Gasping for Fresh Air in Delhi and Colombo: Miles to go before we can breathe easily!

CSE TVEAP Media Briefing on Air Qualitry Issues in Colombo, 27 April 2011

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Gasp! Asthma on the rise – and we made it all possible. I argued how we who suffer from Asthma — and our numbers keep increasing — are also contributing to making the bad problem worse.

So I write, speak and make films about clean air entirely with an enlightened self interest: I want to breathe more easily. This week, just a few days ahead of the annual World Asthma Day, I once again declared this as I opened a Media Briefing on the Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities organised in Colombo today by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi and TVE Asia Pacific.

I held up my life-saving inhaler that I always carry around wherever I go, and am never more than a few feet away from. This is not theatrics, but drama in real life. Almost exactly a year ago, I was rushed to hospital at night for nebulisation. I don’t suffer such attacks too often, thank goodness, but I also don’t want to take chances — as I can never count on good air in my home city.

And I’m far from being alone. Wherever I go, I find increasing numbers of fellow asthma sufferers: we gripe and groan, but only a few among us realise that our lifestyles, choices and apathy contributes to the worsening quality of our air.

Almost every South Asian city today is reeling under severe air pollution and gridlocked urban traffic congestion. Colombo, a medium sized city by South Asian standards, has the (slight) advantage of the sea breeze flushing out part of its polluted air — but Greater Colombo is still struggling with polluting fuels, outdated vehicle technologies and rising numbers of private vehicles leading to massive congestion. Air quality levels vary considerably as we travel to the interior of the island, but some provincial cities now have mounting air pollution problems.

Finding the 'Common Air' in everybody's self interest...

This is why we collaborated with CSE, which has a long track record in knowledge-based advocacy for clean air in India and other countries of developing Asia, to organise this event. It was an open forum where air quality experts in Sri Lanka and India engaged Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters on the status of Sri Lanka’s air quality and what it can learn from the neighbouring countries.

In my remarks, I said: “The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options.

I added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”

See my PowerPoint presentation:

Read more: Gasping for Fresh Air, Seeking More Liveable Cities in South Asia

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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