The Earth is heating up, but that’s not the only matter – it is also choking. Despite the massive recent trend of global activism on climate change, air pollution – the other side of the same coin – still largely remains overlooked, especially in a developing country like Myanmar. As youth environmental activists in the Greta generation, our team is in action to address this issue in Myanmar.
Wheeling my luggage into Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station in Yangon – the biggest bus terminal in the largest city in Myanmar – 7 in the morning, the air was nowhere near fresh like it was often proclaimed to be. The first thing I noticed: I had a hard time breathing.
Bus terminals are always nightmares. The smell of barbecue and coal from street vendors mixed with household cooking and incense is smudged into a visible mess by fumes from hundreds of roaming express buses that leave masses of dust dancing from the ground up.
However, when I remotely saw my five colleagues waiting at the gathering point with the same agitation as mine, a spark of excitement overtook my frustration. The team is complete!
Air Quality Yangon team in Mandalay, Photo by Phyo Phyo Nay Win | Save the Children
The importance of air quality and the challenges Myanmar face
The increasing number of stories about air pollution – from the toxic smog in Beijing back in 2017, to the “severe” and “unbearable” air quality reports in Bangkok and Delhi in the past few months, and just recently, the “hazardous” air pollution caused by bushfire in Sydney – is a sign of the deteriorating air quality around the world. It’s an issue that not only links to climate change but also, in a more important sense, leads to serious health problems.
In spite of the visibly worsening air quality, the scarce media coverage on this issue in Myanmar tells a lot about the public awareness of air pollution here. When The Nation Thailand published a national level warning claiming, “Bangkok ranks 12th on list of cities with the worst air,” barely did anyone notice that Yangon ranked even higher than Bangkok in the list.
The truth is there have been very few resources on this subject in the country to start with – let alone spreading awareness or finding solutions. This lack of knowledge, materials, data, studies, action and time invested in this issue can result in fatal consequences. “[A]ir pollution is higher in Myanmar than in other countries in the region, almost twice the average for Southeast Asia,” The World Bank stated. “Yet actual data with high reliability on air quality in Myanmar is lacking, and arrangements for monitoring of air quality and pollution control are still in their infancy.”
Youth initiative breakthrough
Air Quality Yangon was formed in September 2018 by six students from American University of Yangon under the mentorship of professor Dr. Kirt Page, after we discovered the critical yet overlooked situation of air pollution in Yangon.
Throughout the span of 14 months, Air Quality Yangon has made notable progress. We started from the Arduino air quality monitoring project looking into creating prototype dust monitors as an alternative to the expensive air quality monitors that are not usually available here. We also walked around with our portable monitor to observe and collect data as citizen scientists.
Measuring air quality with a portable monitor AirBeam 2, Photo by Phyo Phyo Nay Win | photo by Save the Children
Our movement inspired a network of PurpleAir air quality monitors around Yangon set up by institutions, businesses, and households. “The contribution of citizen scientists would be very beneficial,” Nang Mon Kham, a member of AQY, stated.
Now the air quality data in Yangon is available to the public. Anyone can view the air quality data on the PurpleAir website. To make it easier for locals, we worked with Phandeeyar to create a website, CleanAirMM, where Burmese people can easily access and learn the current local air quality reading and what it means.
Our participation in various talks and events to educate and raise awareness, and active social media updates and air quality reports have given much more accessible materials and resources to the locals in Yangon.
Extending the network to other parts of Myanmar
In the other parts of Myanmar, however, air pollution remains a very deprived subject. Waiting impatiently at the bus station, we were ready to SHIFT this situation!
The destinations are Mandalay and Taunggyi, the capital cities of Mandalay Region and Shan State respectively. And our mission is to extend the network: discuss air pollution with local youth environmental activists and set up an air quality monitor in each of the cities.
The local participants in the sharing sessions are generally very enthusiastic about environmental issues. “There are about 200 organizations in southern Shan State,” a youth from Our Lovely World in Taunggyi told us, “But only about five of them works on environmental issues, and we are one of them.”
They also told us that they were mostly engaged in activities such as planting trees and reducing plastic pollution.
Group photo with young environmentalists in Mandalay, Photo by Phyo Phyo Nay Win | photo by Save the Children
“They all are very knowledgeable and active about the environment,” an AQY member Thin Thinzar Soe commented. “But when it comes to air pollution, this seems to be their first-time discussion specifically on the topic.”
Despite not having had a formal discussion before, they all seem to be aware of air pollution in general. “When I walked past a local coal factory, I could barely breathe. I thought that something horrible about air is going on there,” a participant from Trash Hero Mandalay shared her experience. Another participant added, “Waste burning is also very common here, and it usually generates very bad air.”
Almost everyone agreed during the discussions that vehicular emissions especially those from motorbikes, which is abundant in the region, is the primary source of air pollution. “If the government can limit the number of motorbikes in the city, the air pollution will go down,” a thoughtful youth in Taunggyi suggested.
“We, young people, need to take the lead because it’s going to affect our future,” Lin Htet Naing, an enthusiastic youth in Mandalay, remarked.
Discussing the solutions to air pollution, Photo by Myint Kay Thi | Photo by Save the Children
They were very excited and curious when they saw an air quality monitor for the first time – and even more when we told them we are gifting one to them.
“Having an air quality monitor where people can learn the air quality situation of the city they live in itself would help with the awareness,” an AQY member Myat Phoo Pwint Kyaw observed. “When they realize the quality of air that surrounds them, the initiative to react to the problem will most likely cross their mind.”
Environmental organizations in Mandalay and Taunggyi – Trash Hero and Our Lovely World respectively – will be part of our quality network, taking care of the first two PurpleAir sensors out of Yangon, in their city.
At the end of the discussion, we were warmly sent off with refreshments and the songs they wrote about the environment. “Slowly, the Earth is heating up,” the group of youth in Taunggyi started passionate singing in Burmese the theme song of their organization Our Lovely World. As the casual guitars and drums tuned up, they continued to sing the chorus at top of their lungs: “Take care of the environment, treasure the Earth – it’s the responsibility of all of us.”
Behind the movement
“Young people have energy, optimism, and hope for the future – and they are more likely to volunteer their own time to support a cause they are passionate about,” Andy Nilsen said. “But young people are also ignored or not taken seriously by decision-makers.”
Andy is the Director of Advocacy, Communications and Campaigns at Save the Children. He created SHIFT, a campaign accelerator program housed at Save the Children, to support the youth movements for positive change, including the trip we went on.
SHIFT is supporting three different campaigns this year, covering the topics: waste management, sexual harassment and – ours – air pollution.
“If we can give young people the skills and support they need, they will be able to lead positive change on the issues that matter most to them,” he told Diinsider. “I also think it’s important that young people engage with civics and governance early in life. Society will be better if people believe they can have a positive impact. This is very important for an emerging democracy like Myanmar, especially when you consider that 46% of the population is under 25.”
Perhaps, the air quality in Myanmar barely has any change. Perhaps, we might continue to live in a place with not-so-great air quality for some time. Afterall a change is less of a result and more of a process. However, to see any major change in our community, there needs to be a starting point somewhere and someone fighting for it, which can inspire more people to fight for it. That’s how we SHIFT an unpleasant situation.
Hopefully, in this Greta generation, the SHIFT movement will become a positive symbol for young people across the country and inspire a new generation that makes positive influences on their society.