Asia’s silent victoms of pollution and emissions.

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Ironically, road fatalities and the noxious clouds of industrial and hydrocarbon emissions from vehicles could be thought of as a success in development terms, indicating increased wealth. The problem is that we seem to be in perpetual catching-up mode to fix the ailments that go with success. The World Bank admitted that:

Road crashes cost approximately 1 to 3% of a country’s annual GNP … developing countries currently lose in the region of $100bn every year … almost twice as much as … total development assistance received worldwide.

Despite Harvard and the World Health Organisation (WHO) both insisting that road and occupational accidents look to outstrip infectious disease as the major causes of death and disability in the south, there is little evidence that donor agencies have shifted their priorities accordingly. Trauma medicine and rehabilitation centres remain rarities. Road and occupational deaths remain like wallpaper on the modernisation agenda: striking when first noticed, then increasingly invisible.

But figures can only be indicative. Lao colleagues told me that for cultural and financial reasons, corpses are often taken away by families and cremated, the death not reported. When I arrived in 2004, the number of motorcycles was beginning to exceed China-made Hare bicycles immortalised by Dervla Murphy. Hares may have been better value than Chinese motorbikes, which street talk asserts have unreliable lights and brakes, but are affordable. An acquaintance’s $600 motorbike had her repeatedly borrowing my tools as various parts failed, and her collection of scars increased. In many parts of Asia, vehicle-testing standards are non-existent. The Chinese-built Chery cars, found by the Russians to be “unsafe at any speed” (a claim the manufacturer denied) is the colourful choice among Vientiane’s successful women before they upgrade to something with more élan.

Visiting experts advocate rational and linear solutions. But in Asia, the cause and effect relationship is often non-rational. A Thai or Lao surviving a crash is more likely to erect a spirit house than reflect on the use of wing mirrors, or make merit at the temple rather than look before entering a stream of traffic. Passers-by may be reluctant to help a bleeding victim in case they “catch the lousy luck”. These are factors that cannot be changed simply with asphalted roads or traffic lights. And infrastructure solutions, such as the new poorly designed major arterial through Vientiane, may actually raise accident rates by enabling greater speed. Systematic corruption, such as enabling a proxy to buy a driving licence, undermines progress. New wealth also enables new drivers to drive powerful cars such as a Maserati (along with Humvees, and Mercedes sports, which are increasingly popular) they are ill-equipped to handle.

Posh cars driving under the Asian Brown Cloud, a toxic haze that can be easily seen dozing over most of south and south-east Asia, may be how people will come to think of Asia in the future. This murky mix of combustion products, vehicle and industrial emissions, can easily be seen from an aircraft, and is responsible for spiralling respiratory deaths in most Asian countries. It drove me out of Jakarta. Valleys like that of Chiang Mai and Katmandu fill with diesel fumes and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and held in by seasonal temperature inversion layers. Some cities such as Manila are trying their best to tackle the problem with emissions testing and new electric jeepneys. But China’s spectacular addiction to cars is corroding any headway made by other nations.

The Asian Brown Cloud also contributes to localised climate changes by reducing photosynthesis, drastically effecting food production for Asia’s expanding populations. Recent studies indicate that stormwater run off from roads carries toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from truck and car exhausts, as well as heavy metals such as lead and zinc into waterways. Up to 4kg of zinc can be found in large truck tyres – and released when friction hits the road. Runoff finds it way into water courses and contaminates fish. In Asia, the poor are dependent on fish as the primary source of dietary protein. The implications should be apparent.

I used to regularly encounter a handsome but severely brain-damaged young man on my morning Mekong walks. The victim of a crash, he was severely disabled. I have not seen him for months. He’s only one of the growing mass of victims who are silent statistics.

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