Aerial view of island village in Maldives

Aerial view of island village in Maldives. Photo: EyeEm / Getty Images

South Asia has one of the most serious air pollution problems in the world. Out of the more than 6.5 million estimated global premature deaths due to air pollution, roughly one-third occur in the region. Dirty air also has major impacts on the economy, crop yields, biodiversity, and development. The scale of the problem, and the fact that air pollution does not recognize territorial boundaries, requires international cooperation. No one country can do what is needed on its own.

This is why recommitment to the Malé Declaration – the only existing intergovernmental network in South Asia to address air pollution and transboundary issues at a regional level – is so important.  Properly resourced, it could transform air quality in South Asia.

It was in 1998 that Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka first agreed to cooperate on air pollution in the landmark agreement, called the “Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and its Likely Transboundary Effect for South Asia (Malé Declaration) ”. The original document recognized the potential for air pollution to worsen in the region without concerted action and drew on experiences of successful cooperation in other regions of the world. Signatory countries committed both to national actions and cooperation to monitor pollutants, building up standard methodologies, and sharing expertise and strategies.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida ) supported the Malé Declaration activities for over a decade and there was noticeable progress in promoting regional cooperation on air pollution, building national capacities, assisting policy making, and sharing information and experience. The end of this funding presented a challenge to member countries. Recognizing the importance of maintaining momentum they committed to finance activities from their national budgets. Activities continued, but not at the same pace. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated difficulties and inevitably progress slowed.

Participants in a Malé Declaration inter-governmental meeting organized in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2000.

Participants in a Malé Declaration inter-governmental meeting organized in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2000. Photo: Malé Declaration Secretariat.

Now a new agreement has been reached to relaunch the declaration. The revival is occurring at a time when international interest in regional cooperation on air pollution is increasing – as evidenced by regional and sub-regional consultations for air pollution in Asia and the Pacific held this year by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia (UNESCAP ) to support regional cooperation in Asia, and by a new Forum for International Cooperation on Air Pollution , established by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE ) Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Transport (CLRTAP) to share experiences and successes.

Over the past year, representatives for the Ministries of the Environment of each Malé Declaration member country have met in intergovernmental meetings, agreeing that the revival is needed to address key issues:

  • Air pollution continues to cause severe problems across the whole of South Asia.
  • Progress on abatement and control of air pollution can be significantly enhanced through better cooperation amongst the countries.
  • Regional cooperation is the only way to address transboundary and regionally shared problems.
  • Addressing air pollution is an effective way to increase ambition on climate change mitigation and help achieve national targets on climate change and other Sustainable Development Goals.

A new draft agreement and work plan are being finalized, with plans to relaunch the Malé Declaration in late 2022. Implementation will then begin, including mobilizing the required finance and linking to other activities promoting regional cooperation in Asia. 

Activities will include:

  • training in elements of air pollution management
  • developing best practice in monitoring to assess levels of air pollution
  • creating emission inventories and projections to identify measures that will be effective in the national context
  • assessing the impacts and highlighting the multiple benefits of addressing air pollution and climate change in a more integrated manner
  • sharing knowledge on the measures that work well in different parts of the region that can effectively reduce air pollution.

The revival of this high-level regional agreement and the new impetus for action presents an exciting opportunity to bring about the changes across the South Asian region that are sorely needed to achieve clean air for all and to help the region’s future development. Since the declaration was first launched, many countries have developed workable, economically viable solutions to reducing emissions. Pooling knowledge and sharing and adapting solutions will be key to speeding up effective action across the region.

Johan C.I. Kuylenstierna helped develop the process that led to the signing of the Malé Declaration in 1998, and then led the Sida-funded programme to support activities. He has worked with the regional facilitator Mr J.S. Kamyotra, the Malé Declaration Secretariat and ICIMOD to revive the declaration, link it to global action on air pollution, and set up delivery of its work plan.

This work is backed with financial and technical support of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) . The CCAC is a UNEP -convened voluntary partnership of governments, intergovernmental organizations, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organizations committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate through actions to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.