Qalibaf, Ebtekar Cross Swords

Qalibaf, Ebtekar Cross Swords  Qalibaf, Ebtekar Cross Swords

The Fourth National Conference on Air and Noise Pollution Management opened Tuesday at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran amid weeks of relentlessly low air quality that has battered the capital and other major cities.

Among the two-day event’s keynote speakers were Department of Environment chief Massoumeh Ebtekar and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, whose offices have been at loggerheads over Tehran’s seemingly endless struggle with smog and air pollution.

Health Minister Seyyed Hassan Hashemi also attended.

Qalibaf, who in recent weeks has reiterated his bold claim that the Tehran Municipality has both the means and will to end the air pollution predicament, said the crisis can be controlled and effectively addressed in 20 years.

“The pollution crisis is the result of 20 years of development; but I can say that we have the knowledge and means to lower pollutant concentrations to acceptable levels within five to six years and solve the problem altogether in less than two decades,” the mayor said, as usual failing to disclose details of how these lofty goals could be accomplished, if at all.

He pointed to Mexico City’s effort over the past 20 years to curb its pollution crisis and said if a city with a larger population than Tehran could do it “so can we.”

The Mexican capital has become a model for dramatically lowering pollution levels. One of the world’s most polluted cities in the 1990s, Mexico City has drastically improved its image, thanks to a combination of strict government measures (developing the city’s public transportation network) and cooperation of the people.

  Subway Expansion

“The number of metro stations has increased from 33 when I took office (2005) to more than 100 today,” Qalibaf said, while only 73 are now in operation.

By March 2018, Tehran will have 160 more subway junctions, he told the conferees.

“But the government, which as per law is obliged to shoulder 50% of the costs, has failed to deliver.”

The mayor also pointed out that his office, in cooperation with Sharif University of Technology, Tehran University and foreign institutions, helped bring necessary equipment to monitor and analyze PM2.5 concentrations.

The controversial mayor pointed to the failed LEZ (Low Emission Zones) scheme, a rare point of agreement between the DOE and TM, and said “the powers that be did not allow us to implement the scheme,” which would have been instrumental in curbing the pollution plight.

Last month, it was reported that the lack of interest of the Law Enforcement Forces in the scheme hampered its implementation.  LEZs are areas where the most polluting vehicles are regulated. Usually this means that vehicles with higher emissions cannot enter the area. In some LEZs, the more polluting vehicles have to pay more if they want to enter the zone.

“In truth, we know the causes of and solutions to our problem, but I am baffled by the lack of action.”

  Costly Negligence

Iran’s top environmental official Massoumeh Ebtekar blamed Tehran’s unending pollution crisis on years of mismanagement, among others.

She said the government of the former reformist president had devised a comprehensive plan in 2000 to curb air pollution, including sending dilapidated vehicles to the scrap yard and improving gasoline quality, but the plan, which was ostensibly progressing well, was put on hold in 2005.  Ebtekar held the same position during 1997-2015.

“The key to ensuring a plan’s success is its sustainable and uninterrupted implementation,” Ebtekar said, taking a swipe at the eight-year hiatus between then and 2013, when the plan went into effect again following the election of President Hassan Rouhani.

She said effective cooperation between 16 organizations and departments is essential to ensure the plan’s success, and called on relevant bodies to pull their resources to help make up for the decade-old yawning gap.

Ebtekar, who doubles as a vice president, said the Iranian capital’s carrying capacity “maxed out in 1996”, adding that the government has allocated a specific budget for the anti-air pollution efforts in the next five-year economic development plan (2016-2021).

Unrestrained urbanization has seen the population of the capital jump four-fold, from three million in 1979 to 12 million now.

“Excessive industrial activity and overpopulation have imposed more pressure on Tehran than it can possibly bar,” she said, adding that the construction of high-rises around the city have exacerbated the problem.

“Extensive studies in Iran and abroad show, without a shred of doubt, that tall buildings drastically impact wind speed and power,” the official said, referring to a recent report by the High Council of Urban Development that showed average wind speed in Tehran drops by about 3.5 knots (1.8 meters per second) every 20 years.

The report also demonstrates a significant drop in west winds (winds that originate in the west and blow east), backing up the argument that unrestrained construction of high-rises along Tehran’s western flank have had a huge impact on the pollution crisis.

This is while Qalibaf has repeatedly denied the argument that high-rises contribute to air pollution and, during the conference, said it is like “claiming that making knives kills people”; a rather uninformed analogy.

Ebtekar pointed to the distribution of Euro-4 quality gasoline in metropolises and said the measures have helped reduce air pollution.

“Nearly 35 million Iranians are affected by air pollution. Despite being subjected to a stream of threats and accusations, [the DOE] will not back down until our skies are blue again,” she said.

  Disarm Politicians

Seyyed Hassan Hashemi, the minister of health, said the pollution crisis demands a scientific solution.

“That is why we need to take the reins away from politicians and hand them over to researchers,” he said, a veiled criticism of officials who have done next to nothing but pass the buck in the last few weeks.

Having tired of the blame game and shocking lack of action, Hashemi said, “It seems to me the Tehran’s air pollution has also impacted senior officials and made them error-prone, as demonstrated in their wrong decisions.”

He reiterated that it is high time the crisis was viewed from a scientific perspective, as opposed to a political one, and urged quick and decisive measures against the growing threat of air pollution.

“We can’t remain idle until air pollution starts killing more people to do something about it,” Hashemi said.