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It’s Welcome To The Smoglympics

Polluted air, sweltering heat and high humidity have Beijing in a sweat

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Aug 09, 2008

Beijingers sweated under smog, sweltering summer heat and sapping humidity on the opening day of the Olympics, further dimming hopes of clear skies for the Games.

Last-minute efforts to cut pollution in recent weeks – pulling half the city’s 3.3 million cars off the road, halting construction and closing factories – appeared to have done little to help the authorities breathe easier and clear the city’s smog-plagued air in time for the opening extravaganza.

The city did not have the same luck as on the same day last year, when the sun finally broke through the choking smog and a clear skyline emerged in the afternoon.

There was more embarrassment yesterday when organisers of the event once billed as China’s coming out party urged residents to give outdoor celebrations a miss because of security concerns and sweeping road traffic bans.

With the city centre cordoned off from early morning, the strictest restrictions in years on vehicle use in force and shops and cinemas told to close early, fewer people – and cars – than usual were on the roads.

The authorities were apparently caught in a dilemma over whether to try to manage the weather.

Rain showers were forecast for about two hours before the start of the opening ceremony at 8pm. While environmental officials hoped for rain to disperse the smog, ceremony organisers, including director Zhang Yimou , had said showers would be their biggest worry.

Officials said they were fully prepared to use cloud-seeding to disperse rain clouds in order to ensure a dry opening ceremony.

It was equally unclear whether the authorities were ready to cope with tens of thousands of people gathering around the National Stadium to celebrate. The evacuation plans which have been made public relate only to the 90,000 spectators in the stadium and the more than 70,000 volunteers and other service staff in the Olympic Village.

Since its bid for the Games seven years ago, Beijing has promised to meet its own and the World Health Organisation’s air quality standards during the 16 days of competition. But environmental group Greenpeace and mainland environmental experts said Beijing’s air quality and its air measuring infrastructure fell far short of WHO standards.

The air pollution index yesterday was within a range from 51 to 100, which is classified as moderate, but the PM10 reading – measuring the concentration of pollutant particles of 10 microns or more – was 94, just two below Thursday’s reading of 96, which was the highest in 10 days.

The high PM10 readings – showing high levels of dust from construction sites and soot from chimneys and vehicle exhaust – prompted fresh concerns over the hazards to health Beijing’s poor air quality may pose to athletes, especially those in endurance sports such as the marathon.

The city has spent at least 150 billion yuan (HK$170 billion) in the past 10 years to repair the damage caused to the capital’s environment by three decades of rapid economic growth. And Games organisers have said the capital’s air quality is usually best in August. In the past three Augusts, the PM10 reading has been above 100 on only four days, according to Du Shaozhong , deputy director of Beijing’s environmental bureau.

But the stagnant weather this week – with relative humidity of up to 90 per cent and little rain or wind – threatens to negate all efforts to clean up the air in time for the athletes.

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