Tue, 14 May 2002

Clean air, blue skies -- just a dream?

Bambang Nurbianto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Hazardous vehicular emission has long been an irritating problem for people traveling along the busy streets of the capital.

They realize the consequences of inhaling the toxic gas but only a handful want to take an active part in the efforts to clean up the air.

Many motorists do not care about the pollutants coming from the exhaust of their vehicle that have long passed tolerable levels.

Owners of public transportation vehicles, who are obliged to take emission tests, prefer to bribe officials instead of cleaning the engine or changing the necessary auto spare parts to reduce the emission. Corrupt government officials willingly issue roadworthy certificates without checking the emission of vehicles.

Such practices are no secret.

"No matter how bad the emission of your car is, your car will pass the roadworthy test as long as you are willing to pay more," said a man who offered his services to car owners at the Pulo Gadung roadworthy testing office in East Jakarta.

Data at the Jakarta Environmental Management Agency (BPLHD) showed that last year, 77.6 percent of public and commercial vehicles in Jakarta did not pass the emission tests. The majority of private cars also failed the tests. A total of 78.13 percent of cars made in 1985, 67.32 percent of those made between 1986 and 1994, and 56.91 percent of those made in 1995 and after, did not pass the tests.

Owing to the fact that some 70 percent of air pollutants in the city are due to exhaust emission, reducing vehicular emission has become the focus of attention of environmentalists and those who care about the issue.

In 1992 the city administration launched the clean air program (prokasih), followed by the blue sky program launched by the Office of the State Minister for the Environment.

The only significant achievement of the clean air program was in July 2001 when all fuel pumps in the Greater Jakarta started to sell unleaded gasoline and to discontinue the sale of leaded gasoline. It was the pilot project for the program to replace leaded gasoline all over the country, which is hoped will take place in 2004.

Lead can cause various health problems such as the lowering of IQ in children, anemia, male reproductive problems and kidney disease.

The air in Jakarta has a high level of dangerous substances aside from lead (Pb), such as particulate molecular (PM) or dust particles with a diameter measuring less than 10 micron, carbon dioxide (CO), hydrocarbon (HC), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous dioxide (NO2).

Results of mobile monitoring stations in Jakarta between 1999 and 2001, show that the PM level, for example, was still at 88.8 micrograms per cubic meter, higher than the tolerable level of 60 micrograms per cubic meter.

Health experts have warned that HC and NO2 can cause lung cancer and respiratory infections; CO and NO2 can cause heart problems; while PM can cause cancer, bronchitis and respiratory problems.

The intolerable level of vehicular emission, according to Moestikahadi Soedomo, an air pollution expert from Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), is worsened by the chaotic transportation system in the city.

Soedono said in his book Air Pollution that during traffic jams vehicles produced more dangerous emission.

Rully Besari Budiyanti, an urban landscape expert from Trisakti University in Jakarta, added that air pollution had worsened due to the inadequate green space which functioned to absorb air pollutants.

Green space in the city, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), is less than 9 percent of the total land area in Jakarta, far from the ideal figure of around 30 percent.

In an effort to curb air pollution, the Jakarta Environmental Management Agency has proposed that Gubernatorial Decree No. 1041/2000 which obliges all private vehicles to take an emission test should take effect in August.

Restiti, a program officer of Swisscontact's clean air project, welcomed the plan but stressed the need of an applicable mechanism for it to be effective.

Many, however, were pessimist about the plan.

"It is good news for the environment as well as for human health, but I don't think that the plan can be implemented August," Helmy Sungkar, an automotive observer, told the Post recently.

He expressed concern that the new policy could even become a source of corruption for the city officials who would ask for bribes from owners of polluting vehicles.

Chairwoman of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) Indah Suksmaningsih said it was impossible to reduce hazardous gas in the capital without addressing the problem of corruption in the related city agencies.

"Clearing the air in Jakarta is as difficult as clearing the bureaucracy in the city," she said.

To avoid the practice of corruption Restiti suggested that the emission tests for private cars be monitored by a committee consisting of representatives from the academia, governmental and non-governmental organizations.

"I myself am not so optimistic as there is no guarantee that the program will be successful. But there is also no reason to claim that the program will fail. We should try all possibilities as the problem of air pollution and its consequences are still there," she added.