Hong Kong Air Pollution

Autumn in HK: Tis the Season to be Smoggy

How glad we should be that Hong Kong's hot, humid summer is gone for a year; and yet, I find the autumn days less scintillating than I should. For the north wind doth blow, and we shall have smog, smog and more smog. [Written autumn 2004; a few updates since, remains applicable. For further info, with more frequent updates, see the pollution forum].

And we have more reports on the filthy air in the media - with the South China Morning Post running several special features. Reading them, it seems to me it's deja vu all over again: it's not new that vehicles emit particulates, factories and power stations pump out noxious fumes.

So what happens? Not much really; plenty of hand-wringing, sorry comments from officials that there isn't much we can do. While I've read that over in southern Guangdong, source of much of the pollution, officials are saying "Air pollution? I see no air pollution." [Some change; now, measuring it, but looks like moves to even slow increases in emissions are at snail's pace.]

Maybe instead they see money flowing into bank accounts, and it's best not too wonder too much about what it is in the air that muffles the horizon, makes distant hills and buildings fade into fuzzy white, and shrouds the sun long before it drops low enough for anything like a proper sunset.

Hong Kong part of smog blighted Pearl River Delta 

But this isn't just a cosmetic problem, nor something that political will can make untrue (much as George Bush might like to turn global warming into a wicked myth as it's politically inconvenient). One estimate reckoned over 2000 people a year die in Hong Kong because of air pollution; many more suffer serious health effects. And in Guangdong - in the blighted lands around the dark mills of the Pearl River Delta region - what might the figures be there?

Air pollution is having an economic impact, perhaps a huge impact; but it's maybe too subtle for many people to notice, for many officials and businessmen to really become concerned and strive for change. (Yes, we've seen important positive steps in Hong Kong, but it seems HK is too tender when dealing with Guandgong, and there, perhaps, the environmental officials find themselves stymied by those who, Bush-like, are driven by the need for profits and jobs today - and never mind the future.)

I've seen some discussions re whether much of our pollution originates on the mainland. I believe it does. My chief reason for this is that when the winds have a northerly component - and especially when they're light - the visibility is poor, sometimes terrible, because of smog. This is typical for much of autumn and winter, but even happens at times in summer and early autumn, when tropical storms/typhoons lie well to the east of Hong Kong.

In summer, by contrast, winds tend to be from the south/southwest, and even when there's only a slight breeze we can have sparkling, marvellous clear days. I live on Cheung Chau, and on such days I can ride the ferry to Central and look south to see islands dotted along the horizon. These islands aren't far away, yet for much of the late autumn and winter they disappear, lost in the smog.

- That isn't to say Hong Kong is blameless; despite LPG in taxis and minibuses, road vehicles belch fumes, and a couple of power stations contribute their share of filthy air. So in city streets, much of pollution is home made.

If you want to find more info on Hong Kong's air pollution, there is plenty on the web. Among sources:

EPD - Air is from the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department; a page introducing the air pollution problems, with links to more info, including the current Air Pollution Index for several monitoring stations. (Note that Hong Kong's air pollution "standards" may be too hgh to really relate to health - and are lax compared to at least some European countries; revision due by spring 2009.)

Clear the Air is a volunteer organisation working to combat Hong Kong's air pollution.

A Tale of Two Cities: Effects of Air Pollution on Hospital Admissions in Hong Kong and London Compared s a report on a study that revealed that when air pollution is high, more people are admitted to hospital. Effect of Air Pollution on Daily Mortality in Hong Kong covers another study, which found a significant increase in the numbers of deaths when air pollution is high in the cool months.

To see in real time how air pollution blurs the view over the Pearl River Delta (including Hong Kong), daytime only, check out the EOS satellite images on the Hong Kong Observatory site. White should be cloud; blurriness is likely pollution. For areas without cloud cover, one of the pages shows Aerosol Optical Depth, which more clearly indicates just which areas are extremely murky, which are plain murky and, if you're lucky, some clear parts.

Pearl River Delta Regional Air Quality Index, launched in late 2005, has regional maps with contours indicating severity of air pollution in different parts of the delta. Not very informative - as data assigned into five different categories, but get some ideas of which place was filthiest yesterday.

And to cheer yourself up even more (!), see a UNEP press release on the "Asian Brown Haze", which says, "A vast blanket of pollution stretching across South Asia [including China] is damaging agriculture, modifying rainfall patterns including those of the mighty Monsoon and putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk a new study suggests." You can download details about the Asian Brown Haze - or Asian Brown Cloud - here.

Martin Williams
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