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First comes the gun, then the choking air

A diesel-fuelled car in Kashmir producing black carbon, a highly polluting emission / Athar Parvaiz - Panos London

Imagine a scenario where the threat to the inhabitants of conflict-torn Kashmir won’t be the gun, but the quality of their air. The pollution trends in this part of the globe suggest that it has almost reached that point.

In the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, few of the vehicles plying the roads, the brick kilns, cement factories or the lime quarries meet the standards set by the state’s pollution control board. Each pumps black carbon, formed through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, and other harmful pollutants, freely into the air. Produced through diesel combustion and biomass burning, black carbon is now being recognised as a major contributor to climate change by scientists, after many years during which it was overlooked.

Black carbon – the overlooked threat

The good news is that black carbon stays in the atmosphere for only a short time, in contrast to carbon dioxide, which has an atmospheric lifetime of more than a century. The bad news: it appears to be capable of causing rapid environmental damage in the short time it is present.

In regions like the Himalayas, black carbon is seen as especially risky by some scientists as it makes the snow melt faster. “When black carbon deposits on ice it darkens it, thereby making it absorb sunlight which enhances the melting of snow,” says Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California.

Veerabhadran Ramanthan’s recent studies suggest black carbon is responsible for around 18 per cent of global warming, compared with 40 per cent for carbon dioxide.

“Given its tendency to cause instant damage, black carbon emissions in Kashmir obviously pose an additional danger to Kashmir’s glaciers,” adds the Indian glaciologist Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain who works with the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi. Professor Hasnain is currently studying Kolhai glacier in Kashmir which he believes is retreating rapidly.

Car ownership is booming

Pollution from vehicles is emerging as the primary source of black carbon. The regional transport officer, Anees Ahmad, says the number of vehicles registered in his office on 31 March 2009 stood at 2.45 million, including 68,940 commercial vehicles. Due to a boom in Indian-manufactured small cars and commercial mini buses this represents a huge rise on the 25,253 vehicles registered in 1986 and 80,143 in 1997.

Apart from private vehicles, thousands of diesel-fuelled vehicles, used by the Indian army and paramilitary forces, navigate the roads of Kashmir. Official estimates put the number of troops in the state at around half a million, though human rights activists and some political organisations say the real figure is over 700,000.

In October India’s minister for non-conventional energy, Dr Farooq Abdullah, revealed that these diesel-fuelled military vehicles are using 1.2 billion litres of diesel each year just in Kashmir’s Ladakh region alone, though he said efforts were being made to reduce that to 40 million litres.

Illegal fuel openly sold

Kashmir’s pollution control board says that more than 55 per cent of Kashmir’s vehicles do not conform to pollution norms.

“Adulterated fuel – kerosene mixed with diesel to make more profit – worsens the problem,” says the pollution control board director, Mian Javid. This illegal fuel is openly sold along the Jammu-Srinagar highway.

“The smoke density of more than 70 per cent of diesel-fuelled vehicles does not conform to the existing permissible level,” said Javid. “Surprisingly, one of our surveys has revealed that more than 80 per cent of these vehicles possess pollution-control certificates.”

The certificates are issued by various outlets across Kashmir which are registered with the General Transport Department. The certificates from these outlets are usually unreliable since the issuers, according to officials of other government departments, accept money for providing bogus certificates.

Vehicles are not the only culprits though; brick kilns are also among the major emitters of black carbon. A recent survey by the pollution control board found 374 kilns, of which it had authorised only 59. Similarly, there are 204 stone crushers, only 83 of which are authorised by the board. Javid says the board is taking measures to curb this trend.

Closure orders ignored

“We have already ordered the closure of 39 brick kilns and 29 stone crushers,” he says. But the people of the affected areas say such orders never lead to action. “Orders for closing the brick kilns were issued in the past as well, but were observed only in the breach,” said Iqbal Ahmad of Aripathan village in Kashmir’s Budgam district where most of the brick kilns are.

Conservative estimates say that if an average kiln burns 15 tons of fuel a year, meaning together they all burn arond 5,000 tons of fuel. What concerns the campaigners most is the fact that the lowest quality of coal is being burnt in these kilns, as well as rubber tyres to save costs.

Yet another source of black carbon is the use of conventional fuels in households. People use firewood and cow-dung cakes for cooking and heating during the winter. “We have around five million people living in the villages. If an average household burns eight kilograms of firewood per day, it would work up to millions of tons of firewood,” observes S A R Shah, a scientist with the Department of Environment and Remote Sensing.

With electricity in short supply, influential families and all commercial enterprises use diesel generators for their energy needs. “Even in an environmentally sensitive area like Ladakh 116 hotels and 318 guest houses use diesel generators, since electricity is only nominal here,” says Mehboob Ali, tourism officer in Leh-Ladakh. Ladakh is home to a number of glaciers and many endangered animals.

Little government action

There hasn’t been any effective government response to the growing atmospheric pollution, and Kashmir’s environment minister wasn’t sure whether any environment assessment report had been prepared by his ministry so far. “I will have to confirm it, I don’t know,” he said.

Kashmir may currently lack the technology to reduce black carbon emissions, but scientists say that reduction using existing technology is a relatively cheap and easy way to significantly restrict global warming. One example of this would involve switching over to fuels such as compressed natural gas rather than diesel and petrol. Making public transport a more comfortable alternative to private cars is another. Terming the reduction of black carbon, a ‘low-hanging fruit,’ scientists say it should be plucked immediately to buy time when the world is driving fast toward a cliff in terms of climate change.

Athar Parvaiz is a freelance Journalist based in Srinagar-Kashmir. He wrote this article thanks to a fellowship with the Climate Change Media Partnership – an initiative of the Panos Network, Internews and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

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Athar Parvaiz





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