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Tehran in Spring 2000: Blue Sky or the Same Old Mirage?

Aftabe Emruz
No. 165
Wednesday, Mar. 8, 2000
By: Shabnam Kohanchi

The polluted air in Tehran has not only transformed the azure blue skies and the clear skyline into a mirage, but it has also left a scar on the mind and body of our citizens. The dirty air and floating particles bringing death in their wake, has raised the level of pulmonary diseases 3.4 percent and brought death rates from heart failures and blood clots up to 1.4 percent. Also, stress and nervous disorders and intolerance have wiped the grin off people's faces and obliterated the simple beaming faces of jovial passersby who greeted each other in the streets. The customary mirth of the public has paled, if not disappeared in the maze of soot and dust.

Other symptoms of short-breath in the polluted air are severe headaches, burning throats and nostrils and stinging eyes. At times, giddiness and vomiting which by now are well-known side effects have become part of the daily hazard that Tehranis are facing.

Autumn and winter of 1999 lost their charm since we were shrouded in deep smoke and dust. Again, alas, our long wait for spring is cloaked in thick dark smoke. Tehran spent the better part of October 1999 under a deathly cloud of toxic gases and profuse particles that impaired the respiratory tracts at every breath.

One of the inherent causes of pollution is the mass migration which has added to the chronic population explosion within city limits. Also, the absence of a comprehensive city development plan which would define construction and building norms. There are no limits to the number of cars coming off the assembly lines and adding to the congestion on our roads. These are just a few instances of outstanding problems.


Old, crumbling machines now on the road are some of the worst offenders when it comes to the infested air in Tehran. Discarding old cars and bringing in new regulations to force car makers to install new models with satisfactory emission controls would be an important step forward. Tehran air pollution levels would fall, and in the capital alone, we could salvage one million liters of gasoline per day. By the same token, we would achieve a 22 percent reduction of carbon monoxide levels and reduce the residue of stagnant (unburnt) hydrocarbon and nitrogen dioxide levels by 20 percent.

Proper tuning and timely repairs could also be two efficient methods to reduce the causes of pollution.

According to latest surveys by the Tehran Air Quality Control Department, efficient engine tuning could reduce the toxic levels of car emission by as much as 50 percent. Morteza Alviri, the mayor of Tehran has suggested four remedies for environmental pollution, viz: Replacing standard carburetors on Peykans with automatic injection systems (AIS); transferring car engines to liquefied gas combustion (LGC); Also, replacing gasoline and diesel fuel engines with LGC; lastly, staging intensive publicity campaigns to tame the car. All these factors could alleviate the urban pollution menace.


Vital Aids to Lowering Pollution Levels

Phasing out old vehicles; proper tuning; proper repairs and revamping the public transport system to cover even suburbia. One man vehicles are all too common sights on our roads and highways. These commuters have cited irregular public transport services and the absence of alternative satisfactory city transport obliges them to bring their own cars.

One Tehran citizen who was quizzed on the issue complained of losing much precious time driving through the congested streets. There is alternative public transport but the endless wait for buses and taxis is time consuming. When the bus comes, it is over-crowded and even standing space is crammed with standing passengers.

A fundamental means of combating pollution is to install new and handy public transport on a wide scale. Speedy operation of the metro is vital. Also, regular services should be provided for employees at government agencies and NGOs.

The pollution menace has many experts advocating a net increase in the transport network and alternative means to the millions of cars now in use. How else can we alleviate the pressing pollution menace? We must reduce the need for private cars to clatter our streets and highways. Building and streamlining an efficient public transport system is an urgent necessity.


Traffic brings pollution. Precious time is lost. Acute psychological stress is inevitable. Latest surveys show that 72 percent of Tehran pollution is caused by cars. Another 28 percent of toxic material in the air is attributed to boiler rooms and heating appliances, that guzzle heavy diesel fuels or gases and discharging a thick smog into the surrounding air; also, emissions from factories and workshops aggravate pollution in and around the town perimeters. Yet, the major offender is the car.

The population in Tehran is on the rise, and the majority of the cars rolling off the assembly lines or brought into the country are earmarked for the metropolis. The old and decrepit models are never discarded and contribute to the traffic jam and pollution.

As long as there is traffic, there will be pollution.

Solution. The car can be tamed with strict controls on circulation and elimination of faulty and inefficient machines.

The deputy for Traffic Research and Planning at the Tehran Traffic and Transportation Organization recently stated that his department had studied solutions and programs to deal with traffic, viz: Narrowing present width of traffic lanes; converting one lane of the highway to a rapid thoroughfare at rush hour and creating safe pedestrian crossings on busy highways.


As always, cash shortage and lack of a budget is an added obstacle. Pollution control needs funds. Surveys show that 17 percent of the cars on the road are burning oil (faulty big ends). These vehicles have outlived their effective life span. The high cost of parts and repairs is another deterrent for low income rivers.

Some 20 percent of the passenger load in the city is carried by private and public taxis. An increasing cross section of the urban population is hauling passengers to compliment their meager incomes. Young and old cruise around the streets in order to make a little extra income to feed the family. If and when this drivers can find alternative employment, then obviously they will abandon the car and so will some 80 thousand other drivers that earn their living on the roads.


A trial run for odd and even numbers to drive on alternate days was tried. The plan was a flop since it was never properly supervised or adequately promoted. It was doomed from the start.

If the trial run for the odd and even number project had persisted, a lot of passengers would have been stranded. Public transport is not up to the task to shuttle passengers in the rush hour in and around Tehran.

The plan would have meant that some cars would have doubled their efforts to take advantage of the excess traffic. We would have had excess pollution and more accents. Some drivers may have resorted to swapping their car registration plates. Some may have even have resorted to buy tow cars in order to drive every day. Passenger fares would have increased because presumably half of the drivers would have been laid off on alternate days.

What is more is that in view of the extensive region and outlying areas that these drivers plied their trade, there was a likelihood that further contingents of cars from the outlying districts would have descended on the capital to take advantage of the excess passenger trade. Our roads would have fared no better and become even more congested.


Promoting the use of public transport also requires an effort to create green spots. The ratio of planted areas in Tehran must reach 30 square meters per person. Green belts could help counter-balance the high built up percentage now existing and help create a healthy and clean living environment.

By creating lawns and flower beds in vacant lots in built up areas in every district and part of town and even creating man-made forests in outlying areas and within city limits, we will be able to reach the targeted 30 square meters per person quota.


Eliminating Tehran pollution looms large on the government agenda. A meticulous and detailed survey has to be made to evaluate the options and solutions to the current problems. We should again align and coordinate the efforts of all agencies involved in a national drive.

Informing the public of the present dilemma and the consequences if nothing is done is vital. Lack of public awareness has contributed to slow progress. A mass information campaign at all levels, starting in the schools, on the college campus and in the media is needed.

We reach out to all the citizens in Tehran at the outset of spring. Expectations run high at the dazzling ability of nature to don new raiments and bequeath us with a ray of hope. We owe it to ourselves and our children to safeguard this cherished legacy. Let us eradicate the pollution menace for all future generations to see the azure blue skies.