India is grappling with a "public health disaster" and the air pollution levels in New Delhi are a "visible killer", a senior UN pollution expert has said as the global body's children's agency called on the governments in South Asia to take urgent action to address the air quality crisis.Senior Programme Management Officer for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in India Valentin Foltescu said the world Health Organization described pollution as the invisible killer.
"What we have in northern India right now, in the Indo-Gangatic plane, we have a situation where we have a visible killer. It's that bad," he told the UN News.
Referring to the odd-even traffic rule put in place by the Delhi government, Foltescu said such a measure was not expected to have a "huge impact".
"Because an odd even scheme will not compensate for, in terms of emission reductions from traffic, will not by far compensate (what) the National Capital Region is receiving in terms of contributions from open burning," Foltescu said.
He said to deal with the problem of pollution in the long term, the states had to deal with traffic, industries, construction dust among other sources.
In northern India, the atmospheric conditions during this time of the year are not very favourable, Foltescu said.
"I wouldn't say it's the problem of the weather that creates the pollution episodes. It's still the emissions that are very large and that combined to the weather exacerbate the problem by the pollutants being kept close to the ground for longer periods," he said.
Foltescu said the pollution pattern in India was very complex in terms of seasonality, source profiles and the way those sources translate into pollution concentration levels.
"What we are seeing in India right now is indeed a public health emergency, public health disaster. The major contributor to this particular pollution episode is open stubble burning from the states adjacent to the National Capital Region," he said.
In addition, there are the regular sources of pollution - industry, traffic, construction, waste management or waste mismanagement, he said, adding that the UNEP has decided to work with those sectors, which will be making a difference into reducing air pollution levels in Delhi and beyond.
The UN agency is working with the agriculture sector to revert the practices of open burning to more sustainable practices, which will not involve any burning. The agency is also supporting projects on the ground to improve adoption of sustainable practices in agriculture that will remove altogether open burning, he said.
The other sectors that the UNEP is working with is the waste sector and the industry, including the brick kilns, and working with educating children in schools.
"The bottom line is that we believe that what is fundamental to (achieving) a big transformational change is to change the mindset and knowledge for the people, starting with children and till their grandfathers," he said.
On the toxic air in South Asia, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore voiced concern over how children continue to suffer from the dire consequences of air pollution.
"Around 620 million children in the region breathe polluted, toxic air. Because they have smaller lungs, breathe twice as fast as adults, and lack the immunities that come with age, children endure its damaging health and neurological effects the most," Fore said in a statement.
She said air pollution was associated with one of the biggest killers of children with pneumonia, and linked to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory infections.
"Air pollution damages brain tissue and undermines cognitive development in babies and young children, leading to lifelong consequences that can affect their learning outcomes and future potential," she said.
Fore said there was evidence to suggest that adolescents exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more likely to experience mental health problems.
"The toxicity to children's brain development and health is also toxic to society, which no government can afford to ignore. The ripple effects extend far and wide. When children are sick, they frequently miss school," she said.
Citing the example of New Delhi, where schools had to be shut due to the toxic levels of air pollution, Fore said pollution levels were literally above the range that sensors could measure, many times above what can reasonably be considered safe for children and clearly presenting grave risks to their health and development.
"Health expenses may increase if children need care and treatment. Parents may need to stay home too, in order to care for their children. Potential income is lost, and quality of life is reduced. The effects of air pollution on children can be felt well into adulthood," she said.
UNICEF called for urgent action to address the air quality crisis and said governments in the region and around the world should take urgent steps to reduce air pollution.
It urged the governments to investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion, provide affordable access to clean public transport, increase green spaces in urban areas, change agricultural practices and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.
"Children have a right to live in a clean environment and to breathe clean air. We must act now," she said.