Jakarta now rivals Beijing and New Delhi for dirty air

Jakarta now rivals Beijing and New Delhi for dirty air

31 Indonesians sue government

A general view of the capital city as smog covers it in Jakarta on Thursday. (Reuters photo)
A general view of the capital city as smog covers it in Jakarta on Thursday. (Reuters photo)

Istu Prayogi follows a checklist of things to bring before leaving his home in the Indonesian city of Depok, some 40 kilometres from Jakarta. He takes a face mask and jacket, as well as three different kinds of pills for his sensitive lungs. If he forgets, he suffers painful headaches and breathing difficulties.

A decade ago, after seeing blood in his urine, he went to three different hospitals but doctors in the first two gave him a clean bill of health.

Finally, the third doctor told him he had “crowded lungs” from breathing in dirty air in the capital, which is home to 10 million but has 30 million people on weekdays with commuters from nearby cities.

“I was confused at first because the doctor in the third hospital asked me whether I smoked, whether I often sleep late,” the 54 year-old tourism lecturer said.

“My answer was no to both. Then he told me that my lungs are sensitive, and my headaches were caused by air pollution.”

Istu is one of 31 plaintiffs suing seven Indonesian government bodies – including the presidential office, Jakarta’s gubernatorial office and the ministry of environment – over the air pollution in Jakarta and its surrounding areas. The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, also demands the president revise a 1999 law on air control and the relevant ministries more forcefully monitor pollution.

Like many Asian megacities, Jakarta chokes on pollution from traffic, industry and coal plants, which grows even more intense during the dry season. Over the past month, Jakarta has rivalled New Delhi, Lahore, Beijing and Wuhan as one of the world’s most polluted cities, according to AirVisual, an online monitor that tracks air quality based on the concentration of tiny airborne particles known as PM2.5.

AirVisual last year named Jakarta the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, ahead of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and the world’s 10th most polluted capital, faring slightly better than Beijing and Kathmandu.

According to AirVisual, Jakarta could soon be on par with China’s smog-choked cities, where average PM2.5 concentration dropped 12% in 2018 from the year before. Jakarta, on the other hand, had just 34 days of healthy air last year, down from 51 days in 2017.

Jakarta’s smog has become so visible that social media has been flooded with photographs of the hazy skyline alongside the hashtag #setorfotopolusi – which means “pollution photos deposit”. One photograph taken from an aeroplane showing a thick layer of haze prompted a Twitter user to suggest it is “Jakarta’s new meteor shield”.

Ayu Eza Tiara, a lawyer from Jakarta Legal Aid Institute and a member of the advocacy team filing the lawsuit said: “We had been planning to sue the government from 2016 but we always thought that a trial should be the last resort.”

She said the team had spoken to the government and showed officials research but they maintained the city’s air quality was fine.

“In the past three years, our air quality was often unhealthy but the government response [to our reports] have tended to be negative,” Ayu said.

“The people are starting to get angry, which is unprecedented,” says Ahmad Safrudin, chairman of the Jakarta-based non-profit Committee for Leaded Gasoline Eradication.

“Before last year’s Asian Games, we already told the government that Jakarta air, which would be inhaled by all of the athletes, was really bad, but the government denied that. We were using government’s own data which only measures PM10 [particles] and even that data showed that the air was unhealthy.”

These air pollutants, smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter, are considerably less dangerous than PM2.5, which can penetrate face masks and human respiratory systems.

In 2016, residents of Jakarta spent 51.2 trillion rupiah (110 billion baht) on health expenses due to air pollution-related diseases, according to the city’s health agency. Nearly 60% of Jakartans were affected.

According to the World Health Organisation, 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre is the recommended threshold, averaged over the course of a year, to minimise the health impact of air pollution. Indonesia, however, sets the annual threshold at 15 micrograms per cubic metre. Last year, Jakarta averaged 45.3 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre, the highest in Southeast Asia, according to AirVisual.

This higher threshold has been used by Jakarta officials to neutralise criticism of air quality.

“Indonesia’s regulation uses PM10 as a standard to measure air pollution, while the US uses PM2.5 so their reading could be much higher,” Andono Warih, acting head of Jakarta environmental agency, told reporters last month. “Our measurement shows that the pollution is not as bad as shown by AirVisual so we can’t say that Jakarta’s air quality is bad all the time.”

Andono also claimed it is “quite normal” for a city with ongoing infrastructure projects to be polluted.

However, critics argue the government’s more forgiving standard undermines policy to control the pollution, thereby putting citizens’ health at risk.

“Our standard is too loose – we need to use the same standard referred by the US or WHO,” says Bondan Andriyanu, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia. “The government needs to be more transparent. The public needs to know sources of pollution so we can get the best policy. We need an evidence-based and science-based solution. We can’t solve this in one day so the policies need to be continuously reviewed.”

Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan has acknowledged citizens’ concerns and said his administration planned to launch a new mobile app to track air quality and introduce new regulations to control vehicle emissions.

As for Istu, he now thinks twice before riding his motorbike from Depok to Jakarta.

“I don’t go to Jakarta if I don’t have to, but if I must go, I check my WhatsApp group with other plaintiffs, lawyers and NGOs to see which area is safe [from pollution],” Istu said. “I try to avoid places with high pollution levels, such as main roads in downtown Jakarta. I prefer to take the narrow alleyways now.

“To cure a disease we have to know what caused it first, and it’s the same thing with pollution. We know pollutants come from combustion, either from vehicles or factories that the government has allowed in our city. I think we have a strong chance to win the lawsuit because we have the evidence the government has been neglectful.”

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