A report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?
The 2009 World’s Worst Polluted Places: 12 Cases of Cleanup and Success is the fourth on the state of pollution in some of the world’s worst polluted places published by the Blacksmith Institute. It was compiled from nominations received from around the world. The report includes success stories from Chile, China, Domincan Republic, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Russia and Tanzania.
The success stories come from a range of approaches: old-fashioned techniques (such as the removal and replacement of contaminated soil) and innovative ways to recapture mercury vapours. It also reviews technical methods such as chemical interventions, bioremediation and bioaccumulation, which can involve the use of cow dung, molasses and worms.
While pollution clean-up needs to be an essential part of an overall framework of environmental management, pollution prevention should be the main objective if the developing world is to deliver the policies for healthy citizens, sustainable development and poverty eradication. It is often the poor and socially marginalised who suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating environmental quality. Therefore the focus should on prevention rather than cure.
There is a growing need in developing countries to determine not only the state of environmental quality but to identify cost-effective measures to protect human health and the environment. Details of success projects such as those highlighted in the report can assist developing countries in achieving better environmental quality. They provide concrete examples of key approaches and mechanisms which have been used to clean-up pollution. They can motivate decision-makers to follow a similar course of action or to adapt a particular approach to local context and circumstances.
However, the efforts to clean-up pollution remains a major problem in the developing world and continues to pose risks to human health. With large numbers of people being affected by traditional sources of pollution such as industrial emissions, poor sanitation, inadequate waste management, contaminated water supplies and exposures to indoor air pollution from biomass fuels. These are particularly severe in large urban areas which have to grapple with simultaneous rapid motorisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, increased population and weak institutional capacity and poor infrastructure.
Risks attributable to environmental pollution in the developing world have been estimated to be 15–35 times greater than in developed countries. The World Health Organization has attempted to assess the global burden of disease as a result of environmental pollution in terms of mortality or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).
About 8–9% of the total disease burden may be attributed to pollution, but considerably more in developing countries. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene are seen to be the major sources of exposure, along with indoor air pollution.
Problems of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, for example, account for an estimated 6.6% of DALYs in Africa, and 4.7% in south-east Asia, compared with 0.5% in Europe. Indoor air pollution accounts for 4.4% of DALYs in Africa and 3.6% in south-east Asia, compared to 0.4% in Europe. In absolute terms the differences are even more stark.
The total number of DALYs per head of population attributable to these two risk factors in Africa are 29.1 per thousand for unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene and 19.3 per thousand for indoor air pollution; in south-east Asia they are 12.8 and 9.9 per thousand, respectively; in Europe they are 0.8 and 0.6 per thousand, respectively.
Economic development is often seen as the driving force to improve environmental quality in the developing world. However, a key factor in addressing environmental pollution is political will. While policies on paper may look sophisticated and comprehensive the reality is often different on the ground. That is why ensuring policies are enforced and monitored is paramount to preventing pollution in the first place and protecting the most vulnerable in society.
© Gary Haq 2009
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