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Youth-led ‘Dr. Air Bear’ campaign raises awareness of air pollution and inspires change in Myanmar and Southeast Asia

A group of Yangon students have raised awareness of the country’s growing air pollution problems through a creative campaign that last week inspired Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology to begin releasing air quality readings. The data has not previously been released to the public.

In early December 2019, Air Quality Yangon (AQY), a group of 17-23 year old students, launched a first of its kind campaign dubbed ‘Air Bear’, through the support of Save the Children’s SHIFT campaign accelerator program. Prior to this campaign, it was difficult for citizens in Yangon to access air quality data that can help inform daily decisions such as whether or not to wear a mask or whether to exercise outside at certain times of the day.

Through their own citizen science project, AQY began measuring the air quality across the city and started posting these readings to their own Facebook page twice daily. Dr. Air Bear, a giant teddy bear model made from white cotton, is the centerpiece of their campaign and was designed as a public demonstration that makes the impact of air pollution more visual to the public. Throughout the campaign, Dr. Air Bear was toured throughout the streets on a small rickshaw-like platform. As the days passed, pollution caused the bear’s fur to turn darker. After two weeks of campaigning, Dr. Air Bear came to life in a human size costume to model behaviours that were more environmentally friendly, such as walking to work and taking public transport.  Along with the bear’s massive appeal to pedestrians, the AQY team used Dr. Air Bear’s appearances to engage the public one-on-one and share their knowledge about air pollution.

The campaign has now reached almost 7 million people on social media and gained 20,000 followers to Air Quality Yangon’s own Facebook page. The group’s campaign has also been covered by almost every major media outlet across the country. 

While the campaign has been incredibly successful in Myanmar, the concept of a campaign to for the public could serve numerous Southeast Asian countries, where air pollution is becoming a consistent barrier to healthy living.

Air Quality Member, Zaw Win Htet, says that Save the Children’s Shift program has given his youth group the skills, mentorship and recourses to actually influence positive change. “Our purpose with Dr. Air Bear is to make the invisible threat visible in an engaging way,” Zaw Win Htet said. “We hope that this campaign can inspire people to better understand the harm caused by unchecked pollution, and to come together with ideas that will support better air quality.”

Andy Nilsen, Director of Advocacy, Communications, Campaigns and Media at Save the Children, created SHIFT as a campaign accelerator program to support youth movements for positive change.

“We live in a time where we face some major challenges, especially related to climate change and the environment. At the same time, this generation of young people are passionate, motivated – and better connected than ever before through social media. What they lack is resources and support to amplify their positive messages for change – and that’s exactly why SHIFT was created.” 

“Air quality is getting worse, especially throughout Asia – and unless we can make changes to dramatically decrease polluting behaviours, wearing masks outside will become a normal reality.”

“I’m proud that Save the Children has been able to support these inspiring young people in their mission to raise awareness and ultimately improve the world around them,” Nilsen said. “It is my hope that people and governments continue to pay more attention to the young people who will inherit the earth. I also hope this campaign inspires more young across Southeast Asia that their voice can make a difference.”

Air Quality Yangon are also urging people to join them in cleaning up Yangon’s air by launching an online pledge to walk whenever possible, ride a bicycle or trishaw to places too far to walk, and take public transportation for long distances. The pledge has already been signed by over 1,000 people.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution contributes to 22,000 deaths in Myanmar every year and causes chronic respiratory ailments for many more. Yangon’s worsening air quality is commonly attributed to the dramatic increase in vehicles since imports were liberalized in 2011 and the corresponding removal of trees to make way for traffic and development, however, other factors such as factory emissions, cooking with charcoal, and burning trash play a larger role.

Air pollution is a rising problem all-over Southeast Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia and this pollution further impacts the environment and agricultural crop yields. These impacts have significant economic consequences, affecting economic growth as well as welfare. Globally, air pollution contributes to the deaths of over 540,000 children under 5-years according to WHO. 

Social campaigns such as those executed in Myanmar by Air Quality Yangon and Save the Children, are inspiring and offering great motivation for the entirety of Southeast Asia – and especially to young people.

Vero is thrilled to have supported AQY through Save the Children’s SHIFT project, alongside creative agency Bridge in Myanmar.

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