emerging from the inside of a building onto the streets prompts one's eyes to water. The air is filthy but that is not all. The raw sewage produced by 30 million people-- 30 million-- is dumped straight into the Yangtze River as it flows past. The countryside nearby is not the place to go for fresh air: there you notice that the leaves of trees-- along with everything else-- are coated with black dust from the coal mines and factories in the region. More acid rain falls on Chongqing than anywhere else on earth.
...Nearly a third of China's rivers are so polluted that they aren't even fit for agriculture or industrial use, according to Chinese government statistics. Village doctors have documented increased cancer rates near polluting factories and chemical plants. Untreated waste water dumped into China's famed Yangtse River is killing marine life and turning its water "cancerous," according to Xinhua, the state-controlled media outlet.
...Lack of enforcement of environmental laws is also a big problem in India. Its capital city, Delhi, used to have pollution levels ten times higher than the nation's legal limit, mostly because of the high-pollution taxis, trucks and buses on its roads. Delhi has the world's worst air pollution in 2002, but managed to clean up its filthy air after being taken to task by India's Supreme Court. The overhaul began in 1997. Some steps were long overdue: the city finally banned lead gas. However belatedly, the city reduced pollution from Delhi's power plants by installing scrubber to clean up smokestack emissions and requiring them to burn cleaner coal. It banished motorized rickshaws and buses built before 1990 from the roads. In 1998, the court required all city buses to run on compressed natural gas (CNG)-- a cleaner fuel than gasoline-- by 2001... Just 10 percent of sewage is treated in India, with the rest dumped into waterways, along with industrial pollution. India's rivers-- even the holy Ganges-- have become sewers.
I still remember leaving a restaurant in one town after dinner and seeing some kids behind it filling up the "bottled water" from a garden hose.