As goes Bali – so does a Polluted World

2018 seems to be the tipping point – the year when the world finally woke up to the reality that climate change and environmental pollution have to be addressed and it’s up to us. There’s nothing really special about 2018, except perhaps that the sense of powerlessness felt by many of us seems to have shifted and Nature seemed a bit pissed off with us.

We increasingly take action in the personal and public areas of our lives where we can, even though we don’t know how how it will work out. We’ve given up waiting for the answers from our leaders, who remain unable to deliver a concerted plan that might get us through this. Best of all, and about time too, the nutters, nitpickers and nincompoops, along with the the irredeemably self-seving, who deny the reality of what is plain for all to see, are exposed for what they are (Trump) and lost all credence.

The shift though, is nuanced. Right now the action seems to lie in rolling back the pollution of our environment and taking steps to protect public health. The need and the results are more readily visible here than taking on the massively collective action required to stop global warming. Living or swimming in filth is something we can address now.

Call me cynical if you like, but another reason I reckon we’re seeing some action on the part of the Great and the Good to clean up our cities, is the embarassment they feel on occasion when visiting heads of state are enveloped in a noxious yellow cloud. Death by fine particle is an equal opportunity killer, it strikes them down too, just as it does us.

I read today reports that on two occasions in July of last year Jakarta had the worst air pollution of any city in the world, and that Denpasar was the tenth worst. I know it’s bad in both those places but it’s hard to align that with what’s happening in large numbers of Chinese and Indian cities. The reports may well be right – but so am I. Major cities in China, India and countries in the Northern hemisphere are far worse off than anything in Indonesia but, at certain times of the year clear skies are not unknown there. On such rare occasions…. Jakarta and Denpasar might just seize this grotty rosette for one brief inglorious moment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) tells us that exposure to fine particles in the air contribute to 7 million deaths a year, usually via heart disease, stroke or lung cancer. That’s about the same death toll as tobacco and it’s 15 times the annual death rate for war and homicide combined. Eight out of 10 people in the world are breathing air that is way above the safe limit, says the WHO.

Damage to rich people’s health has proven a great incentive to clean up the air, if not solve climate change. In both cases the answer is more bicycles, less coal and a ban on diesel. That’s why you see significant changes in New York City, Paris, London and now Beijing. Megacities in the developing world, like Delhi, Cairo, Chengdu, Mexico City and Dhaka are much filthier and not having even started to tackle the problem. Tragic consequences may follow.

Fine particles are the worst killer. PM2.5 stands for particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers, which is really small, small enough to get right into your lungs and even into your blood stream.

The WHO awards for the worst PM2.5 pollution in the great cities of the world, starting from the top, are:

Tokyo 38.1m; Delhi 26.5m; Shanghai 24.5m; Beijing 21.2m; Mexico City 21.2m; New York 18.6m; Dhaka 18.2m; Buenos Aires 15.3m; Istanbul 14.4m; Lagos 13.7m; Rio de Janeiro 13.0m; Los Angeles 12.3m; Jakarta 10.5m; London 10.4m; Johannesburg 9.6m.

Another WHO rating of the 500 truly worst cities in the world gives a better overall picture. Nothern India has by far the worst polluted cities anywhere, with 9 out of the first 10. China, however is the major culprit with an incredible 290 cities or 58% of the 500 cities listed. Indonesia has two, Jakarta at 252nd and Bandung at 365th. Denpasar is not mentioned.


A year ago local and regional authorities here, shocked by the dramatically visual international coverage of the plastic trash on the beaches and in the waters off the coasts of Bali acted, banning one time use of plastic straws and food containers also banned plastic shopping bags. It is a step in the right direction.

Bali is a small island of 5,800km2, just 153km East to West and 95 km North to South with population of some 4.2m but with almost 8 million international and domestic visitors a year. It has little if any heavy industry to speak of so the pollution is mostly generated by trash and airborne particles from road traffic. The eruption of Mt Agung and the threat from volcanic ash is something of a natural wild card, to be kept in mind.

If garbage in our waters spurs the authorities to act, why not on land? The amount of trash strewn about this island is as appalling, as it is incomprehensible. Every time we drive along the by-pass between Kuta and Sanur, off into the fast disappearing mangrove forest on the seaward side, we see the ominous mile-long barracks-like rectangle that is the Suwung rubbish tip, now going on four stories high.

If we do not permit hotels to be built higher than a coconut tree, why do we permit this?

Bali is still a wonderful place to be and visit. Though the magic is compromised it is never far away for those of us who love the place. We just have to remember it’s still there. The climate is benign, we are not yet enveloped in smog and the people are lovely. The problems of airborn pollution and trash are not prohibitively expensive to solve considering the alternatives and lie within our power.

You have only to see the difference between some villages, where not a single discarded chocolate bar wrapper is to be seen, and others where litter is strewn everywhere like some ticker tape parade. Empower the banjars and charge them with handling the problem locally. It should not then be beyond the municipal and provincial authorities competence to devise and implement a waste disposal that works better than the present system.

If trash is unsightly, unhygienic and leads to health problems, air pollution is the more dangerous and insidious threat. In Bali motorised transport is the culprit. Anyone living in crowded urban areas or along a busy road is likely to suffer ill health as a result. The solutions are not simple, but they are do-able.

Ease traffic flow, build overpasses (they’re cheaper than underpasses); phase out diesel; enforce regulations against excessive exhaust; ban overlong idling engines in waiting cars and buses; encourage people to use public transport; find out what went wrong with the Sarbagita service and fix it; expand, improve and regulate the mini-bus services; and much, much more. Motorbikes are a real problem, but people have got to get around. Any solution that gets people off their motor bikes and into public transport requires a more comfortable, convenient and affordable way to travel longer distances. It can’t be pleasant travelling far in all weathers on a bike, motorised public transport can and should be made to work.

Things are looking up. They always said things have to get worse before they get better, didn’t they?



Comments or queries

Copyright © 2019 ParacelsusAsia

You can read all past articles of Alternative Voice at