22 August 2007

Ah, the sweet smell of diesel in the morning

[8/17/07 Dear Jesse, After walking around Antananarivo the other day, I came home and wiped my nose on a tissue. The white paper turned charcoal gray, stained by the soot that floats around the air here and cakes the nostrils of the city’s 2 million inhabitants.

I met today with the spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Madagascar, Sylvain Rafiadana-Ntsoa, and he told me that air pollution is a low priority here. Other health issues, like malaria and dihedral diseases, kill far more people. There isn’t enough money to do it all, he said.

Still, Africa is the urbanizing more quickly than any other continent. And the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills 800,000 people every year. Developing countries bear a bigger proportion of the pollution than their richer counterparts.

In Madagascar’s capital, it is difficult to breathe walking down the street, and exercising in such conditions is next to impossible. The bikers and runners hit the streets at about 5 a.m., to avoid the smog that hits at the 6 o’clock rush hour. Guidebooks warn tourists they will have a headache for the first two weeks they are in Tana. I can attest to that so far. It feels like you’re standing near a gas pump almost all the time. And this isn’t close to one of Africa’s most-polluted cities – much less China’s.

Automobiles create much of the pollution. Trucks and buses leave furry black tails behind on the road – thick, wet and sticky, like cancerous cotton candy. The streets are narrow, winding and crowded, and the cars are mostly from the 1960s and 70s, without emissions regulators or clean-burning fuel.

Before I left The Oklahoman, I did a project on Oklahoma City’s air quality woes. Those issues, while still important, seem minor in compared to the pollution here. And for the Malagasy, it’s not an issue at all. There's not enough money to make it one. -- John]

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