Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Dust to dust

Delhi is about as hot as it gets right now. Today was 43 degrees and we are set to hit 45 on Friday. This isn't the first time I've experienced these temperatures here - this time last year I was in Delhi looking for a place to live, and when I moved in mid-June it wasn't much cooler. I can't say I enjoy it much, but it's better than Delhi's meanest climate trick, which it saved until the very end of my first year here: the dust storms.

This time of year, as the city burns like a furnace, the broiling air rises rapidly and creates a vacuum into which some pretty strong winds can sweep. When those winds come from the South West, from the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, they come laden with dust that can transform a merely uncomfortably hot day into a swirling tornado of misery.

I was in Green Park market when the latest one hit Delhi. It's a surreal experience watching the approach of the storm: a distant blurriness on the horizon transforms into an advancing brown wall, gradually obscuring the buildings until suddenly it's upon you. The air suddenly becomes thick with grit and particles; the dust whips your skin and creeps into your ears and eyes; breathing becomes a matter of sucking a minimal amount in through clenched nostrils; when you clench your teeth you can feel the grit grinding between them. The streets empty as everyone seeks shelter wherever they can. The polluting effects, several newspapers noted, are even worse than those caused by the insane quantity of fireworks let off during Diwali (which says a lot about just how insane that quantity of fireworks is). The dust gathers in great swathes on any horizontal surface, which dance and morph into new patterns as the wind sweeps over them. Vehicles, balconies and pavements are caked in the stuff. It becomes inescapable.

Photo taken from The Hindu website

This isn't my first time dealing with this; Seoul's infamous "yellow dust" comes from the deserts of Mongolia at a similar time each year and blankets much of Eastern China, Korea and Japan in choking squalls. Maybe it's just the luxury of distance, but I don't recall the experience being quite so unpleasant as Delhi's dust storms though.

Apparently these storms are set to get worse as desertification increases across Asia, including North West India as well as Mongolia. Already the storms - rather than the dust - are deadly; India's often-sub standard infrastructure is vulnerable to severe weather and buildings frequently collapse under the high winds. But the health effects of the dust itself are also becoming severe, with rising cases of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

There's not much that can be done about the storms themselves, which will continue for as long as the deserts do. But it seems that the job of cleaning up the dust is currently something that is beyond the city authorities. Outside of the squeaky-clean, embassy-heavy areas around India Gate and Chanakyapuri, Delhi's streets are constantly dusty and dirty, and walking for any length of time here will leave you needing a shower. I suspect that the May storms are the origins of a lot of this dust (though the non-stop construction work must also play a significant role). Contrary to popular belief, despite the crazy traffic, vehicular emissions represent only a small percentage of the total particulate matter in the city. 

For the most part I haven't found Delhi's pollution to be half as bad as you might suspect, but the figures speak for themselves. The city has made successful initiatives on the environment in the past (particularly its much-ballyhooed initiative to LPG fuel. But it's already too big to manage easily, and continues to grow at a breakneck pace; and there seems to be more pressures for new malls and new roads than for environmental improvements. Delhi's dust is probably not going anywhere any time soon.

1 comment:

Phil Greaney said...

I had no idea the dust could get so bad! We bought masks to help combat pollution when on bikes / motorbikes (which is another story) - looks like they might come in handy for the dust storms, too.

I'm fascinated at the moment by press / Twitter coverage of the imminent monsoons - clearly a huge time for a lot of people (particularly in the south: I understand they appear later in the north - alas, just as we arrive!) I saw a 'before and after' photoblog for last year's monsoons, in Mumbai - the difference was amazing.