Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Clearing the Air: Pollution in the Southern Cone

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization released a report on air pollution in 1,100 cities around the world, which it says contribute to respiratory problems and 1.34 million premature deaths per annum. Unsurprisingly, it’s cities in densely populated Asian countries, specifically Iran, India and Pakistan, that have the world’s worst air quality, due largely to dirty fuels that include firewood and coal, and poorly monitored motor vehicles.

The WHO calculates its rankings on the basis of airborne particles smaller than ten micrometers, with a recommended upper limit of 20. By that standard, the Iranian city of Ahvaz has the world’s worst air quality, at 372 grams micrograms per cubic meter. At the other extreme, Santa Fe, New Mexico, registered only six micrograms per cubic meter and Washington DC measured 18.

By these standards, Southern Cone cities, particularly those in Chile, come off not so good but less than catastrophic – at least compared with their Asian counterparts. Chile, of course, is a mining country and, on top of that, its geography is unfavorable: like Southern California, Santiago and other heartland cities lie in a basin between a coast range and the high Andes, which traps particulate matter. This gives Santiago (pictured above, after a winter storm has cleared the air) the country’s second-highest figure, with a reading of 69. Only Rancagua, about an hour south, has a higher reading, at 74; Rancagua not only has a similar geography to Santiago, but suffers from its proximity to the huge El Teniente copper mine in the Andean foothills to the east.
Most heartland cities are in a similar plight: Talca (pictured above) registered 49 and Chillán 52. Of the northern mining cities, the port of Antofagasta (pictured below) was the most polluted, with a reading of 55, while Calama measured only 50 – despite the presence of the gigantic open-pit copper mine at nearby Chuquicamata. The southern city of Temuco had a surprisingly low figure of 49, given that its residents use so much firewood for heating and cooking.
While all these figures are higher than desirable, they’re not alarmingly high like the Asian and all are below the global average of 79. The figures also can be misleading because they are not geographically specific – the air quality in Santiago’s poorer western neighborhoods, for instance, is worse than the richer eastern barrios. While that’s deplorable in terms of environmental justice, at best, it also means it will not affect most visitors. It’s those who have to live there that suffer most.
Across the Andes, things are a bit better. I’ve long argued against the clichéd depiction of Buenos Aires (pictured above) as the “Paris of the South,” but in one sense that’s true – according to the WHO, its reading of 38 is identical to the French capital. Across the Río de la Plata, Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo (pictured below) checked in only a little worse, with a reading of 39.

Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires in Millbrae (San Mateo County)

Thursday September 29 will mark the last of four digital slide presentations on the fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, at various branches of the San Mateo Public Library. This event starts at 1 p.m. at the Millbrae Library (1 Library Avenue, Millbrae, CA 94030, tel. 650/697-7607). There will be ample time for questions and answers, and books (also including Moon Argentina and Moon Chile) will be on sale (at a discount).

Next month, I will be on the road promoting the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia. Most of the events will be in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I will also be appearing in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington; Vancouver BC; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Pasadena, California. Watch this space for details.

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