Development Dialogue: Reducing Pollution for Improved Health

Every year, air, water and land pollution cause roughly 8.9 million premature deaths worldwide, most of which occur in developing countries. This represents 13 percent of all deaths around the world. While pollution poisons our air, water and land, it is also toxic to our bodies and economies, exerting a high burden in health costs, lost productivity, degraded quality of life and missed opportunities. 

Children exposed to unsafe levels of lead and mercury pollution, for example, face decreased cognitive abilities and workforce prospects. Indoor and outdoor air pollution is now the single highest environmental health risk, fueled both by rapid urbanization and by the pervasive use of dirty cooking fuels in low income countries. Although the vast majority of deaths happen in low and middle-income countries, pollution and its impact on health affect us all through global supply chains, water and air flows, and other natural processes. 

But pollution is a solvable problem. Join the conversation with government, health, and pollution experts to share your experience and explore solutions and technologies necessary for a healthier, cleaner, and more productive world.

Paula Caballero, Senior Director, Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice, World Bank Group, Moderator, on the fight against pollution.

The fight against pollution is at a turning point.

Recent data shows worsening trends in morbidity and mortality attributed to pollution in most regions of the world, where rapid urbanization and motorization are taking a toll on air quality. Unless action is taken now, sickly smog will become a defining feature of many of the world’s new megacities. At the same time, many low income countries continue to suffer the consequences of indoor air pollution related to unclean cookstoves and heating fuels. The double impact of household and ambient air pollution led the WHO last year to classify air pollution as the single greatest environmental health risk.

Pollution in all its forms – air, land, water-- is certainly a major challenge in the countries where the World Bank works to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. Many of the policies, tools and technologies for addressing pollution are known and could save millions of lives, improve business productivity and enhance the long-term competitiveness and growth prospects of countries. We hope to contribute to large-scale change on this front in the coming years by sharing the best available practical knowledge and catalyzing public and private sector action.

I’d like to argue, in this respect, that the fight against pollution is also entering a new age of potency, advocacy and accountability. We have more information available than ever before – from satellite monitoring of particulate matter concentrations over the entire globe, to affordable personal devices that measure air quality in people’s immediate vicinity, and crowd-sourcing technologies. At the Bank, we are also committed to working hard to help countries improve pollution management based on better data and information bases, and to improve the methodology behind how we measure and report on the cost of pollution in our World Development Indicators, so as to build a credible and convincing case for action.

That is why I am so honored to host distinguished panelists for this two-week Development Dialogue and open up the discussion to the widest possible group of experts and concerned citizens.

I hope you will take time to share your experience, wisdom and questions. What has worked? What would you do differently? Who needs to take action, and what behavior changes are needed? Pollution, as we all know, is a trans-boundary issue: It is hard to be a bystander in this area. After all, the life you save may be your own.


Prof. Chai Fahe, Vice President of the China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES), and lead advisor to the China Ministry of Environmental Protection on Pollution Management. 


China’s main challenge today is solving the environmental challenges associated with air, land and water pollution. Early last year, the leaders of our country declared a “war on pollution” and are taking this statement as seriously as the earlier “war on poverty.” This new declaration is a testament to the severity of the issue in China and the seriousness going into cleaning up the environment as a high priority.

The issues of water, air and land pollution are interconnected and must be considered together. In many cases in China, the same regions with the highest levels of air pollution also have the most severe water pollution. This is particularly the case in the North China Plain. These tremendous environmental challenges bear high costs to our population and our society. We cannot afford to ignore the health costs and the impacts that pollution has on our lives.

China welcomes collaboration with other countries on environmental and pollution management. While we are certain that the war on pollution will take many years to win, we are also optimistic that we have access to the technical skills and vast knowledge necessary to respond to this challenge. Cooperation is of the utmost importance as we in China face many of the same challenges as countries around the world and want to exchange lessons particularly with other developing countries.

Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Public Health and the Environment Department, World Health Organization (WHO), on building healthy environments to prevent diseases.

Health is the key in motivating us to solve environmental problems.

The benefits of the environment -- such as fresh water, clean air and a relatively stable climate - are essential to life, preventing disease and sustaining good health. Damage to the environment such as pollution seriously threatens our health. More importantly, the right choice of development strategies and policies can both protect the environment and benefit our health.

Around a quarter of the burden of disease is associated with environmental risk factors. Heart disease and strokes resulting from air pollution, diarrheal diseases, malaria, lower respiratory infections and certain cancers are examples of some of the most serious communicable and non-communicable diseases that are attributed to "modifiable" environmental hazards. Of the 102 major diseases reported yearly in the World Health Report, 85 are partly caused by exposures to environmental risk factors. Around 7 million people die every year from diseases related to indoor and outdoor air pollution, of which around 95% takes place in developing countries. These deaths are preventable with known interventions. What is needed now is to focus action on the prevention of environment related diseases.

Measures that prevent deaths and disease from these environmental hazards include: lowering pollution to our air, water and land can make a valuable and sustainable contribution towards reducing the global burden of disease and improving the well being of people everywhere. Many interventions can be cost-effective and have benefits beyond improving people's health.

Health, and the economic returns of a better population health, is the key to motivate leaders in solving environmental problems. Threats to health have the power to galvanize the pursuit of environmental recovery.

WHO is engaging with partners, and building on existing programs, support concrete actions that respond to local needs, and at the same time prevent disease through building healthy environments. Preventive action for improving water quality, reduce indoor air pollution and safe management of chemicals exist. There is much we can do that will benefit us now—as well as future generations—if we work together.



Markus Amann, Program Director, Mitigation or Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), on solutions to reduce air pollution.

Poor air quality, particularly in the developing world, is currently one of the most important environmental threats to human health. Ironically, practical solutions to effectively reduce air pollution are readily available, and it has been widely demonstrated that, if wisely applied, they are not in conflict with economic development. Also, many measures to improve air quality have potentially large co-benefits on climate change objectives.

Although well-documented, these interactions are sometimes complex, and maximizing co-benefits poses a host of challenges to decision makers. Fortunately, we have made significant progress in developing holistic approaches that simultaneously improve human well-being through improved air quality, enhance economic development, and reduce climate-relevant emissions. Technical and managerial tools to identify such win-win-win opportunities are now available, and we have good examples where effective solutions have been successfully implemented in practice.

However, the world needs political will and partnerships to organize the financial resources and effective governance structures, especially in the places where air pollution poses currently the greatest burden to human health. This would not only bring immediate benefits to human health in the regions that implement such actions, but also promote the general understanding that tackling global climate change is not in conflict with near-term development interests.

In my role as Program Director of the Mitigation of Air Pollution & Greenhouse Gases (MAG) Program, I have found that the overlaps between local pollution and global climate deserve more attention from decision makers and institutions around the world.

Anumita Chowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Center for Science and Environment, India (head of the air pollution and clean transportation program), on what is needed to combat air pollution.

The Global Burden of Disease report gives a disturbing message: despite decades of air quality management, air pollution remains one of the largest killers globally, with disproportionately high impacts in the developing world where a majority of cities are failing to meet health-based standards. This signals a public health crisis which demands aggressive policy response across all regions.

Our Right To Clean Air Campaign indicates how complex this challenge is. Though air pollution control has begun and several forces – civil society, media, judiciary and government -- have joined in this effort, cities are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain air quality gains. The resilience of this problem is astounding: while it is growing rapidly in Asia and Africa, it has not disappeared from the more affluent countries.

New science says that local air pollution harms health as well as the climate. This requires action to avoid trade-offs between the two. It demands pollution source-wise action plans for regional air-sheds. It requires pollution emergency measures for reducing smog episodes, and short and medium term measures to meet clean air standards. It demands compliance and delivery. But this action is obstructed largely due to poor delivery of complex solutions, evident in the case of vehicular pollution, one of the key sources of direct exposure in cities. Policies needed to leapfrog vehicle technology, upscale public transport, walk and cycle, reduce vehicle usage with fiscal and parking restraints, and design cities to reduce automobile travel are not clear to many. Yet cities have begun to innovate and experiment. Their shared vision and lessons can help build the learning curve for all. This change requires the right principles, scale, speed and public support.

New Question
How could pollution prevention be financed? How much would it cost to solve pollution?