Asia has just passed a grim milestone — New Delhi, Beijing, Seoul, Islamabad, Kathmandu and Dhaka have all made it to the top 10 list of the world’s most polluted cities. The World Health Organisation reports that the percentage of Fine Particulate Matter — PM2.5 — a noxious mixture of liquid droplets and solid particles — now lurches from red to purple on the Air Quality Index in the major metropolitan areas of the world’s most populous continent.
Changing course is the only solution, but Asia’s major cities appear to be trapped in a model of development favoured by First World financiers, seemingly oblivious to the climate emergency. Citizens watch in helpless despair as cranes and bulldozers devour the scant supply of soil and water of their ancient precincts, erecting numberless super malls and condo towers of uniform banality. Colossal hoardings at construction sites attempt to distract from the plunder, with the spurious promise of “luxury lifestyles” — brandishing photos of smart young couples with trim haircuts and perfect teeth dangling gym-toned legs into a rooftop pool while enjoying a fresh beverage in a long-stemmed glass. Never mind the hordes of beleaguered laborers wielding power tools without masks or protective gear.
It feels ludicrous, even reckless, to hoist a glass of imported wine in a faux Parisian bistro, when the air is fouled by noxious fumes from the heaving mass of vehicles which chug to and fro on the broken roads. You have to wear a mask to have afternoon tea in a garden, if the neighbourhood still has a garden. A friend texted from Bodh Gaya, the sacred pilgrimage site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, with a doleful report that the air was black and his mask didn’t work.
And now even Bangkok, the Paris of Asia, for long the most elegant of Asian capitals, is shuddering under the weight of ubiquitous “development” projects, prompting public health officials to fire water cannons and spray pavements to allay the effects of poisoned air. In the 1990s the Thai government took successful measures to reduce air pollution with the conversion of diesel vehicles to natural gas, regulation of construction sites and building a Skytrain and a subway. Thailand’s beloved King Rama IX, who passed away in 2016, advanced public education, family planning and the model of a “sufficiency economy” for the modern era, which put Thailand’s living standards far ahead of its neighbours. But now the quest for ever more tourist arrivals and luxury living units is choking Southeast Asia’s central metropolis, which hosts over 20 million visitors per year according to the MasterCard Destination Cities Index.
It takes willful denial to ignore the cost of this globalisation frenzy, to cite the “resilience” of Asian peoples, when the data is plain: respiratory illness in Asian children is up over 70 per cent, the water table is shrinking, the flood of migration overwhelms government agencies and makes a mockery of tens of thousands of NGOs, which justify their salary levels by issuing pompous press releases about how countries “should do more”. Expat cocktail chatter is infused with the sharing of statistics, the Air Quality Index in Saigon, PM2.5 levels in Mumbai, which segue into beach tips and airline updates. A popular theme is Paradise Lost, the ruination of Bali, the loss of Goa, and whether it is ethical to visit Myanmar, given how the military government is comporting itself.
Governments, scientists and civic groups across Asia have for years convened and debated on how to manage the pollution crisis, but what local vehicular inspections and plastic bag bans exist have failed to restrain the profligate practices of global tourism and high finance. I voluntarily confess to being an avaricious tourist in Asia since childhood, but in recent years I have wondered if my flights to New Delhi justified the plastic debris created by my “special meal” vegetarian entree. UNWTO, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, makes no secret of being a tool of the industry, the mission statement states that it “generates market knowledge… encourages the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism”. Article 7 of this Global Code is the “Right to Tourism”, which states: “The prospect of direct and personal access to the discovery and enjoyment of the planet’s resources constitutes a right equally open to all the world’s inhabitants… and obstacles should not be placed in its way.” At present the greatest obstacle to this Universal Declaration of Tourist Rights is climate change, but let’s deal with that after we’ve locked down our budget package in the Maldives, because Bali is way too crowded and Goa isn’t fun anymore.
Mahatma Gandhi once wrote: “Heaven help us if the East should industrialise like the West — it will strip the world bare like locusts.” Has anyone told the financiers who are underwriting Asia’s new mega malls of the old Indian saying: “Mother Nature plays the last hand in the card game?”
The writer is a New York-based author and researcher who specialises in Asian history and current events