A Black Cloud over Tehran

A picture taken on January 7, 2013, shows the polluted skyline of the Iranian capital, Tehran. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE) A picture taken on January 7, 2013, shows the polluted skyline of the Iranian capital, Tehran. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)

A picture taken on January 7, 2013, shows the polluted skyline of the Iranian capital, Tehran. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)

In Tehran, it doesn’t matter whether Ahmadinejad or Rouhani is president, the council’s first response to the problem of dangerously high levels of pollution, as always, is to close the city’s schools.

In the latest decision by Tehran’s Committee to Monitor and Coordinate Pollution Emergencies, nurseries, primary schools and middle schools were closed from Sunday until Tuesday of this week. Asphalt, concrete, sand and gravel works have been shut down in the city of Tehran and the south and southwestern parts of Tehran province until the danger from the pollution had passed.

According to some experts, it is possible that in the coming days all public and private agencies and companies could also be closed.

This is not the first time that officials in Tehran have announced what they call a “closure” to address the air pollution problem and mitigate its adverse effects. The first time was in the middle of July 2009, when a dust storm hit the capital and the air pollution reached emergency levels. Officials shut the city down to remedy the situation. At least 15 people lost their lives due to the air pollution, and many more were stricken with heart problems.

From then on, closing the city in times of extreme air pollution has become the standard response to the problem. The capital’s residents usually stay at home at least once a year to take refuge from the deadly levels of pollution in the city’s air. Representatives in parliament argue that each day lost in Tehran costs the city 6 trillion rial (USD 240 million), but as of yet city officials have not found a better way to fight pollution and protect the safety of Tehran’s residents.

Tehran has been grappling with air pollution, which always gets worse in the colder months of October, November and December, for the past twenty years. The upsurge in pollution at this time of year is related to a phenomenon that meteorologists call “inversion.” In these conditions cold air molecules sink loser to the earth’s surface. This means that pollutant particles are trapped closer to the ground, and results in the city’s air pollution level being higher than at other times of year.

But this is not the only cause of the pollution. There are more than 4 million cars in the city—most of which do not meet international emissions standards, and many of the fuels used are of very poor quality. Moreover, there are tall buildings that block the natural course of the wind, a lack of green spaces in the city, and numerous industrial facilities upwind of Tehran. These are all major contributing factors to the pollution problem.

According to the latest statistics published by the Centre for Environment and Health in Iran, air pollution causes 2,724 deaths in the capital every year. This means that air pollution alone causes an average of seven deaths a day in Tehran alone. Reports by the Tehran Cemetery Organization, the main burial place for the capital’s deceased, also confirm these statistics. A report published last year by the Sharq newspaper showed that the city’s mortality rate has a direct link to the level of air pollution.

Over the last ten years, the increase in air pollution during winter has become a regular occurrence. But this year has been different, and it suggests that the effects of increasing pollution are getting worse. Never before has the concentration of air pollutants been so high in November that the authorities have had to take preventative measures such as a closure. All the signs indicated that the peak of air pollution in 2013 has arrived a month early.

The sanctions against Iran have also had an effect on air pollution. The world’s large petroleum producers have stopped selling their products to Iran as a result of the sanctions, but Iran still needs 70 million liters of gasoline a day to meet public consumption. Consequently, the state has been forced to increase fuel production to satisfy demand. But the results of this increase in production have not been satisfactory, since the gasoline produced was not of the required quality. The severity of air pollution in Tehran has increased significantly, in part due to the abundance of low-quality fuel.

Iranian officials try to show that the sanctions are having no impact, and have promised to increase the production of petrol that meets the Euro 4 standard. But a year after making that promise, there is still no sign of an increase in the availability of Euro 4 fuel in Tehran. In September, there were just thirty-two gas stations in Tehran selling Euro 4 gasoline—out of over 200 gas stations within the city limits.

The concentration of air pollution in recent days is indicative of the crisis in the state in general, and in the state-owned oil refineries in particular. It is, of course, worrying that air pollution is worse than in previous years, but it is of far graver concern that the pollution is so bad this early in winter.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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