AHMEDABAD, India (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A plan to combat extreme heat in India's Ahmedabad city has been so effective in raising awareness and bringing down fatalities that city officials are rolling out a similar programme to fight another environmental risk: air pollution.
Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, has among the worst air pollution in the country. But it is the first to install an air monitoring and warning system.
The Air Information and Response (AIR) plan, launched in May, involves the creation of an air quality index that measures daily pollution levels in eight locations. Giant LED screens display five colour-coded alerts of the levels, and their related effects.
An early warning system also alerts people to days when pollution is likely to reach the "very poor" or "severe" level.
"Air pollution is a major risk, and unless we have data we cannot devise ways to control it and minimise its effect," said Chirag Shah, a deputy health officer at the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. "But what good is collecting data if we just keep it in the office and don't use it?"
India and China account for more than half of global deaths due to air pollution. The increase in people dying in India from such pollution is forecast to outpace the rate of such deaths in China.
India is home to four of the 10 cities in the world with the worst air pollution, measured by the amount of particulate matter under 2.5 micrograms found in every cubic meter of air, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Tiny particulate matter can cause lung cancer, strokes and heart disease over the long term, as well as triggering symptoms such as heart attacks that kill more rapidly.
TOO MANY CARS
The main causes of air pollution in Ahmedabad include diesel-fuelled vehicles, construction, cooking fires and the burning of trash. Air quality is particularly bad in the cooler months of November to January.
Other Indian cities - Delhi, Mumbai and Pune - also have an air pollution index, but only Ahmedabad has a warning system.
"We must invest in measurement and response, or we can't fight it," said Dileep Mavalankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health, which was involved in the AIR plan as well as the Heat Action Plan. "It has to be a collaborative effort with the government, non-profits and experts," he said.
In neighbouring Maharashtra state, officials last month launched a star-rating programme that uses smokestack emission data to rate industries based on the density of fine particulate pollution.
The WHO says more than 7 million premature deaths occur every year due to air pollution, 3 million of them due to outdoor air quality.
In Ahmedabad, the response to severe pollution days could include curtailing certain activities, Shah said. "This is about protecting health and saving lives. With data and warnings, we are better able to address it," Shah said.