Lahore’s winter used to bring excitement. Not anymore. With sore throats, lungs stinging coughs, burning eyes, and wheezing, the people in the city have been grappling with the effects of smog as soon as the temperature dipped at the end of October.
Despite the authorities trying their best to check the prevailing situation, it seems that the battle against toxic air pollution is becoming increasingly difficult. Over the past couple of years, Lahore and other cities of Pakistan have been enduring a similar problem, reeling under the toxic effects of smog, which caused severe health issues for people outdoors. According to a 2015 report published by the medical journal Lancet, nearly 22 percent of annual deaths in Pakistan — or more than 310,000 each year — are caused by pollution, the majority of them due to air pollution. Whereas no official data is available on the level causalities due to toxic air in Lahore, the report very well presents the (grim) picture of the situation.
Lahore, luckily, was not included in the top 20 most polluted cities of the world in a recent study of 4,300 cities conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), based on the amount of particulate matter (PM) under 2.5 micrograms found in every cubic metre of air (µg/m3 of PM2.5). The city still ranks within the top 10 polluted cities of the world, when it comes to the Air Quality Index (AQI) during the smog season, reason enough to set off the alarm bells at the Environment Protection Department, Punjab. The yearly average of air quality in Lahore stands at 68 µg/m3 of PM2.5, which parallels 165 AQI and is categorised as “unhealthy.” The yearly average goes up during the smog season when air pollution can reach hazardous levels of 300+ AQI.
“For air to get this polluted, in addition to needing a good amount of human help from the combustion of fuels and burning of crops and garbage, there need be specific atmospheric conditions that let the air remain enough,” says Abid Omar, founder of Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), an initiative engaging communities in key cities of Pakistan to collect and share data using a network of real-time air quality sensors.
Omar is of the opinion that pollutants gather all year round in our stratosphere and only become visible in stagnant form (smog) when there is an inversion layer in the atmosphere. “Whereas unabated stubble burning in India has played a role in the current situation, in reality we also have to put our house in order. Weak policies have led us to our current impasse. It can only be addressed with a comprehensive plan that brings in all stakeholders,” he adds.
The Punjab government recently came up with a set of policies in the light of the Smog Commission Report (SCR) that had been prepared in June this year, with the focus to reduce pollution in and around the provincial capital. Based on the findings of the root causes and International Best Practices, the Committee recommended the essential elements of the Smog Policy of the government of Punjab to combat and arrest the intensifying episodes of smog in the province. This includes Introduction of Low-Sulphur fuels, adopting Euro-II Standards for vehicular emission, installation of vehicular pollution control devices, better traffic management, controlling the burning of municipal waste and crop residue, building capacity to monitor and forecast episodes of high air pollution, tree plantations in and around major cities, checking fugitive/construction dust; and having a regional environmental agreement with the neighbouring countries to tackle the menace of air pollution.
Naseemur Rehman Shah, Director, Environment Protection Department (EPD), Punjab, says the provincial government has already taken a number of measures to encourage environment friendly practices, with focus on increasing the green cover to mitigate the effects of smog in the city.
But environmentalists are of the opinion that whereas the smog commission is a step in the right direction the enforcement is missing.
Ali Hassan Habib, Managing Partner, HIMA Verte, an environmental conscious venture advocating reusable products and energy, concurs with the notion, although he chaired the Voluntary Action Committee of the SCR.
He says that the commission’s recommendations are not complicated but only require willingness on the part of the concerned department to materialise them. “Lahore still witnesses sporadic episodes of municipal waste burnings even after the commission report deemed it to be an environmental offence,” he tells TNS. “In our meetings we discussed if it’s easy to access the seasonality of municipal waste burning in Lahore which mainly takes place in autumn and yet we witness it happening even in posh localities like the Lahore Cantonment.”
Habib believes that to counter the existing situation individual acts on grass-root levels will go a long way: “If we study the successful model of China we would better be able to understand how government policies with support from the grass-root levels can do wonders when dealing with environmental crises.
“We should also inculcate the same kind of ownership within the citizenry so that they too feel that they can be champions of the cause.”
No one can deny the fact that the amount of pollutants from the approximately 1,200 brick kilns in and around the city has played a major role in lowering the quality of air. Mehar Abdul Haq, General Secretary, Pakistan Brick Kiln Association (PBKA), agrees with the notion but advises taking the figures with a pinch of salt. “Our association is working tirelessly to bring the brick kilns at par with modern times. We have adopted the Zig Zag technology and converted around 11 brick kilns in Lahore, Kasur and Sheikhupura already, in accordance with the guidelines of the EPD.
“Hopefully, a 100 conventional brick kilns will be converted into Zig Zag [technology] by the end of this month,” he says.
Haq further says they are willing to make the changes but the government should also help the brick kiln owners in acquiring soft loans to modernise their conventional setups.
The ‘airpocalypse’ in Lahore is expected to stay. It’s time we made a clear pledge to ‘bring back the blue skies.’ What we lacked up till now was political and bureaucratic will, and the absence of ‘public anger’ to force the government to take hard action. We are in the midst of a catastrophe and only a movement steered by the people can take us out from the smoggy situation.