Is air pollution killing Kaohsiung?

Kaohsiung and the south of Taiwan have been blighted by air pollution for years, but the problem is getting worse

Polluted day in Kaohsiung on Nov. 8.

Polluted day in Kaohsiung on Nov. 8. (By Central News Agency)

The view from the window of my apartment in the overdeveloped Kaohsiung district of Aozihdi (凹仔底) is, as with most others in the area, dominated by neighboring buildings. But through a small gap between two of them, it is possible to make out the old Hanshin Department Store (漢神百貨) a couple of miles away in the city center.

I say possible because of late the building has been totally invisible from our vantage point. So too has Shoushan (壽山), the sizable mountain which sits next to the harbor and protects much of the city from the ravages of the ocean. This is much closer to where we live (although we have to crane our necks somewhat to see it) and has been equally as invisible.

Hanshin from our apartment. (Photo by David Spencer)

The reason that both have been obscured is not an early morning sea mist rolling in or one of the torrential rainstorms which hit the city from time to time, but rather man-made air pollution; a smog which has in recent days been worse in Kaohsiung than at any time I can remember.

I have only been living in the city for a few years and I am aware that air pollution has been an issue here for much longer than that. But my impression is that, in just the last few years, it has got noticeably worse.

That view is reinforced by the locals I have spoken to about the issue. One, who grew up in Kaohsiung in the 1980’s and 1990’s and moved away for a time before returning told me that, “air pollution has always been an issue here and I remember the occasional smog sitting over the city. But in the last few years, it has been almost ever-present in winter months and that never used to be the case.”

Where Shoushan should be from our apartment. (Photo by David Spencer)

Air pollution is primarily a domestic issue

So, what is causing the air pollution which currently blights not only Kaohsiung, but also neighboring Pingtung, Tainan, and much of south and central Taiwan? As with so many issues, the finger of blame is often pointed across the Taiwan Strait to China. These days other rapidly industrializing south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia also get accused.

There is no doubt that these countries, especially China, create huge amounts of air pollution and some of it will inevitably blow across and affect Taiwan from time to time. But it is too easy to blame outside factors that Taiwan cannot influence, rather than tackle the domestic causes. And this is where I believe the bulk of the problem lies.

Southern Taiwan, especially Kaohsiung, is the country’s industrial heartland and home to many huge and polluting industries. Anyone who has arrived into Zuoying HSR station(左營高鐵站) through Kaohsiung’s northern Nanzi District (楠梓區) cannot have helped but notice the plethora of factories belching fumes and noxious gases into the air.

They may also have caught a glimpse of the Renwu Refuse Incineration Plant (仁武垃圾焚化廠), one of three in the city, which burns household and commercial waste from Kaohsiung’s 2.8 million people and also imports plenty more from elsewhere in the country. Its huge chimney is decorated like the sky and my daughter thinks it’s a cloud-making factory. In a manner of speaking, she is right, but these clouds have no place in a child’s imagination.

Siaogang District (小港區) and Linyuan District (林園區) are also a cluster of such factories, with oil refineries, steel manufacturers and cement plants sitting right on the edge of the city. With the city ringed by heavy industry pouring out pollution around the clock, it is just not credible to suggest the problem lies elsewhere.

In winter months, the smog simply sits on the city for days at a time. The changing air pressures do not allow it to escape, while Shoushan to the west and the central mountain range to the east mean there is nowhere to go. This "bowl of pollution" can easily be seen by anyone who takes off or lands at Kaohsiung Airport. You do not have to get too far in the air before you are free of it.

Everyday effects

The everyday effect of this air pollution on people living in Kaohsiung, and elsewhere in the south of Taiwan, should not be understated and is considerably more serious than making the view from my apartment window a bit hazy.

For days at a time in winter, the air in Kaohsiung is classed as "unhealthy." This is worse than "unhealthy for sensitive groups" which is the classification warning those with heart and respiratory health issues to remain inside. It means it is unhealthy for anyone to breathe in the air outside at all.

In reality, this is reported as a matter of course in the news here and for the most part, people ignore it. Of course, life cannot grind to a halt, but surely questions should be asked about people doing manual labor outside and children doing physical education when it is not safe for them to be breathing the air in. Such strenuous activity means the dangerous pollution particles are being inhaled deep into their lungs and the long-term health implications of this are likely to be profound.

This year for the first time, we have felt obliged to invest money for our apartment over fear for the health of our daughter and ourselves. We are cautious about going outside when the pollution is at its worst. And we know many people who are the same.

The impact on tourism

As well as public health, it is also likely to be having an effect on tourism in Kaohsiung. Only this week, it was reported that tourism numbers were still strong in the city, despite all the scaremongering over the absence of Chinese tour groups. But as Taiwan looks to attract people from the world outside China, it has to begin to start meeting their levels of expectation.

The Kaohsiung City Government is currently promoting their New Bay Area redevelopment with this quirky video which portrays it as a city of clear blue skies and stunning vistas. But that is simply not the case for much of the time and I have met more than a few visitors to the city who have been sorely disappointed and felt it did not live up to expectations. In the social media era, word gets around quickly, and this is a reputation Kaohsiung can ill-afford.

If the City Government is serious about helping Kaohsiung live up to its reputation as one of the Top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2018, as well as protect the health of its citizens, it has to take urgent action now on the issue of air pollution. Taiwan’s national government also needs to act swiftly.

Kuo Yu-liang (郭育良), an official of the National Health Research Institutes (NHRI- 國家衛生研究院) recently urged Taiwan to adopt the World Health Organization's standards for particle pollution. This would cut Taiwan’s allotted concentration level for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 10 micrograms per cubic meter per year. He is right, and this should be enacted as soon as is practicable.

Kaohsiung City Government and the Environment Protection Administration also needs to start putting pressure on polluting industries in the city to clear up their act and fast. Tougher regulations and penalties are urgently needed to persuade businesses to take the matter seriously.

Kaohsiung must stop importing waste from other cities for incineration, regardless of the financial rewards the practice delivers. Instead, it needs to begin the process of either seeking an alternative to incineration or to move the existing plants to locations further from residential areas where the omissions will be less damaging.

Equally, Kaohsiung and Taiwan need to focus all their efforts on attracting clean, green companies to the island to gradually phase out the heavy industry which has ravaged the island for so many years. This process has begun but must continue apace because change is needed now, not in 50 years’ time.

It is all very well taking steps, such as providing incentives to remove old scooters from the road and replace them with clearer new ones. But the problem in Kaohsiung and across the south of Taiwan is an immediate and acute one. Radical steps are needed today, or the region will suffer the consequences tomorrow.