LONDON -- A hazy brown cloud covering South Asia to a depth of three kilometers (two miles) is disrupting seasonal monsoon weather patterns, damaging agriculture, and risking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region, scientists working with an United Nations study said today.
The pollution that is forming the haze could be leading to "several hundreds of thousands" of premature deaths as a result of higher levels of respiratory diseases in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the report suggests.
"Asian Brown Cloud: Climate and Other Environmental Impacts" is a UNEP Assessment Report, issued this morning in London by Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
"These initial findings clearly indicate that this growing cocktail of soot, particles, aerosols and other pollutants are becoming a major environmental hazard for Asia," warned Toepfer.
"The haze is the result of forest fires, the burning of agricultural wastes, dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers burning wood, cow dung and other biofuels," he said.
Studies indicate that the level of fatalities is rising along with the levels of pollution. Results from seven cities in India alone, including Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay), estimate that some kinds of air pollution were annually responsible for 24,000 in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s they resulted in an estimated 37,000 premature fatalities.
"There are also global implications not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretches three kilometres high, can travel half way round the globe in a week," he warned.
The concern is that the regional and global impacts of the haze are set to intensify over the next 30 years as the population of the Asian region rises to an estimated five billion people.
The findings on the Asian Brown Cloud have come from observations gathered by 200 scientists working on the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) supplemented by new satellite readings and computer modelling.
The UNEP Scientific Panel behind the new report includes leading academics in the field such as Professor V. (Ram) Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen of the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, and A.P. Mitra of the National Physical Laboratory in India.
Ramanathan, one of the best respected scientists in the field, has served as principal investigator on the NASA Earth Radiation Budget Experiment since 1979. He serves on the board Tata Energy Research Institute, Arlington, Virginia, and since 1991 has been director of the Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate at Scripps.
He is co-chief scientist of the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) and chair of its International Steering Committee.
The scientists are calling for an action plan to address the threats across Asia as a whole.
"The haze problem is comparable, if not more severe, in South East and east Asia including China," the report says.
This blanket of pollution cuts the amount of sunlight or solar energy hitting the Earth's surface by as much as 10 to 15 percent.
At the same time, "its heat absorbing properties are estimated to be warming the lower parts of the atmosphere considerably," the panel reports.
"This combination of surface cooling and lower atmosphere heating appears to be altering the winter monsoon," the panel found, "leading to a sharp fall in rainfall over northwestern parts of Asia and increase of rainfall along the eastern coast of Asia."
Comprehensive regional models and regional aerosol and climate observations are needed for verification. Project Asian Brown Cloud aims to establish observatories to study the haze and its impacts on agriculture, water supplies, and human health.
UNEP said in a statement that the project is intended to "shed more light on the complex science linking pollution hazes in the region with issues such as global warming."
The agency does not intend to use this pollution cloud as a reason to shut down economic growth. The goal is to help policy makers plan strategies that will help "reduce pollution and ensure the sustainability of the impressive economic growth rates in the region," UNEP said.
As UNEP Executive Director, Toepfer has been gearing up for years for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) which opens in Johannesburg in two weeks, on August 26. The summit of heads of government and heads of state comes 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and is meant to achieve action, not just plans and pledges, to implement practical sustainable development that does not destroy the environment and natural resources.
UNEP prepared this study as part of a series in advance of the summit in order to alert world leaders to emerging threats to the survival of life on Earth.
"The huge pollution problems emerging in Asia encapsulate the threats and challenges that the summit needs to urgently address," Toepfer declared today.
"These are how to achieve economic growth without sacrificing the long term health and natural wealth of the planet. We have the initial findings, and the technological and financial resources available," he asserted, "let's now develop the science and find the political and moral will to achieve this for the sake of Asia, for the sake of the world."
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