Cloud over the haze

UNEP rushes in where fools fear to tread. Cheap publicity or bad politics?

Published: Sunday 15 September 2002

the un Environment Programme (unep) needs to revamp its publicity department so that it can report with accuracy. With the World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) at Johannesburg barely a few weeks away, it chose to release the preliminary study on the Asian haze, which it claims to have sponsored. Predictably the western media went overboard with the so-called un report, based on the findings of the six-year-old Indian Ocean experiment (indoex) project, describing the "Asian brown haze" as contributing to global warming and possibly shifting across the Pacific to Europe and the us.

Ironically, a report that is supposed to have such overreaching significance for Asia, and the Indian sub-continent in particular, was rushed to the western capitals but simply not available to the developing world. All the press reports from unep's press conference emanated from London with the un's publicity managers ignoring New Delhi, where a major chunk of the indoex project was conducted.

Equally predictable is that this hamhanded publicity by unep is creating a backlash. The Indian government has in a statement called the report unfortunate and far-fetched as it draws links between droughts and floods in a chronically disaster-prone region and aerosol pollution, without conclusive evidence. It is worried that the unep report and the publicity about threats of transboundary movement of aerosols will embarrass India at the wssd and compromise its negotiating position on global warming.

Perhaps. unep has definitely overplayed issues in its haste to get publicity. Some would even call it bad politics. For instance, it says that the brown haze is leading to thousands, perhaps millions of premature deaths. There is no way the scientists could have estimated this. At most they can draw inferences from the fact that particulate pollution in Indian cities has severe health impacts.

What is known is that indoex found a vast cloud of aerosols over the Indian Ocean in the winter months. It also found, on chemical analysis that the tiny particles were from anthropogenic sources. It then went on to run a number of models to estimate the possible impacts of this cloud and the variety of scenarios -- mostly converged to the possibility of changes in precipitation and sunlight patterns in the region. Down To Earth cover story (August 15, 2002) points to the scientific findings of indoex but also how the science of aerosols is still nascent and a lot more research needs to go into it.

unep should have recognised this and also the sensitivities attached to the report. For instance, there is little information in the scientific publications based on indoex project, which suggests that the Asian haze is moving across continents. There is even little knowledge, understandably, on precisely where the aerosols come from. There cannot be. What is known is that the haze comprises the same pollution choking Indian and other Asian cities. Therefore, it would be logical to argue that something is definitely hanging up there and that it could create serious problems for us. That, in itself, would have been a powerful message.

What worries us is that this attempt at cheap publicity could damage the growing consensus in the region on air pollution control. Governments are bound to get into defensive positions. What could be lost in this contested haze is what we already know. unep has done environmental movement in the region a disservice.

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