Beijing chokes under hazardous air pollution; red alert continues

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Beijing
  • Updated: Dec 09, 2015 01:07 IST
A man sets up a warning sign next to a vehicle amid heavy smog after the city issued its first ever "red alert" for air pollution, in Beijing, China. (Reuters Photo)

If wearing anti-pollution masks is a sign of protest, Beijing citizens were out protesting on Tuesday.

Beijing municipal authorities were aware of the heavy breathing -- the highest alert for smog, the “red” alert – the first time it was deployed since inception in early 2013 — was on and in rare announcements in public transport systems, authorities advised people to stay indoors.

Primary schools were shut, office managers sent out emails urging flexible timings for employees and with the even-number car rule implemented, the wide roads of Beijing were ominously empty. So were public parks and spaces.

Beijing remained shrouded in smog through the day with AQI counts crossing the 350-mark.

Politics is seldom discussed openly in China. Pollution, however, is increasingly becoming a topic of discussion and disgust on China’s social media platforms.The forecast for Wednesday did not promise air any clean or clear.

Pollution experts feared the worst. “Issuing the red alert was the right thing to do to protect people’s health. The government learnt from the previous episode last week when they only issued an orange (the second most serious alert) and the public was unhappy about the situation,” Yang Fuqiang, environment expert with the Beijing office of the New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) told HT.

“The red alert is called when a period of serious pollution (defined as AQI of 200 and above) is predicted to last for more than three days. Therefore, the red alert is more of an indicator of duration of pollution, rather than intensity,” Dong Liansai with the Greenpeace East Asia said. Dong did not comment on why authorities had not declared the highest alert last week when the pollution count was worse.

“Greenpeace believes that the alert system has room for improvement and better reflect the heavy pollution episodes,” Dong said.

“The administration acted slowly and inefficiently,” Yang had to say about the earlier level of alert.

If not blue, the state media had a rosy picture to paint.

“Environment Minister Chen Jining praised the timely manner in which the alert was issued,” China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said in a report.

“Environment authorities must closely follow the situation, improve monitoring and forecasting, and guide local governments’ emergency response plans,” Chen told a press conference.

Around 92% of China’s population experienced at least 120 hours of unhealthy air during the period between April, 2014 and August, 2015, a study by Berkeley Earth, an independent research group, reported earlier this year.

The red alert continues Wednesday.

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