The Armageddon Haze
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
25 Jan 2011 03:54
[ dispatch ] Tehran's air pollution has become a year-round problem that has complicated life in this beast of a city. And it seems there is not much of a solution.
As snow covers Tehran and bogs down its infamous traffic even more, Neda, a 30-year-old housewife, is "simply happy." She says, "I know I am going to be stuck in traffic, but I can breathe. It is great to have some clean air after so long." And clean air is indeed a rare luxury in the capital. Only a few weeks ago a dark grey haze hovered over the city. The air pollution index reached new heights and lung-related health problems soared. Pejman, 25, a student, describes the haze as an "ominous gloomy cloud. It scared me. It was like the clouds in one of those Armageddon movies Hollywood makes. It was like a sign of the end of the world."
The haze was everywhere from the western suburbs, where the air quality is usually bearable, to Imam Khomeini International airport in the south, where the Tehran valley opens out. There was no wind to break it up or push it away," complained Akbar, 45, a cab driver who lives in Shahriar, southwest of Tehran. "We always have wind in Shahriar, but there was none. The air was still, no motion, no nothing." He wore a mask every day. "I have to work in downtown and around Azadi Square, a transportation hub in the west of Tehran. I could not breathe without one," he said. Although Akbar is used to Tehran's pollution, on this occasion it was a challenge. "All the time, I felt a strange taste in my mouth. My throat became infected and I had to take antibiotics."
The thick gray cloud of smog blanketed the city for almost two months. The government implemented "even-odd" driving restrictions. It banned cars with plates ending in odd numbers from use on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays; cars with even-numbered plates were similarly banned on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The penalty for disobedience was a hefty $13 per hour. Alireza, a shopkeeper in central Tehran, paid many such tickets. "I had to take my car -- there was no other way to get to work. The officer at the highway entrance would pull me over and write me a ticket. By the time I arrived at work, an hour would have passed. The officer there would pull me over again and write me another ticket." The measure was implemented rigorously; several individuals showed Tehran Bureau their tickets. However the air pollution index did not improve.
Desperate situations require desperate measures. The government organized an aerial operation. Airplanes flew over Tehran, spraying water to wash down pollutant particles. "It is a joke," Masoomeh Ebtekar, a city council member, wrote in her weblog. "Tehran covers an 800 sq km area, it is a vast area and spraying water over it is useless." Small planes usually used for agricultural purposes were employed. As another blogger wrote, "Those airplanes are for flying a few dozen feet above the ground and spraying water on farms, not for spraying a metropolitan area from 1,000 feet." The water vaporized almost instantly. The air remained polluted.
Headlines in pro-government media promised relief in the form of rain and wind. None came. As the air pollution index remained in the red zone, authorities became increasingly alarmed. Committees were formed and officials met behind closed doors to discuss the crisis. Some information leaked out to the public. In a meeting with members of the Majles, Iran's parliament, Health Ministry officials revealed that the deaths of at least 3,641 individuals were related to the pollution. The information was released by Vahid Norouzi, head of the Tehran Emission Test Center. In Avay-e Sabz, his environmental issues blog, he wrote, "The health department representative gave the number and broke it down for different pollutants. He did not say the number was confidential, although last year the statistics were categorized as classified information." His report was immediately contested by Health Minister Vahideh Dastjerdi, who told reporters that her department does not think the number is "valid." She acknowledged, however, that the number of emergency calls for cardiac problems increased by 16 percent during the crisis and calls for pulmonary problems rose 30 percent.
Notwithstanding the precise death toll, Tehran residents blame the government. Koroush, 34, a chemical engineer, believes the pollution was caused by the nature of the fuel drivers now available. "We cannot import enough petroleum because of sanctions, so the government is producing car fuel in petrochemical plants." It is rumored that the level of benzene in the fuel is many factors higher than is safe. "It does not burn in the engine and enters the atmosphere as particles," Koroush adds.
Hossein Ali Shahriari, chairman of the Majles's Health Committee, offered confirmation. He told reporters last December, "The fuel produced in refineries could be one of the causes of Tehran's air pollution." He was skeptical that improving fuel quality would be sufficient to solve the crisis. "Tehran needs more public transportation and its subway system must be expanded," he added, referring to the two billion dollars set aside by the Majles for the expansion of Tehran's subway system, which the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has refused to disburse.
Finally Shahriar's wind began to blow. It pushed the pollution out of the valley in which Tehran lies, surrounded on three sides by mountains. Clouds rich with snow and rain finally arrived, as well. The air quality improved and blue sky could once again be seen. "It was a relief, like finding hope," said Neda. "I felt I would live longer now." Driving restrictions have been lifted, and life has returned to something like normal. As winter snow covers Tehran and the attention paid to pollution dissipates, Shahriari reminded reporters, "The authorities will forget about the problem as the present crisis ends, but the pollution is there. It will be back." One wonders how many more will die in the next crisis. For the time being, Tehranis are happy to fill their lungs with oxygen once more.
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau