Photo Essays | Environment

Toxic Asia-Pacific

With a rising Asia comes more rapid industrialization, which in turn poses a whole host of environmental challenges for the region. As developed and developing countries alike try to find ways of tackling the growing pressures of spiraling demand for energy and goods, The Diplomat lists some of the Asia-Pacific’s greatest challenges. From often deadly Chinese coal mines to a sinking metropolis in India, we look at some of the most toxic places on earth.

China's Coal Industry
China’s Coal Industry

The World Bank has said that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, with Linfen in Shanxi Province coming top of the list. The Blacksmith Institute, which produces lists of the most toxic places on Earth, says that Linfen’s 300,000 inhabitants are often left literally choking on the coal dust there, while the number of people suffering from respiratory diseases continues to grow. But with the coal industry in Shanxi still supplying the majority of the country’s energy needs, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

Credit: Gustavo Madico
Great Pacific Gyre or the Great Garbage Patch
Great Pacific Gyre or the Great Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Gyre is a garbage patch that has been claimed by some researchers to be roughly twice the size of Texas or even the United States (although both estimates have sometimes been disputed) and stretches much of the way from the US to Japan. Over 3.5 million tonnes of trash (mostly plastics) is held together by swirling underwater currents. About one-fifth of the trash has been thrown from ships, with most of the rest originating from land. Every year, more than a million seabirds and an estimated 100,000 marine mammals die from the debris, often after mistaking the garbage for food.

Credit: Duncan
New Delhi
New Delhi

This Indian metropolis currently faces numerous major environmental challenges. Delhi’s air quality is one of the worst in the world. Home to 16 million people, the city must cope with an apparently never-ending series of construction projects and over 5 million vehicles. And it’s only getting worse—1000 new vehicles hit Delhi’s roads every day. Meanwhile, Delhi’s primary water provider, the Yamuna River, contains high levels of raw sewage and industrial waste. In addition, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) faces a major waste management problem—the city’s garbage generation is already up 500 truckloads on 2010, yet the city’s three landfills are already full.

Credit: Mackenzie
Southeast Asian Haze
Southeast Asian Haze

Forest fires in Sumatra, started by the many farmers who still burn trees to clear the land, create a dense toxic haze that can stretch as far as Singapore and Malaysia. Indeed, the smog can be so bad that the Singaporean government is sometimes forced to ask those with respiratory and heart conditions to stay indoors, while 200 schools in southern Malaysia had to be temporarily closed in October 2010. Despite laws having been introduced to curb slash and burn techniques, weak enforcement by Indonesian officials means the rules are regularly flouted.

Credit: Servus
Asian Dust
Asian Dust

For centuries, yellow dust and sand has fallen across northeast Asia. High-speed winds and dust storms kick up sand and soil from the Gobi desert in northern China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, falling over the Korean Peninsula, Japan and parts of the Russian Far East. Desertification in China and around the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is compounding the problem. In addition, the sand is becoming more toxic as it picks up heavy metals and carcinogens while passing over Chinese industrial regions. China and South Korea have tried planting trees to help curb the problem, but so far with little effect.

Credit: Maria Ly
Australia’s Carbon Emissions
Australia’s Carbon Emissions

According to World Bank Development Indicators, Australians emit 17.74 metric tonnes of carbon per person annually. While overall China produces 22.3 percent of global emissions, the per capita figure is significantly smaller than the Australian equivalent, at 4.9 metric tonnes per person per year.

Credit: Ben Novakovic
Coral Bleaching
Coral Bleaching

Last year, Thailand saw some of the worst coral bleaching of the past two decades. Bleaching occurs when algae-like protozoa carrying the pigment that gives coral its vibrant colour die due to changes in water temperature or from toxins. The Thai Marine and Coastal Resources Department has closed 10 popular diving spots to limit the impact of tourism on the damaged reefs, though many dive operators blame rising water temperatures, not tourists, for the coral’s demise. Water temperatures in Thailand, meanwhile, have been fluctuating between 31 and 33 degrees Celsius.

Credit: Matt Kieffer
Sinking Mumbai
Sinking Mumbai

This Indian city is a sinking ship. In 2005, a week of heavy monsoon rains killed more than 400 people, caused widespread damage and completely paralyzed the city. Rain water caused the sewage system to overflow and all water lines were contaminated. The city is also ecologically compromised. It was stripped of its natural flood barrier and silt trap, when one-fifth of its mangroves were cleared to build golf courses and garbage dumps. Now, Mumbai is on the brink of collapsing again as thousands of tonnes of garbage choke the city’s aging storm drains.

Credit: Marc van der Chijs
Poisonous Mines in China
Poisonous Mines in China

Tianying in China’s Anhui Province is consistently rated one of the most toxic places on Earth. Almost 50 percent of the lead in China comes from its antiquated processing plants and scrap metal and battery recycling facilities. Lead poisoning is particularly bad for children and pregnant women as it stunts the physical and mental development of the young. One Chinese study found that concentrations of lead in the air here were 8.5 to 10 times higher than is deemed safe according to national standards.

Credit: Mitchazenia
Citarum River, West Java, Indonesia
Citarum River, West Java, Indonesia

Indonesia’s Citarum River, in West Java, may be the most polluted river in the world. Clogged with the domestic waste of 9 million people, as well as the refuse from hundreds of factories, parts of the river are so densely packed with rubbish that boats moving through the debris are the only hint that there’s any water below the surface. Locals no longer fish for food—they fish for refuse that can be salvaged and traded.

Credit: Andri Suprihadi