Runners’ woes at Asian Games highlight Jakarta’s air pollution problem

  • Athletes competing in the just concluded Asian Games in Jakarta suffered from some of the worst air quality in a city hosting a major sports event in recent years.
  • Levels of PM10 and PM2.5, classes of particles in the air, exceeded World Health Organization guidelines for the duration of the Games, despite vehicle restrictions imposed by the Jakarta government.
  • Activists say officials are overlooking the fact that more than half the air pollution in Jakarta is caused by factors other than vehicle emissions, including several coal-fired power plants.
  • Officials in the central government have denied that there’s an air pollution problem, but those in the city administration have acknowledged the issue and called for a holistic approach to tackling the range of factors.

JAKARTA — Organizers of the recently concluded Asian Games in Indonesia had been braced for the worst-case scenario: forest fires flaring up and shrouding Palembang, one of the host cities, in a thick, choking haze.

Sure enough, air quality problems surfaced — but not in Palembang. Instead, it was in Jakarta, the other host city, some 430 kilometers (270 miles) away, where air pollution and high temperatures combined to make life miserable for some of the athletes taking part in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

“The race was so difficult — the hot weather, humidity, and not just the humidity but the pollution,” Indonesian racewalker Hendro Yap said after recovering from collapsing at the end of the men’s 50-kilometer event.

Hendro’s time of 4:32:20 was the slowest in two decades in the Asian Games; the fact that he was only one of five athletes to finish the race under those conditions, he said, was “a miracle.”

“Racing here is not easy. This is Indonesia,” he said. “This is a miracle for me I can finish. This is a miracle.”

He also told The Jakarta Post that he “could strongly feel the air pollution” during the race. The U.S. Embassy’s air monitoring station in Central Jakarta that day recorded high concentrations of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter that is deemed harmful to human health.

The embassy recorded PM 2.5 levels of 80 micrograms per cubic meter during the Aug. 30 race — eight times higher than the “hazardous” threshold defined by the World Health Organization.

Indonesian racewalker Hendro Yap douses himself with water during the men’s 50-kilometer event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by M. Agung Rajasa/INASGOC.

‘Hard to breathe’

Hendro wasn’t the only Asian Games athletes hit by the air quality in Jakarta. 2017 world champion Rose Chelimo of Bahrain said the heat and air pollution in Jakarta affected her performance in the women’s marathon on Aug. 26, to the point that she almost gave up.

“I felt something in my throat too. The air here, you feel like it’s hard to breathe,” the 29-year-old told AFP.

While Chelimo won the race, her time of 2:34:51 was a good 10 minutes off her personal best. It was also seven minutes slower than her performances at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, where she won in 2:27:11, and at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished eighth in 2:27:36.

Chelimo’s performance in Jakarta has been linked to the city’s toxic air. Concentrations of PM10 particles, which are smaller than 10 microns in diameter, in the capital during the Asian Games averaged 60 to 70 micrograms per cubic meter, according to organizers. For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in PM10, the performance of female marathon runners can be expected to decrease by 1.4 percent, according to a 2010 study.

Daniel Kass, senior vice president for environmental health at the global health nonprofit Vital Strategies, said that given the air quality during the race, Chelimo’s time was to be expected.

“So you can see what happened in Jakarta, about 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10,” he told Mongabay. “Once you get into 5, 6 or 7 times that formula, you’re talking about 10 percent performance reduction.”

Bahrain marathon runner Rose Chelimo catches her breath after finishing first at the final of the Asian Games’ Women Marathon in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by

Toxic pollutants

Athletes are especially prone to the health impacts of air pollution because they breathe up to 20 times more than regular people during training and competition. This is especially true for marathon runners like Chelimo, who inhale and exhale about the same volume of air during a race as a sedentary person would over the course of two full days.

Athletes also inhale deeply, further increasing their exposure to toxic pollutants. And without an adequate oxygen supply, athletes cannot reach peak performance.

“The level of toxic pollutants is certainly high enough that it can influence the performance [of athletes competing in the Asian Games],” Greenpeace senior global campaigner for coal and air pollution Lauri Myllyvirta told Mongabay.

Throughout the Games, which ran from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2, Jakarta had average PM2.5 level of 38 micrograms per cubic meter, nearly four time the WHO limit, according to Greenpeace figures. At several points, including during the men’s racewalk event, the PM2.5 level exceeded 75 micrograms per cubic meter, and sometimes went past 100 micrograms per cubic meter.

A graphic showing the hourly PM2.5 concentration level in Central and South Jakarta, Indonesia, during the 2018 Asian Games. Image by Greenpeace.

As poor as Jakarta’s air quality was, it could have been much worse. The city administration had in the weeks before the games imposed vehicle restrictions that effectively cut the number of cars on key streets by half.

Jakarta’s average PM2.5 level throughout 2018 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a global PM2.5 dataset published by Dalhousie University in Canada. This is higher than any other city hosting a major sports event since 2011, with the exception of Beijing in 2015.

The Chinese capital’s average PM2.5 level that year was 88 micrograms per cubic meter. Ahead of its hosting of the 2015 IAAF World Championships, city officials took drastic measures to clean the air by closing down factories and restricting vehicles, sending the PM2.5 level far below Jakarta’s average.

That means the Asian Games in Jakarta were likely the most polluted major sports event held anywhere since 2010, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games and Johannesburg hosted the FIFA World Cup, according to Greenpeace’s Myllyvirta. He described running a race in Jakarta as “definitely an extreme sport” due to the city’s hazardous air.


Olympic dreams

That hasn’t fazed officials in Jakarta, however, who now want to host the biggest prize of all: the 2032 Olympic Games.

Indeed, the organizers, and the president in particular, were widely praised for what was a largely successful Asian Games with no major snafus to speak of, according to Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu. But the higher profile of the Olympics should compel the government to do more about tackling air pollution, he said.

“Amid the euphoria of us becoming the host of this major sport event, we have to push the government to find real solutions on air pollution,” Bondan said in a press release. “The testimonies of these athletes are harsh criticisms for Indonesia as a host.”

The government spent some 30 trillion rupiah ($2 billion) preparing for the Asian Games, much of the funds going toward infrastructure such as stadium upgrades and the athletes’ village. But the government failed to provide clean air, one of the most important things athletes need, according to Margaretha Quina, head of environmental pollution at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL).

“The Asian Games is the right momentum for the Indonesian government to show its seriousness and commitment in building a healthy Indonesia,” she said.

An aerial view of Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia. The recently-renovated multi-purpose stadium has been chosen as the main stadium for the 2018 Asian Games. Photo by M. Arisandy Rizky/Flickr.

‘Real threat’

The notion that air quality should be improved not just for a high-level event but for the long term is echoed by Vital Strategies’ Kass.

“It’s kind of routine at this point that air pollution in cities gets extra attention, particularly during sporting events,” he said. “[But] there’s a certain cynical element to paying attention to air pollution and trying to mitigate it only when international eyes [are] on the city.”

He said the government shouldn’t forget that millions of Jakarta residents suffer every day from breathing in the toxic air.

“And because the effect is cumulative, the ability of people to exercise, the efficiency of manual laborers, the willingness of [people to] go outside — all of these are affected,” Kass said. “So the real need is to mitigate air pollution [in the long term].”

Greenpeace’s Myllyvirta also shared the same concern, saying that while there was definitely a short-term impact for athletes exerting themselves amid toxic air, people living in a city with air quality as bad as Jakarta’s were at greater risk of health problems because they had to deal with it all the time.

“The biggest concern with PM2.5 is that when you live in cities with such high PM2.5 levels over a long period of time, it increases your risk of numerous diseases,” Myllyvirta said.

To remind the public that clean air is a right for everyone, not just visiting athletes, activists from Greenpeace took out a huge billboard near the main stadium with a mural showing a person wearing a gas mask and the message “#WeBreatheTheSameAir.” The mural also displayed Jakarta’s air quality index to warn Jakarta residents of the toxic air that they breathe on a daily basis.

“No matter who we are, whether we’re rich, the president or taxi drivers, we all breathe the same air,” Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy team leader Hindun Mulaika told Mongabay. “So the impact of air pollution is very personal and everyone is affected.”

The damage that breathing toxic air inflicts goes far beyond the well-known impacts on physical health. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high pollution levels significantly reduced people’s intelligence, equivalent to losing a year of education.

“So if I’m complaining about air pollution, it’s not because I’m a campaigner for Greenpeace,” Hindun said. “It’s because I’m a mother of two children. Children like mine are often have coughs, runny noses and sore throats, all of which are diseases often caused by pollution.”

A number of Greenpeace activists climbed the billboard to install Jakarta air quality with a message #WeBreatheTheSameAir located on Jalan Jend. Gatot Soebroto (Taman Ria Senayan). The air quality data taken from an average of 5 air quality monitoring devices belonging to several different institutions, BMKG in Kemayoran, the US Embassy in Central and South Jakarta and 3 other tools owned by Greenpeace Indonesia in Rawamangun, Pejaten Barat and Mangga Dua Selatan. Image by Jeri Kusumo/Greenpeace.

Beijing or Atlanta?

There are two ways Jakarta can proceed after the Asian Games, said Kass. First, it can follow in the footsteps of Beijing, which went to extraordinary lengths to improve the city’s chronic and notoriously poor air quality in the months leading up to and during the 2008 Olympics.

These efforts included an aggressive program to curtail traffic and reduce emissions by implementing strict restrictions on automobile and truck use, closing factories, halting construction projects, spraying roads with water to reduce dust, and seeding clouds to induce rainfall.

In the years after the Olympics, the government actually ramped up its pollution control policies on the back of strong public pressure, Kass said. In 2014, the Chinese government declared war on air pollution, after unveiling an action plan to improve overall air quality across the country within five years.

The government also introduced a policy to switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, forcing millions of homes and businesses to make the switch. As a result, PM2.5 levels in Beijing plunged by 54 percent last year, according to a Greenpeace report.

“I don’t think the [Olympics were] the driving effort there,” Kass said. “It’s the concern of the public, fear of dissent and relentless attention [to] the horrific air pollution level in the city.”

Alternatively, Jakarta could end up like the U.S. city of Atlanta, which hosted the 1996 Olympics.

During the event, the city of Atlanta took measures such as limiting traffic in an effort to reduce air pollution. And they worked, at least for a while: there was a 42 percent reduction in asthma hospitalization cases during the Games.

“But it returned to normal afterward, because none of the mitigations stuck,” Kass said.

A traffic jam in Jakarta, Indonesia. Lack of public transportation has forced people in Jakarta to use private vehicles, clogging the street with cars and motorcycles and polluting the air. Image by VasenkaPhotography/Flickr.

Not just cars

To emulate Beijing’s success in improving its air quality, Jakarta has to address all sources of air pollution, not just vehicle emissions, which is what it focused on for the Asian Games.

The vehicle restriction policy that was implemented, which only allows cars on certain main streets if their license plate ends in an odd or even number, led to a reduction in Jakarta’s legendary traffic jams during the two-week Games, according to an official assessment.

Average vehicle speeds on the roads in question increased by 37 percent, and commuting times decreased by 23 percent. At the same time, the number of passengers on the Transjakarta bus network rose by 40 percent.

And yet air quality in Jakarta was still poor.

“There’s a number of reasons for that,” Myllyvirta said. “For Jakarta, a lot of its pollution comes from outside the city, including from factories, power plants and transport. In order to get good air quality, you have to address many sources.”

Vehicles account for 47 percent of the air pollution in the capital, according to a study by the NGO Committee to Phase Out Leaded Fuel (KPBB). Next are emissions from factories, at 22 percent, road dust and households (11 percent each), waste incineration (5 percent), and construction work (4 percent).

In preparing for the Asian Games, the government essentially failed to address the factors responsible more than half of the city’s air pollution.

“No effort was made to reduce pollution from coal power plants,” Kass said. “These are likely very significant sources for Jakarta’s air pollution.”

Beijing, by contrast, shut down factories in the industrial clusters located outside the city, which contributed 50 percent of the metropolitan’s pollution, according to Myllyvirta.

There are eight coal-fired power plants within a 100-kilometer (60-mile) radius of Jakarta. Emissions from these plants wind up in the air in Jakarta and Tangerang, a densely populated satellite city on the capital’s western outskirts, according to a Greenpeace study using state-of-the-art atmospheric modeling.

A modelling done by Greenpeace showing how far air pollutants from coal-fired power plants could travel to Jakarta. Image by Greenpeace.

With six more power plants planned for construction near Jakarta, the impacts on air quality would be dramatically exacerbated: the number of people exposed to PM2.5 levels exceeding WHO guidelines, solely due to emissions from coal power plants, would increase from 3 million at present to 31 million.

Emissions from the currently operating coal-fired power plants result in an estimated 5,260 premature deaths and 1,690 babies born underweight per year due to exposure to PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Taking future changes in population into consideration, the addition of the new plants would result in an extra 5,420 deaths and 1,130 babies born underweight.

“One thing that I was quite shocked to find is that Jakarta has more new coal plants being proposed within 100 kilometers than any other capital city in the world,” Myllyvirta said.

Another study, published in the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research in 2011, looked at the sources of air pollution in South Tangerang, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from central Jakarta. It found that 26 percent of the pollution there came from oil and coal power plants.

Greenpeace’s Hindun said what’s differentiate between Jakarta and Beijing was that there was a lot of public pressure in Beijing for the government to act on the industry and power plants, something which was missing in Jakarta.

“The public here doesn’t even know where the coal-fired power plants are located in,” she said. “They could only see the cars and the traffic in Jakarta. But if we ask Jakartans whether they have seen a coal plant in real life or what’s a coal plant look like, they might not know.”

An aerial shot of a coal-fired power plant in Banten, West Java. A study by Greenpeace shows that air pollutants from power plants in Banten could reach Jakarta. Image by thisisinbalitimur/Flickr.

Official denials

The government, far from acknowledging the problems with air quality, insists there’s no issue. Air quality in Jakarta is “quite safe,” said Andoro Warih, head of the environmental impact assessment unit at the city’s environment agency. He pointed to the city’s PM10 level, which averages less than the central government’s safe limit of 150 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period.

But air quality standards in Indonesia, for both PM2.5 and PM10, are weaker than elsewhere in Asia as well as the WHO.  The latter’s safe standard for PM10 exposure in a 24-hour period is 50 micrograms per cubic meter — a third of Indonesia’s threshold.

“It is our standards that are weak, not our air that’s healthy,” Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy staffer Didit Haryo Wicaksono told Mongabay. “That’s why we’re pushing the government to strengthen our air quality standards, because many other countries have done that.”

The Indonesian government only requires the monitoring of certain parameters of air quality, including PM10. PM2.5 is not included in that list, and as such doesn’t feature on the daily notices published on the Jakarta administration’s website.

“We’ve always wanted to include PM2.5, but we’re prevented by the regulations,” said Thamrin, a city environmental official. “This year, we’ve built five monitoring units in Jakarta that can measure PM2.5. We’re calling for the regulations to be revised to include PM2.5 [information].”

Greenpeace Indonesia’s Bondan said it was time for the government to stop using the PM10 level as an indicator of Jakarta’s air quality because it masked the severity of the pollution problem. He said the government should start using the PM2.5 indicator, as suggested by the WHO, because these smaller particles could be inhaled and thus posed a more serious health risk.

“As long as the city keeps saying the air quality is good or moderate, we aren’t talking about the [real] problems, let alone finding any solutions,” he said as quoted by the Jakarta Post.

But more senior government officials insist there’s nothing wrong with Jakarta’s air quality. Dwikorita Karnawati, who heads the national weather agency, the BMKG, cited a recent report by the WHO that measured the annual mean PM2.5 levels in more than 4,300 cities around the world.

The top 10 most polluted cities on the list were mostly in India, with no Indonesian cities in the top 10, she said.

Another top official, Dasrul Chaniago, director of air pollution at the environment ministry, has even gone as far as to deny that power plants in neighboring Banten province contribute to the air pollution in Jakarta.

“Why would smoke from coal-fired power plants travel all the way to Jakarta? Do they want to go to the shopping malls here?” he told reporters in Jakarta. “Are you sure smoke from power plants in Banten can be carried by the wind to Jakarta? You’re given the ability to think by God. We have logic. We’re not animals.”

When reporters pointed out to him that air moved all the time, thus making it possible for emissions from power plants to reach Jakarta, Dasrul said “that’s bullshit. Why isn’t the wind going from Jakarta to Banten?”

Bondan said the government should carry out its own studies on the impact of the power plants instead of just issuing blanket denials of the problem.

“They should have responded to our study [on coal-fired power plants near Jakarta] with their own modeling,” he said, “not just saying there’s no way [it can happen].”

Bondan also urged the Jakarta administration to start conducting an official study into the sources of air pollution in the city. “They’ve never done an emission inventory,” he said.

Vital Strategies’ Kass agreed, saying that current efforts to tackle air pollution in Jakarta were undertaken with little understanding of where the pollution was coming from.

“I’m concerned that there won’t be a hard look [at] why the mitigation effort wasn’t effective,” he said.

A traffic jam in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by Joel Wiramu Pauling/Flickr.

‘Grand design’

That message is reaching some in the Jakarta administration, despite the denials from officials in the central government.

Oswar Muadzin Mungkasa, the deputy to the Jakarta governor for spatial planning and the environment, said he was aware that the city’s air pollution came from a wide range of sources. He said that made it important to have a policy addressing all these sources, and to work with the administrations of neighboring cities and provinces.

He said the city administration was currently working on a “grand design” to improve the air quality in Jakarta.

“Together we must realize that air quality management in Jakarta must be resolved regionally, involving the entire metropolitan area of ​​Jakarta,” Oswar said.

Kass welcomed the “grand design,” in particular the administration’s acknowledgment that there needed to be better data on air pollution.

“One of the components of the grand design is recognizing not much is known [about air pollution in the city],” he said. “I think they understand that if they want to figure out how to mitigate it [air pollution], they have to know where it’s coming from.”

One particular event the government can capitalize on to improve its policies on air pollution and climate change is the upcoming WHO’s global conference on air pollution and health at the end of October, said Bondan.

The conference is the first of its kind and will bring together global, national and local partners to share knowledge and mobilize action for cleaner air and better health globally.

Greenpeace’s Hindun said any lessons learned from the conference would be in vain if the government refused to acknowledge the urgency of tackling air pollution. “It’s up to the government whether they want to accept the reality or keep denying,” she said.

Locals who are affected by coal power plants around Indonesia gather during a protest in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources office in Jakarta, Indonesia. They’re demanding the government to switch from coal to renewable energy. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Climate impact

The same vehicle and power-plant emissions dirtying Jakarta’s air are also contributing to global warming. Indonesia is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, with the energy sector on track to surpass the forestry and land-use sector as the biggest source of emissions.

The country maintains the outdated Euro II emissions standard for road-going vehicles, which allows the use of cheaper but more polluting fuels. It is among the last three countries in Asia not to have made the leap to Euro IV, which requires higher-quality and cleaner fuel.

In a pursuit of cleaner air and lower emissions, the government has announced it will implement the Euro IV standard across the country starting Oct. 7 this year.

But the move comes just as a weakening currency and rising oil prices combine to push consumers toward lower-cost, dirty fuel again. Indonesia is looking to buy 84 million barrels of cheap, lower-quality gasoline so far this year, more than the 62 million barrels it bought in 2017, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

This reliance on polluting fuels has made the road transportation sector a major source of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 12 percent of total emissions. Globally, the transport sector is the fastest-growing contributor to climate emissions, according to the WHO.

Jakarta is a major consumer of these cheap fuels, with nearly three-quarters of the city’s emissions coming from the energy sector, including private vehicles. Burning coal is a big part of that, and by 2030 the energy sector is expected to account for 50 percent of Indonesia’s emissions, up from 28 percent in 2010, as demand for energy increases.

The Indonesian government plans to meet the increase in energy demand by doubling the number of coal-fired power plants, adding 25 gigawatts of new power to the grid.

The World Bank says plans to build more coal plants in Asia, including Indonesia, will be a “disaster for the planet,” and overwhelm the Paris climate agreement, to which Indonesia is a signatory.

The Indonesian government says these new plants will feature clean-coal technology to reduce their impact on the environment. But climate and energy scientists have refuted the rationalization, noting that carbon dioxide emissions from the most technologically advanced coal-fired power plants today are double those from a natural gas plant, and 15 times higher than from a renewable power plant.

And while the most advanced technologies can, in theory, remove some 90 percent of carbon and harmful particulates from coal exhaust, they drive up the cost of building a coal-fired power plant by about 70 percent.

“What the Indonesian government is doing to mitigate climate change is to still use coal and justify it as clean technology,” Greenpeace’s Hindun said. “Meanwhile, other countries are mitigating climate change by transitioning from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy.”

Even if the coal plants of the future are as “clean” as the government is advertising, there are still some 50 other coal-fired plants in operation today that will continue working on old and inefficient technology. The burning of coal accounted for more than 40 percent of Indonesia’s energy-related CO2 emissions in 2014. The emissions from the amount of coal it exported, meanwhile, exceeded total emissions from its domestic energy use.

Making the switch from coal to renewable energy would therefore not just reduce air pollution, but would also help slow the pace of climate change and related impacts on water resources, agriculture, weather extremes and health.

But the Indonesian government’s current energy policy still favors coal over renewables for foreseeable future. While the national energy blueprint calls for a boost in the use of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix from 12 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2025, coal will remain the primary source of energy, at 54.4 percent in 2025.

“If we’re looking at our country’s climate change pledge, the government’s commitment on renewable energy is still weak,” Hindun said.

There may be a bright spot, though. The government recently put several power plant projects on hold, particularly on Java, which is experiencing a supply glut. This could serve as a starting point to wean the country off coal power and onto renewables, Hindun said.

Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan recently announced the government would slow down an ambitious program to add 35 gigawatts of power to the national grid — mostly through coal-fired plants — and postpone the construction of plants supplying a planned 15.2 gigawatts of that total. The move came in response to a weakening rupiah, which has made the import of equipment for the plants prohibitively expensive and contributed to a ballooning current-account deficit.

“The current strengthening of the U.S. dollar proves the notion that coal is cheap, which the Indonesian government keeps repeating to justify its support for the coal industry, is wrong,” Hindun said. “Just the U.S. dollar strengthening is enough to render coal power no longer affordable because we still import a lot of the technology.”

Renewables, she said, have a higher capital cost, but over the long term work out much cheaper.

“It’s very possible to do transfer of technology for renewable energy, because renewable energy technology is not difficult to master,” she said. “It’s just that Indonesia doesn’t want to develop its renewable energy industry.”


Banner image: Indonesian speed walker Hendro Yap receives medical attention right after crossing the finish line during the final of speed walking race at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image by INASGOC.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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