Development, Pollution and the Environment in Developing Countries

By Brent Duke


It is the natural course of the human race to develop and improve the standard by which we live. Over the course of mankind individual humans have been replaced by societies who were in turn replaced by countries in the endless quest for improvement. In the economical sense of this idea, which most would argue is of extreme importance, development has manifested itself in industrial and commercial progress. This natural path, one in which society has unavoidably embarked on, has led to the inevitable clash between man and nature. As a countries’ economy grows, so does the probability for a conflict with the environment.  It is the point of this paper to explore a specific level of this conflict in the hope that, at the very least, an adequate understanding will be reached so future opposition between development and environment can be minimized.

It is no secret that industrial development, especially if it is concentrated and intense, and substantially contributes to the destruction of the environment in which that development is occurring, and on occasion, in neighboring communities. However, each country is inevitably on this journey to improve themselves, and in the case of developing countries, this includes industrial development. The reasons for this path to economic success are twofold. First, it is the natural course that any country would take. Industrial improvements eventually lead to financial improvement, which leads to an increase in those countries’ standard of living. The second reason that developing countries exercise industrial development as a means for improvement is because they have witnessed it happening time and again throughout history. Most western countries, especially the United States, have ignored most environmental concerns during their quest for industrial development. However, now that the West had industrialized itself and holds the political weight in the international community, how does the developing countries seek improvement without pursuing industrial development in the same manner that the West did. International pressure, mostly levied from countries such as the United States, have forced developing countries to adhere to strict environmental restrictions in their pursuit of economic prosperity and, as a result, created a global dispute.

It is the goal of this paper to examine not only that disputes but also more importantly the impact of pollution; specifically sir pollution can have on a society. A number of ways in which this development process hampers the environment will be discussed and the way in which they effect the total economic output of that society, which is the ultimate goal of each maturing country. Through the use of Mexico as a case study, a number of possible solutions to this problem will be explored with the hope that they could possibly shed some light on this complex problem. We do not expect to solve this dilemma but rather to highlight the fact that this problem does exist and discussion on it is warranted. Discussion leads to suggestions, which ultimately leads to solutions, with the hope that the issues of industrial development and environmental degradation will not be mentioned in the same sentence.


The Dilemma

As previously mentioned developing countries face a very difficult position in today’s economic environment. The increased interdependence of the international community, coupled with the demand to improve has forced many developing countries to make tough choices in their quest for economic prosperity. Arguably the hardest question of all involves the need to industrialize, a fundamental step towards economic growth, without causing severe harm to the environment. A number of studies on this very relationship have concluded, “environmental quality deteriorates in the early stages of economic growth” (Labys 2).  And it is this early period of growth that developing countries are immediately concerned with. As these states seek economic prosperity they bring harm to the environment and as a result bring a substantial amount of pressure from the international community. It has not become a question of recognizing that they are causing damage to the environment, because these developing countries are well aware of the effects of their actions, the issue is instead is how to make it beneficial for these countries to address the concerns for the environment during the early stages of development.

              When the developing states are confronted on this matter it is hard to argue that they do not have a persuasive argument for their continued means of industrial development. For years, and in certain cases centuries, these third world states have stood by and watched developed countries, such as the United States, not only exploit but damage the natural environment on their quest for economic growth. It began with England in the nineteenth century, with their industrialization, and has occurred with almost every developed country today. However, not the global community, mostly lead by these developed countries, is asking, and occasionally demanding, that the third world countries who are now trying to get their economic foot in the door by industrialization do everything within their power to avoid damaging the environment in the process. This hypocritical view on the part of the developed world has led to a bitter debate on how the developing countries are supposed to develop without damaging the environment. Unfortunately, this debate has extended instances in which corporations from developed countries go around the environmentally strict laws in their own countries and “see goods and products to the developing countries that pollute the environment or are hazardous to the health, goods and products outlawed in the corporations’ home countries” (Yvonne). Clearly, this had become an issue that warrants careful and efficient action.

            Beginning in the 1970s a significant amount of international attention has blossomed around the concern for stricter environmental standards in order to ensure a healthier planet. The Stockholm Conference on Environment and Development in 1972 was a major step forward for the international community in initiating environmental action. During the conference a sufficient amount of debate was given to the role of developing countries and the need for environmentally efficient industry. However, following the conclusion of the conference, a number of sticking points soon became apparent. For one thing, “in many developing countries, it is clear that enforcement of environmental laws has been hampered by inadequate funding and staffing,” (Susmita 4) thus crippling any attempt to regulate damage to the environment in those countries. The real problem, however, has arisen on not only how to enforce such regulations but exactly what laws to implement. It is not a secret to anyone that the developed and developing worlds are operating under completely different industrial circumstances and to enforce the same, across the board, laws would not be feasible. Instead, what has become the ultimate question is how should the developing world be treated with regard to industrial growth. Before we can tackle that problem with any amount of confidence it is necessary to describe the forms of industrial pollution and their varying effects on the environment in the developing countries.


Forms of Pollution: Inputs v. Outputs

            Before we begin on our discussion of the various forms of input and output pollution types and their effect on the environment in developing countries it is important to define exactly what is meant between the two. Inputs refer to the resources that industry extract from the natural environment in order to produce a finished product. For example, coal would be an input for the purpose of producing energy. Therefore, it would not be too difficult to conclude what outputs might be. They represent the direct pollution that is the result of industry. For example, air pollution is often a common problem among areas with a high number of industrial refineries. This section of the paper will address the input problem that developing countries face and the question over how to deal with a depleting limited amount of natural resources.

            As a developing country devotes itself to a path of economic growth, and an accompanying path of industrialization, it is forced to deal with the unavoidable fact that it will extract a significant amount of natural resources in the process, most of which are nonrenewable. As a result, the “consequences of industrialization are not only the depletion of non-renewable natural resources but also the degradation of those resources which can be renewed” (Labys 7).  The three fundamental inputs that developing countries must be concerned with are water consumption, energy consumption and the accusation and utilization of minerals.

            One of the major dilemmas that developing countries have is that the supply costs of water are rising sharply. This is due to the abnormal pricing structure of water and the subsequent allocation of water. The reason that this is particularly true with developing countries is because the agricultural sector of an economy tends to consume about 73 percent of the total water supply. Since most of the developing countries of the world were mostly agriculturally based prior to their industrialization, they tend to often face a difficult problem with shifting the allocation and distribution of their water. And as if this were not enough for the countries to face, once industrilization sets in, industry pollutes water in a way that the previous forms of commerce could only imagine. For example, even though 80 percent of the water used by industry is returned after it industrial use, the water is often contained with pollutants that harm the environment.  As a result, the resource of water, a substantial input, is a hurdle that developing countries have to deal with.

            Arguably the most important input that countries rely on for their economic growth and production is that of energy. Without the many different forms of energy: oil, gas coal and nuclear, none of the industrialization that developing countries dream of would be possible. “Environmental problems such as acid rain, the greenhouse effect, thermal pollution and the general degradation of the quality of air, water and land are exacerbated by excessive energy use” (Labys 15).  And since industry, especially during the initial phases of industrialization, tend to use the most energy within a country, it is significant problem for developing countries.

It may be apparent that to talk of energy as a input and mention its potential outputs to be redundant. The fact is, however, that when talking about industrial pollution, energy consumption is the input that produces the more harmful outputs.  And of all the outputs that has produced the most environmental damage, the deterioration of air draws the most concern from the international community. This consideration is well deserved if one looks at the problems that poor air quality has caused the industrialized countries of the last hundred years. The problems get worse when industrialized countries, with their inefficient enforcement procedures, are examined. It is this statement that highlights the point of this study. Developing countries face an uphill battle with regard to treating air pollution, as an examination of the dynamics of industrial air pollution and its application to a specific case study will demonstrate.


The Obstacle of Air Pollution

            Industrial air pollution, especially that of the developing nations, is not only extremely harmful to the surrounding environment, but also to the inhabitants of that country as well. Unfortunately, most citizens of a developing country do not realize the health problems that intense industrial air pollution can cause. As a result, in addition to severely damaging the environment in these developing countries, air pollution has lead to the detrimental health of millions of people around the world. And with these added health concerns comes the financial costs they impose, another hurdle for developing countries.

            When various industries produces their product they emit a number of harmful particles into the air. They usually include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbons. Each substance, alone or otherwise, can be detrimental to human health, especially if they are released in substantial quantities. These health problems tend to be mainly found in developing countries that have weak systems to prevent the release of air pollution. The proceeding case study on Mexico makes this quite clear. 


Mexico: A Case Study in Air Pollution

According to Derek Elsom, professor of climatology at London’s Oxford Brookes University, pollution is a terrible problem.  “Hundreds of millions of people live in cities where air pollution is so severe that hundred thousands die prematurely every year and many tens of thousands become acutely or chronically ill,” (The Futurist Online).  Although this is a horrible problem in the rest of the world, Mexico City has arguably the worst air pollution problem in the world.  The Mexican government has some plans to eliminate this problem, but the situation has gotten to the point where the citizens of Mexico City need solutions.  The government is taking some action, but is clearly not doing enough.


The Cause

            One of the reasons behind the pollution in Mexico City is that the city rests in 70 mile-wide basin ringed by mountains (Guggenheim Online).  The city has grown at a tremendous rate with overcrowding, congested streets, and factories causing large amounts of pollution, that is not able to escape out of the valley.  Cold air frequently causes thermal inversions, trapping warmer polluted air in the bowl-shaped valley that is home to about 18 million people (Houston Chronicle Online).

            With such an enormous population, there is obviously a lot of public transportation.  There are a total of 2,000 public buses, 80,000 taxis and 30,000 microbuses (Asia Intelligence Wire Online), but this is not enough and the public transportation system in Mexico City is incredibly overcrowded and quite inadequate for the millions of people who need it.  Because the public transportation in Mexico City is so bad, the residents also own 3.5 million vehicles (Mexico Business Monthly), and this is the where most of the pollution comes from.  The most severe problem is the older cars driven by the citizens, because most air pollution is not caused by public transportation.  “About 70 percent of all car pollution is caused by pre-1985 vehicles,” explains Carlos Gelista, director of public relations and government affairs at GM de Mexico (Garza Online).

            It has been two decades since Mexico City first recognized its critical pollution problem, and the government has made some efforts to deal with a the situation.  Despite the attempts of the government to take steps to improve the situation in Mexico City, much more needs to be done.  “Public buses, open dumps, unsupervised industries and aging cars continue to cough out contaminants” (Preston Online).  These problems cannot be changed overnight and will be quite costly to the Mexican government.  Solutions might also inconvenience some of the residents of Mexico City, but something has to be done about this situation immediately.  The people of Mexico City are living in a city where the air quality is considered satisfactory less than 30 days a year (Mexico Business Monthly Online).



The Impact

            Among the worst sources of ozone and particles are the thousands of driver-owned minibuses that are the only public transportation in many poor neighborhoods (Preston Online).  The problem the government faces is that these minibuses cannot simply be taken away without some type of replacement. This is a dilemma that has the Mexican government puzzled.  Replacements for vehicles such as these must be made soon, with Mexico City being currently being “one of the most dangerous places on the planet to take a breath” (Preston Online).

Officials say that about a third of the capital’s population suffers from respiratory problems during periods of high pollution (Houston Chronicle Online).  The poverty stricken residents of this city are stuck living in a city where their health is constantly in danger due to the pollutants in the air.  Ozone levels above 100 are considered dangerous, and Mexico City goes over 200 on the city pollution scale quite often, and will be over 100 for weeks at a time (Guggenheim).

            While most of the emergencies in Mexico City have been called because of the ozone layer, recently Mexico City has encountered a new problem.  Since December of 1998, the city government has twice declared pollution emergencies in which, for the first time the chief cause was not ozone but dismal clouds of particles (Preston Online).  The consequences of this most recent pollution emergency were horrible.  A week after the highest particle levels were registered, half the metropolis’s 18 million residents became sick with some respiratory ailment (Preston Online). 

            Derek Elsom says that in Mexico City breathing the air is “the equivalent of inhaling pollutants from 40 cigarettes a day” (The Futurist Online).  Smoking 40 cigarettes a day is ridiculous for any person, and in Mexico City this problem attacks everyone from infants to the elderly.  Inhaling pollutants at this level is clearly killing many people prematurely.

            Nezahualcoyotl, located in the northeast corner of Mexico City’s metropolitan area, is a section of the city that exemplifies what is currently going on throughout Mexico City.  What was once a beautiful area the bed of Lake Texaco, has now become a “rank smelling desert of dust and garbage” (Preston Online).  The water was drained away to allow the voracious development of Mexico City in the 20th century and the parched lake bed is now an open-air dump cluttered with mountains of burning tires, construction rubble, factory waste and rotting trash (Preston Online).  Years of careless pollution have caused Neahualcoyotl to become a dangerous place to live.

With all of this filth, the people in Nezahualcoyotl are living in a very scary situation.  “We just breathe pollution, so we never get well,” said Ivonne Vega, a 23-years-old, as she pressed a tissue to her nose.  Alongside her toddled her sniffling 18-month-old son; he was just recovering, she said, from one of his almost-constant throat infections (Preston Online).  Many of the residents of Mexico City constantly are battling some type of ailment. 

Another resident, Franceli Vela Uriostegui, a 37-year-old picking up her 8-year-old niece who had suddenly developed flu-like symptoms and a red chest rash said, “I think we’re just dying slowly” (Preston Online).  Mr. Uriostegui might not be far from the truth, the average life expectancy in Mexico City is reduced between 5 and 10% by the air pollution (Mexico Business Monthly Online).

When there was a chemical leak at a factory in Nezahalcoyotl earlier this year, citizens described the smell as a combination of burnt hair and plastic.  One factory owner denied the presence of pollution, calling the public reaction “purely psychological” (Reuter Wire Online).  Although the residents know that such claims are false, they are still confused about how to react when there is a strange smell in the air.  One resident said, “I just want to know what to do, stay inside with the doors and windows closed or get out in the open air” (Reuter Wire Online).  The government has not fully educated the people, and this is something that needs to be done, considering these situations happen commonly.


Communities React to Lack of Governmental Support

Until 1997, city politics was dominating by an “overbearing one-party system that discouraged independent grass-roots organizing” (Preston Online), causing many of the citizens to become entirely discouraged with the political system.  Although the government was aware the problem existed, it was made quite clear that the residents would not have much say in say in bringing about change.  Since the residents did not believe they could bring about change in a problem as pervasive as smog, they never made any effort.  “Of course it bothers us,” said Alejandra Perez, a Nezahualcoyotl resident. “But we don’t do anything about it.  No one in power would pay attention to us if we did.”

One reason why the government has not fully dealt with the issue of pollution is that there are many other problems for the residents of Mexico City.  An example of such an issue is a problem that Isabel Bustamante must deal with everyday.  After 30 years in her house, she still has no running water (Preston Online).  The Mexican government has many problems to deal with and pollution is just one of them.

Many changes the government makes are met with hesitance on the part of the people if they perceive the changes as an inconvenience. Every time the government takes cars off of the streets, there are many complaints from the countless motorists who are forced into using Mexico City’s poor public transportation.  Not all of the people in the city are aware of just how dangerous their predicament is.  “People in this city would rather drive than breathe,” says Alejandro Encinas, the city’s Environment Secretary (Preston Online).  Although this is an exaggeration, a lack of environmental awareness is evident in the actions of many citizens of Mexico City.

            This lack of education stems from the government not making information available to the citizens.  On a day when the city officials had declared a smog emergency, meaning people should not exercise, one citizen, Andres Altamirano was defiant.  He was riding his bicycle and planning to run and play soccer later in the day.  “Just because there’s pollution we’re not going to stop practicing sports,” he said (Guggenheim Online).  Although nothing positive can come out of playing sports for Andres Altamirano on a smog emergency day, it seems as though he, and many of the other people in Mexico City, have basically given up.


Government’s Effort

            The government is trying to meet this skepticism with programs designed to curtail pollution to some extent.  One way the Mexican government has dealt with this seemingly insurmountable problem is a system that only allows certain cars on the road on certain days in Mexico City.  When the program was originally put into place, people were allowed to drive based on the last number on their license plates, but the government had to change this system because the amount of pollution in the air actually increased.  People figured out how to circumvent the restrictions by using older vehicles as second cars (Swiss Review of World Affairs Online).  Since pollution was increasing, Mexico City officials were forced to come up with a new system, and this is what they have in place now.  This new program differentiates between older and newer vehicles, but is somewhat complicated.  The new system is so confusing that most motorists do not know whether or not they are allowed to drive, especially during an emergency day.  As many as 55,000 drivers call a telephone information service on one day confused about whether or not they would be allowed to drive (LaFranchi Online).

            Despite the fact that the government has these types of systems in place, this problem requires a need for more immediate action.  Carlos Glister, director of public relations and government affairs at GM de Mexico feels that “the most immediate solution is withdrawing from circulation highly polluting vehicles” (Graze Online).  One solution proposed by GM would encourage people to turn in their pre-1985 vehicles by offering a $2,000 discount to those trading in their older cars.  This cost would be evenly split between the company and the government, but a problem with this program is that the start-up cost would be about $30 million.  Another problem with this program is that most Mexicans driving 15-year-old vehicles are probably not going to be able to afford to buy a new car, so giving a credit to those buying a new car might not be the best way to get older vehicles off the roads.

            While these solutions deal mostly with the private sector, a major source of Mexico City’s pollution is also caused by public transportation.  Since the government has more control over public transportation than what happens in the private lives of residents, it seems as though this is where the change should begin. 

New technologies currently being developed could bring affordable, zero-emission vehicles to Mexico in as soon as five years, allowing Mexico City to have a sizeable decrease in pollution.  Although this is a desirable program for both the government and the people of the city, the process will also require considerable investments on the part of automakers and state-owned oil monopoly Pemex (Garza Online).  It is unclear if the government and Pemex will pay the money to implement programs that would bring more desirable public transportation into Mexico City.

            One method of creating fuel that does not cause pollution uses fuel cells.  A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity silently without combustion.  Hydrogen fuel, which may be obtained from natural gas or methanol, and oxygen are electrochemically combined in the fuel cell to produce electricity.  Heat and pure water vapor are the only by-products (Graze Online).  With technology such as this there is certainly hope for the future of Mexico City.

            The problem currently before the city government is that some automobile manufacturer will have to begin producing vehicles using this new technology.  “As with many great inventions, everybody knows the technology; the question is, who is going to convert in into a suitable product?” says Federico Forte, president of Mercedes-Benz de Mexico (Graze Online).  Although it is scientifically feasible, no one is currently mass-producing vehicles using fuel cells.

There are two different gases that can be converted into fuel. 

‘The two main possible fuels would be pure hydrogen, which would be 100-percent pollution free, and methanol, which would produce some carbon dioxide, but far less than the amount produced by current engines,’ says Harry Schlawltz, director of product engineering at Mercedes-Benz de Mexico (Garza Online). 


Although hydrogen would be the best environmental choice, methanol will probably be more prevalent in the future.  The reasoning behind this is that gas stations can easily be adapted to handle methanol.  Schlawltz predicts fleet vehicles will use hydrogen and that methanol will be the fuel of choice for passenger vehicles (Garza Online).  It will take many years before all of Mexico City will make the switch to natural gases, and most are still looking for a more short-term solution to this enormous problem.

            Natural gas is definitely not the only solution to the problem confronting Mexico City.  There are many other technologies currently available that can begin to reduce pollution.  Using current diesel fuel technology in conjunction with catalyst systems recently developed in Germany is another effective means of lowering air pollution.  Pemex would be forced to reduce the sulfur content of its diesel fuel from .03 percent to .002 percent, and the question remains as to whether Pemex will want to invest in the process and how big of a priority it will be for the petroleum giant (Garza Online).  Unless Pemex decides to make a sizeable investment, this no idea will not work.

            There are programs being implemented right now that make it look as though Mexico City is headed in the right direction.  The “Clean Air Mexico City Program” will be implemented some time this year, and will call for the purchase of 290 natural gas and hybrid engine buses and the construction of five natural gas stations.  The natural gas stations will provide some hope for the future of natural gas technology in Mexico City. The program will cost an estimated $20 million dollars that will come from the World Bank Credit line (Wageheim Online).  This will be quite a costly program, but will be worth the money if the groundwork is set for changes in the current methods of transportation in Mexico City.

            There are many companies ready to step in and provide Mexico with natural gas vehicles.  Among the companies leading the way in fuel cell based vehicles is Ballard Power Systems.  Through joint ventures with Ford Motor Companies and Daimler-Benz, Ballard has secured themselves a foothold with leaders of the transportation industry.  Both General Motors and Honda have also purchased fuel cells from Ballard.  While in Mexico City, Paul Howard, Ballard’s vice president of transportation systems, demonstrated just how clean the exhaust from a Ballard Bus is.  He led a “toast to the future” using a glass of pure water drawn from the exhaust pipe of the bus (Garza Online).

There might be reason for some hope for the future of public transportation in Mexico City, but for now there remains thousands of driver-owned minibuses.  Mr. Encinas, Mexico City’s Environment Secretary does not have an immediate solution for this problem and says that for now he will try to persuade the minibus drivers to convert to natural gas, a cleaner fuel (Preston Online).  Although nothing can be done currently, this problem is obviously too important to simply hope these minibus drivers change fuels in good faith.

Is There Hope?

Although the government is making some efforts to bring about change in Mexico City, much more needs to be done immediately.  With Mexico being an industrializing nation it may take aid from other countries to help the fight against air pollution, but there is no time to wait.  Hopefully, someday in the future the 18,000,000 residents of Mexico City will be able to live in a city that Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once baptized as “the clearest region” (Mexico Business Monthly Online).  While this was only 40 years ago, the description is a far cry from a city now depicted as a “cocktail of pollutants” (The Futurist Online).

From these illustrations if the air pollution problem in Mexico it is clear that the problem does exist and is fairly severe. And while anyone can identify the problem the real test comes in attempting to figure out what to do about it. Mexico has implemented a number of different laws and regulations only to see them be ineffective because they don’t directly address the issue. If anything is be truly accomplished, the international community must come to a consensus on how to directly approach the problem of pollution, and specifically air pollution in Mexico. Any animosity between developing and developed countries must be put aside as these two parties come together and attack the issue of pollution. Because until that is done, and an effective strategy is implemented, the people of the world, especially Mexico City, will not live a healthy life. 
























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