By Courtney Page
Streets lined with cherry blossom trees in full bloom signals the advent of spring in Korea and Japan; however, over the past twenty years, a blanket of harmful and polluted sand and yellow dust covers both nations. The dust leaves a brown-yellowish film on city streets and cars and signals the arrival of spring. Yellow dust storms cause billions of dollars in damage, hundreds of deaths, and send millions to the hospital for respiratory problems. The Korean Environment Institute estimates that yellow dust kills up to 165 South Koreans per year, makes as many as 1.8 million ill, and causes 5.82 billion dollars in damage annually.[i]
As China becomes the world’s manufacturing headquarters, it has also witnessed rising environmental problems. Yellow dust sand storms, an environmental problem that originates in China has serious consequences for its neighbors in the region. Dust particles rise into the air and are driven across the Korean peninsula to Japan by strong winds. The storms are a result of the rapid spread of overgrazing, soil degradation, and desertification in Central Asia and China. These conditions, combined with unusually high levels of low atmospheric pressure and westerly prevailing winds, along with drier winters, result in massive of amounts of sand pulled into the atmosphere. Dust and sand particles carry with them chemicals and organic materials, such as aluminium (Al), ammonium(NH+4), chlorite (ClO2–), feldspar (KAlSi3O8 – NaAlSi3O8 –CaAl2Si2O8), iron (Fe), kaolinite (Al2Si2O5(OH)4), magnesium (Mg), nitrate (NO−3), silicon (Si), sulfate (SO,2–4.), sulfure (S), and quartz(SiO2).[ii] These particles are harmful when they make their way deep into the lungs of the young and elderly, causing respitory discomfort, damage, and can lead to death in extreme cases.
Since the first official mention of yellow dust storms in 1988, states affected by this phenomenon have invested millions into sophisticated technology, on-site evaluations, instituted new environmental measures and regulations, monitoring systems, data collection, data analysis, afforestation, and watershed managements programs. According to Yanzhong Huang, an expert in global health governance, health diplomacy and security, and Chinese politics and public policy, China considers yellow dust to be a ‘marginal issue’. As China fails to approach this problem with more resources, immediacy, and seriousness, the region will suffer increased loss of human life and deterioration of respiratory health among those living in China, South Korea, and Japan.
ECO-ASIA, ENVIROASIA, NEAFF, NEASPEC, UNEP, and UNCCD have made strides in ameliorating the cause and effect of yellow dust in the region.[iii] I propose China, South Korea, and Japan institute one single prevailing coordinating actor to address this issue with a clear, objective, and orchestrated response with benchmarks to track progress. This fundamental and structural change will maximize the efforts in addressing the issue and eliminate issues of overlap, waste, and duplication of efforts, energy, and time. Policy practitioners should communicate the gravity of this issue, construct and shift intersubjective meaning among and between actors in the region, and provide a framework to approach this issue with shared meaning.
The extent of the negative impact of yellow dust on human health is still unknown. Recent studies are just now finding that yellow dust can possibly contain viruses, such as influenza or foot and mouth disease, as well as bacteria that could have serious implications on health in Northeast Asia. Until this issue is addressed with equal perceptions of immediacy, substantial increases in the recourses that can ameliorate the causes, and policy makers create a consensus of shared ideas and solutions, the Asian spring will continue to consist of a polluted haze that blankets cities and wreaks havoc on the health of the young and elderly.
[i] More yellow dust to come. (2006, April 10). The Korea Herald Online (Provided by World News Connection). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/870534421?accountid=13793
[ii] Kar, A., & Takeuchi, K. (2004). Yellow Dust: An Overview of Research and Felt Needs. Journal of Arid Environments, 59, 167-187.
[iii] Wilkening, K. (2006). Dragon Dust: Atmospheric Science and Cooperation on Desertification in the Asia and Pacific Region. Journal of East Asian Studies, 6, 433-461.
[Photo Courtesy of Abri_Beluga]