This Is What Delhi, The World’s Most Polluted City Looks Like

Published May 29, 2015
Updated February 27, 2024
Delhi, The World's Most Polluted City

Smog frequently blankets Delhi. Source: News East West

Beijing can rest easier for the moment as it is no longer the most polluted city in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the dubious honor of the world’s most polluted city goes to Delhi, India. It’s estimated that the city’s air pollution kills 10,500 people in the city every year — here’s a glimpse at what that lethal atmosphere looks like:

Delhi The Most Polluted City In The World
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The study analyzed the peak levels of fine particulate matter in the ambient (outside) air. It determined that the highest level of airborne particulate matter of PM2.5 (smaller than 2.5 microns) clocked in at 153 micrograms, which is significantly higher than any other city in the world.

For example, Beijing, once considered one of the world's most polluted cities, has a PM2.5 concentration of only 56 micrograms. Delhi's level is six times the WHO's recommended maximum and twelve times U.S. standards.

High concentrations of pollutants impact lung-health and cause asthma, bronchitis and cancer. Crop burning, coal-fired power plants and heavy vehicular traffic produce most of the particulate matter. Twelve other Indian cities also fell in the top 20 worst offenders on the list.

Fuelwood and biomass cake burning for cooking have also left their dirty little mark. A near-permanent brown haze looms over the city and much of the nation. India burns ten times more fuelwood than the U.S. and their stoves are less efficient. Many indoor stoves produce excess smoke that is emitted into the air and inhaled by residents.

Raw Sewage Flows Into Yamuna River

Raw sewage flows into the Yamuna River. Source: Enfos

But the environmental damage in the fifth-most populated metropolis in the world doesn't end there. The Yamuna River cuts through Delhi, and serves drinking, bathing and ceremonial purposes for the population. It's also extremely polluted. According to India's Central Pollution Control Board, 3,000 million liters of raw sewage are discharged into it every day via 19 canals.

Toss in some industrial waste run off and you have a "dead river." Fish and other marine life cannot survive, and a thick layer of foam covers the surface in the area around Delhi. This is the same water that naturally irrigates many nearby crops, and leaves behind chemicals and communicable diseases.

Garbage Dump

Source: Hindustan Times

It might seem like the Indian government isn't concerned given the depth of issues facing the city. However, since the mid-1990s, the nation has undertaken some pollution-mitigating measures and continues to do so.

Delhi has the third highest quantity of trees among Indian cities; the government banned leaded gas in 1998, and ordered buses to transition to run on compressed natural gas. Vehicles over 15 years old are also banned from the capital by India's National Green Tribunal (NGT). The group also banned diesel engines over 10 years old in April 2015.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched the Clean India mission in October 2014, a five-year plan focused on improving not only Delhi, but the country as a whole. The ambitious plan includes development of individual sanitary latrines for households that present need, converting dry latrines into sanitary ones, and construction of drains, soakage pits and proper waste disposal.

But, many environmental gains have been overshadowed by continued crop burning and a disregard for the laws enacted by the NGT in the past. Only time will tell if Delhi maintains its ranking.

The Financial Times explores Delhi, pollution and its human costs.

For more on polluted global cities, check out our post on China's pollution and its cancer villages.

Susan Sims
When she's not fighting crime or cleaning the garbage disposal, you can find Susan writing about travel, science and things that go bump in the night.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Sims, Susan. "This Is What Delhi, The World’s Most Polluted City Looks Like.", May 29, 2015, Accessed June 22, 2024.