Tehran’s pollution menace, déjà vu all over again

December 6, 2010

Twelve years ago I returned to Tehran after a long extended trip abroad. I was surprised to see people walking in masks on the streets of Tehran. At that point plans for the inauguration of the Tehran Metro along with introduction of Bus Rapid Transportation (BRT) system were being finalized and despite the smog there was hope in the air.

More than a decade later, after the implementation of these plans, Tehran’s traffic remains a nightmare and its pollution levels dangerously high. As a result until recently elementary schools remain closed and many government offices and banks were running on skeleton staff.
The effects of the pollution choked the capital’s economy. Critics say that every such holiday costs the country $130 million.
Retail private businesses will be the first to point that out. “There is no point of going to work these days. Sales are down 100%,” pointed out a clothing retailer H. Mohammadi who had abandoned his shop and was sitting in a sauna.
Retail business was already in a downhill direction before the pollution menace hit Tehran. As people prepared to see the impact of the subsidy reform plans many hesitated to shop. A lower demand should push the prices down in ordinary circumstance. But Mohammadi tends to disagree: “When the price of raw materials and labor cost go up how can I decrease the prices?”
“I am not planning to make any drastic measures, not until Nowruz (March 2011). If things remain like this I will have to make some U-turns,” comments the businessman and asks: “Which husband will bring his wife to buy a manteau in this smog?”
The unexpected closures of banks last week gave momentum to the downhill trend. Although people can get to the ATM for personal banking, but big business activities come to a standstill. Suddenly the bank checks that had to be processed, the purchases that were due, all come to a halt.
This also affects the transport industry. Apart from the taxi drivers themselves, many people in Tehran depend on Taxi driving as a part-time profession for livelihood. The lifeblood of the taxi business comes from open and crowded bazaars, schools, banks, with people willing to take an extra trip to a nearby park in the evenings or nights.
The unpleasant affects of this smog on people’s health was the main reason for closure of all these institutions. Warnings were issued by the radio and television to the general public, especially the old and children, to avoid outdoors unless completely necessary.
As the Bazaars remained empty, the capital’s hospital staff was overstretched due to an overwhelming number of people coming for treatment.
Tehran was not the only city in the country faced with the pollution menace. Most other major cities in the country were grappling with the same problem. Worth mentioning is that the neighboring Karaj was unaffected.
The Tehran traffic congestion not only causes thousands of death due to respiratory illnesses but the capital city’s road accident fatalities are among the highest in the world.
Having a more efficient public transportation, including better equipped and more extensive metro and BRT system can help, but will not solve the problem. Analysts bet that the removal of gasoline subsidies will put the final nail in the coffin of the city’s congested roads.
In the absence of any serious efforts we will keep experiencing this déjà vu all over again every winter.
Photo: Rooftops are seen shrouded in polluted air in Tehran Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. (AP photo)