LONDON - A two-mile-thick cloud of pollution shrouding southern Asia is threatening
the lives of millions of people in the region and could have an impact much further
afield, according to a U.N.-sponsored study.
It said the cloud, a toxic cocktail of ash, acids, aerosols and other particles, was damaging agriculture and changing rainfall patterns across the region which stretches from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.
The lives of millions of people were at risk from drought and flooding as rainfall patterns were radically altered, with dire implications for economic growth and health.
"We have an early warning. We have clear information and we already have some
impact. But we need much, much more information," U.N. Environment Program chief
Klaus Toepfer told a news conference.
"There are also global implications not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretches three km high, can travel half way round the globe in a week."
Toepfer said the cloud was the result of forest fires, the burning of agricultural wastes, dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers.
He said the U.N.'s preliminary report into what it dubbed the "Asian Brown Cloud" was a timely reminder to the upcoming Earth Summit in Johannesburg that action, not words, was vital to the future of the planet.
"The huge pollution problem emerging in Asia encapsulates the threats and challenges that the summit needs to urgently address," he said.
"We have the initial findings and the technological and financial resources available. Let's now develop the science and find the political and moral will to achieve this for the sake of Asia, for the sake of the world," he added.
RESPIRATORY DISEASE RISK
Professor Victor Ramanathan, one of the more than 200 scientists involved in the study, said the cloud was cutting the amount of solar energy hitting the earth's surface beneath it by up to 15 percent.
"We had expected a drop in sunlight hitting the earth and sea, but not one of this magnitude," he said.
At the same time the cloud's heat-absorbing properties were warming the lower atmosphere considerably, and the combination was altering the winter monsoon, leading to a sharp reduction in rainfall over parts of north-western Asia and a corresponding rise in rainfall over the eastern coast of Asia.
The report calculated that the cloud -- 80 percent of which was man-made -- could cut rainfall over northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, western China and western central Asia by up to 40 percent.
Apart from drastically altering rainfall patterns, the cloud was also making the rain acid, damaging crops and trees, and threatening hundreds of thousands of people with respiratory disease.
Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen -- one of the first scientists to identify the causes of the hole in the ozone layer and also involved in the U.N. report -- said up to two million people in India alone were dying each year from atmospheric pollution.
"If present trends as they are continue, then we have a very serious problem," he said.
The report called for special monitoring stations to be set up watch the behavior of the cloud and its impact on people and the environment.
"The concern is that the regional and global impacts of the haze are set to intensify over the next 30 years as the population of the Asian region rises to an estimated five billion people," the report said.
A spokeswoman for environmental group Friends of the Earth said urgent action was needed.
"Actions must include phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with clean,
green, renewable energy and tough laws to protect the world's forests," she said.
© Reuters Limited 2002