LAHORE: Usman, 10, has developed asthma and has to use an inhaler when the situation becomes unbearable.
The doctor, his mother says, has told them that the condition has more to do with his surroundings rather than any other factor.
That is not surprising because Usman’s family lives in downtown, near the Lahore Railway Station, one of the most polluted areas of the city.
While the World Health Organization’s 2011 report noted that Lahore was among the top-ten polluted cities in the world, the situation seems to only become worse as time passes. The report is based on 2009 data and according to this the most polluted city is Ahvaz in Iran with 372 mcg/m3 (mcg is micrograms, the measurement of air particulate matter). Lahore is the tenth most polluted city with 200mcg/m3. WHO has also estimated that globally over two million people die every year from breathing indoor and outdoor particle pollution. These particles are released by combustion of petrol and diesel in vehicles, or by burning coal, firewood, charcoal and animal waste for domestic heating and cooking.Weather conditions can also drastically affect pollution levels, such as in winters Lahore becomes enveloped by even more smog which hangs low and causes many respiratory illnesses among people. The coal-run factories across the border in Indian territory also emit smoke and particulate matters which are blown towards Lahore.
Particulate pollution is also measured by levels of particles called PM2.5. Measuring less than 2.5 mcg, or about a 30th the width of a human hair, these can penetrate deep into the lungs and are often made of more toxic materials than PM10.
Other pollution yardsticks are gases – ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that are potential irritants of the airways or eyes.
The problem is that not many steps are being taken to help resolve this issue. All over the world, environmental degradation is now being given importance. Paris for instance forced half of its cars off its roads despite the fact that their pollution levels were a mere 38mcg/m3. But although experts believe that this is one of the solutions that must be implemented no remedial steps are in sight.
“The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) had three pollution monitoring units in Lahore,” says an insider at the Environment Protection Department. “One was in Township, another in Town Hall and the third was a mobile unit. Unfortunately all are now closed. The equipment needed repairs and a sum of at least Rs4 million was required for new machinery. But even other than the expenses, the department does not seem interested in providing the public with a clean healthy atmosphere.”
The official says the focus of the entire department has been shifted to dengue threat.
Naseem Shah, the director of the Environment Impact Assessment, says the government has been thinking of plans in order to counter pollution but these are medium-to-long-term plans.
“There has been road planning such as introduction of signal-free corridors and rerouting transport entering Lahore from Thokar Niaz Beg. Our units were simply monitoring units and did not function to resolve the issue. We already know that pollution levels are increasing at most places, and there are about 26 spots in Lahore where there are traffic jams and congestions – a major cause for pollution.”
Shah also points to bad roads as a pollution source, saying there is a lot of dust thrown up in the air because of them. That accompanied by industrial pollution coming from north and south Lahore, where most of the factories are located, make a deadly combination. He quotes Yateemkhana Chowk, Chauburji, Azadi Chowk, Railway Station, Data Darbar areas as some of the most polluted parts of the city.
At the same time, environmental experts suggest that introducing better public transport is a good idea to work on, as first priority.
Architect and Urban Planner Kamil Khan Mumtaz and Environmental Lawyer Rafay Alam, both say the influx of cars has increased pollution levels. They say people ought to rely on public transport rather than on the private. Instead of 50 people using 50 cars on one road, it is better to have one bus carrying 50 passengers, minimising the traffic.