The rising number of respiratory ailments, particularly asthma, should convince Filipinos by now that air quality in the country has gone from bad to worse.
A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) makes it official: Air pollution causes some seven million deaths a year.
The worst toll, as the report points out, is in low and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, where the Philippines belongs, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor fumes and 2.6 million more from outdoors.
Pollution is now considered the world’s biggest environmental health risk, accounting for one in eight global deaths.
The less affluent, as is usually the case, are more at risk. In Southeast Asian and Western Pacific countries, indoor pollution is often due to cooking fuel used like wood, coal or dung. Outdoor pollution may be attributed primarily to toxic emissions from poorly maintained motor vehicles and industrial activities.
In the Philippines, many families, even in Metro Manila, still use firewood or charcoal in cooking. And you only have to stand a few minutes on the street to be reminded that, despite so-called emission tests, many motor vehicles, particularly buses and jeepneys, violate air quality regulations. Commuters, particularly those who take jeepneys, breathe in deadly fumes released by poorly maintained vehicles.
Jeepneys, which are inefficient and noisy (they are not even interesting anymore unlike the jeepneys of old), should have been phased out a long time ago, but local politicians seem to be more concerned about the number of votes they will lose rather than the risk to people’s health.
The same may be said of buses, many of which are in such poor condition they should not be allowed on the road at all, since they put at risk both pedestrians and passengers.
As for industries, government agencies usually act only when the problem has become too serious to be ignored.
The worsening pollution problem, says Dr. Carlos Dora, WHO coordinator for public health, environmental and social determinants of health, “is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry.”
The new WHO report has given more urgency to the recent initiative by young people, senior citizens, bikers, women and children, persons with disability, medical professionals and many others to petition government to give more space to car-less people. The coalition is petitioning for a Writ of Kalikasan that would compel the government to divide roads into two—half will be for motor vehicles and the other half should be turned into wide walkways and bikeways.
The group cited a report of the World Bank and the Philippine government itself that says only two out of 100 Filipinos own motor vehicles. So, the question was raised: “Why aren’t the 98 percent given a proper place to walk?”
The petitioners said they were fed up with traffic congestion and air pollution, even criminality, on the streets. One of the petitioners, Valerie May Cruz, said, “Roads are meant for people, not motor vehicles.”
Nick Robinson, environmental law professor at New York’s Pace Law School, lauded the initiative. He said road sharing could cut down by more than half the heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
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