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India home to 22 of 30 most polluted cities in the world: report

Gurugram tops list; Bangladesh and Pakistan urban areas also rank among worst

Visitors peer at the Taj Mahal through morning air pollution in Agra, India, in January.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- The bustling Indian city of Gurugram, near the capital, has the world's most toxic air, according to a new report, which also shows that the South Asian country is home to 22 out of the 30 most polluted cities globally.

Neighboring Pakistan's Faisalabad and Lahore placed Nos. 3 and 10, respectively, while Bangladesh's capital Dhaka took the 17th spot, according to the "2018 World Air Quality Report," released by IQAir AirVisual and Greenpeace. New Delhi placed 11th.

This shows how alarming the pollution situation is in South Asia, which is home to one-fourth of the world's population. "At a country level, weighted by population, Bangladesh emerges as the most polluted country on average, closely followed by Pakistan and India," the report says.

Five of the 30 most toxic cities, including Hotan (eighth) and Kashgar (19th), are in China. However, extensive monitoring networks and air pollution reduction policies have led to significant improvements in bringing down the Chinese cities' average PM2.5 concentration levels, which fell by 12% from 2017 to 2018. Beijing ranks 122nd, according to the report, which collected data from over 3,000 cities globally.

In Southeast Asia, Jakarta and Hanoi are the two most polluted cities, ranking 161 and 209 respectively. With Beijing's air quality getting better, Jakarta risks overtaking China's famously polluted capital soon, according to the report's findings.

The problem persists despite countries' efforts to tackle pollution.

In India, the Supreme Court has banned the manufacture of firecrackers that cause air and noise pollution, and only allows production of "green" crackers that do not contain harmful chemicals. Three-wheeled auto-rickshaws run on compressed natural gas. People who burn garbage face heavy penalties. And the Delhi state government also piloted a scheme under which vehicles can run on the city roads on alternate days, corresponding to their odd or even number plates. The country also aims to have at least 30% of its vehicles running on electricity by 2030.

For its part, Bangladesh is also trying to ensure that polluters pay penalties and traditional cook stoves that use wood as fuel are replaced with clean-burning cook stoves, among other measures. Pakistan too is working to ensure that solid waste is properly managed and not burned, and pollution filters are installed in factories.

Workers toil at a polluted site at a dockyard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in September 2018.   © Reuters

Analysts say small measures are not enough, and concerted efforts are needed to reduce or remove pollution at the source. Greater use of renewable energy for electricity generation is needed, instead of depending on coal-fired thermal plants. The burning of stubble -- residue left after crop harvesting -- by farmers must be controlled.

In the latest report, the cities are ranked based on amounts of PM2.5, a pollutant with a diameter equal to or smaller than 2.5 microns that can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and heart ailments. Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for a mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air.

"In addition to human lives lost [due to air pollution], there's an estimated global cost of $225 billion in lost labor, and trillions in medical costs. This has enormous impacts, on our health and on our wallets," said Yeb Sano, executive director of Greenpeace South East Asia.

According to a UN Environment Program report released in October last year, of the 7 million who die prematurely each year from air pollution-related diseases, 4 million are in the Asia-Pacific region.

India alone accounts for over a million such deaths. According to a study by the Lancet Planetary Health published in December, 1.24 million deaths in India in 2017 were due to air pollution, making up 12.5% of the total deaths.

The latest rankings of the Indian cities, however, do not come as a shock. Previous studies have shown similar results. According to data released by the World Health Organization last year, 14 of the world's 20 most polluted cities in terms of PM2.5 levels in 2016 were in India.

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