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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The air we breathe

I have a cough. Mostly it is dry tickly cough, but every now and then I suffer a fit of coughing and wheezing that renders me breathless and speechless, requiring me to sit down, take a sip of water and recompose myself. This is very annoying for me and those around me.

I am in Pakistan. I have been supplied with all sorts of pills, liquids and advice. The most unexpected is mulberry syrup. Every time I have one of my little fits, I sit down and someone brings me a glass of water, a spoon and a small bottle of mulberry syrup. Apparently every office in Pakistan has a little bottle of mulberry syrup stashed somewhere for just such occasions, and for sore throats  as indicated on the bottle. It is the remedy given to children with coughs and colds, so I suspect its efficacy is most likely to be emotional rather than physiological, but I am not one to refuse grandmotherly remedies whilst gasping for air.

Gasping for air in Pakistan is not fun. The air here at this time of year is thick with smog. The diesel generators that supply energy between the rolling blackouts, the brickworks that serve the rapid urban sprawl, the poorly regulated industries, the dust and the traffic, all make air that feels solid in weakened lungs. Apart from the remedies and advice, my colleagues have also been thoughtfully turning off air conditioning units in cars and rooms to keep me comfortable, highlighting a habit of environmental control that makes sense in high summer, but seems perverse in November. The ACs need generators, the generators belch smoke, the indoor environment is cooler, the outdoors is polluted. Turning off just a few air conditioners for just a few minutes seems a small benefit of my chest complaint.

I will survive this cough and I am glad for the mulberry syrup and kind concern, but the experience of breathing bad air with infected lungs makes me sad. I feel sad for the people who breathe this air all year, who cough and wheeze, whose lives are shortened as a result. I feel sad for the people working in the brickworks and unregulated industries who breathe much worse air every day. I feel sad for the women working in kitchens all over the world where the air is worse indoors than outdoors, the result of poor ventilation and biomass fuelled stoves.

And I am bewildered. I am bewildered that such conditions persist for billions of people all over the world in the twenty first century. This is meant to be the future. How is it that the people of Pakistan can do their banking on a device they carry around in their pockets while breathing air that kills? The simultaneous cleverness and the wilful ignorance of modern technological society will never fail to confound me. I simply do not understand.

Of course I understand the connections between development and pollution control, the need for stable government and a basic level of development to build the political capacity to pass and enforce good environmental regulation. I understand the chemistry of NOX and SOX and the formation of particulates during incomplete combustion. I understand the weather conditions that create smog. I understand globalisation of pollution and poverty, and the bottom line attraction of manufacturing in places with lax labour and environmental laws. I understand some of Pakistan’s history. I understand deep economic and social inequality, and the corruption that sustains it. I understand some of the factors that contribute to the current energy crisis.

I know all this, yet every time I am speechless with coughing and someone brings me a little bottle of mulberry syrup, I am lost. This is a beautiful world, full of kind, clever people. Why is it so hard for us to ensure that everyone has clean air to breathe?

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