Cellphones may be key to cleaner air in Philippines

In Manila, a high-tech campaign is launched to stop polluting vehicles.

The country that used mobile texting to overthrow a corrupt president is now relying on the same tactic to combat a different kind of enemy – air pollution.

A nongovernment group called Environmental Watchdog (Bantay Kalikasan or BK in Tagalog) has launched a campaign to get thousands of buses, trucks, and other vehicles that choke Metro Manila to clean up their exhaust.

Manila, with a growing population of 11 million, is among the 10 worst polluted cities in Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Its largest source of air pollution? Automobiles.

Already, the costs to Filipinos has been high, says BK: In 1996, emissions of PM10, a particle from car exhaust, is estimated to have led to 5,000 premature deaths. That same year, exposure to lead from gasoline caused 223 premature deaths. Fueled by this human toll, BK is hoping to mobilize millions of Filipino youths to use mobile texting – keyed-in messages on a cellphone – to target automobiles with poor exhaust.

Filipino youths over 18 are the main users of the estimated 13 million cellphones in the Philippines. Mobile-phone operators say Filipinos send out an average of 25 million text messages a day – as many as the entire European Union.

"The power of [mobile] text is a phenomenon that is known only to this country," says Evelyn Forbes, the project's manager. "It is more than a form of communication, it is a form of entertainment." she adds, recalling the ubiquitous image of Filipinos: left thumbs on cellphones, walking in shopping malls, busily texting.

The idea behind BK's latest text revolution, known as Smokebelchers Watchdog (Bantay Usok in Tagalog) is simple. Essentially, anyone with a cellphone is encouraged to report to BK – via mobile text – any vehicles they see emitting black smoke.

Amelia Judones, a college student, is among the volunteers. "I do it in the car, on my way to class," she says. "It costs me nothing, and I feel I can contribute something to the fight against pollution."

For those who don't have cellphones or can't text, BK also provides e-mail addresses and two telephone hotlines.

Most complaints are against trucking and commercial-vehicle companies. At the end of each week, BK compiles a list of vehicles with five or more complaints against them and sends it to the Land Transportation Office (LTO) – the arm of the Department of Transportation and Communications that issues licenses to such companies.

The LTO then summons offending vehicle owners to their offices for an exhaust test. Those that fail are required to clean up their engines in a garage; companies that don't comply lose their licenses. According to LTO, most companies have been cooperative.

In the first two weeks of the campaign, which launched June 6, 123 vehicle-owners were called in. "The volume was so great that we now receive the complaints not weekly, but every day," says LTO's Chief Assistant Secretary Roberto Lastimoso.

Although the LTO has pledged to fully cooperate, Mr. Lastimoso is quick to point out his agency lacks equipment and personnel to keep up with the project's demands.

Ultimately, BK wants politicians to enforce the country's 1999 Clean Air Act. Financially backed by the ADB, the law requires the government to take action, such as phasing out leaded gasoline, to reduce pollution.

"This is a political problem," says Forbes, adding that "The government does not have the political will to act. It feels that the majority of people don't care, while I feel that the majority want clean air.... How bad has it got to be before the government acts?"

Charles Melhuish, a transport sector specialist in the ADB, echoes Forbes's frustration, noting that NGOs like BK have "to go through an elaborate scheme of measures" to catch the smoke-belchers.

By comparison, he notes that South Korea, which implemented its own anti-belching law in the 1970s, has not had to resort to such measures. In the Philippines, "Society doesn't bother with the law," he says.

Eventually, Forbes intends to use BK's data to pressure politicians.

"If I get 20,000 text messages a month that will be a success," Forbes says. "This is translated to votes."

Considering recent history here, it's not a radical notion. Political observers say texting played a key role in the downfall of President Joseph Estrada in January 2001. Minutes after the collapse of Senate impeachment proceedings against Mr. Estrada for plunder charges, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos passed around a message via text to gather at a religious shrine.

Four days later, after intense rallying at the shrine, Estrada stepped down.

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