ON Sept 25, 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif joined other heads of governments at the UN to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which chart the way to a more sustainable future.
The SDGs lay out the path ahead with unprecedented detail — 17 goals, 169 targets and specific indicators for each target. Advocates for environmental health have worked tirelessly for strong parameters to reduce air pollution, improve air quality, reduce chemical contamination of air as reflected in SDGs 3, 11 and 12. With no ground-level air-quality monitoring equipment of international standard functioning in any city of Pakistan, implementing these air-quality targets will be near impossible.
Japan’s development agency, Jica, had funded and installed an environmental monitoring system a few years ago, but the project was held up. Equipment, said Malik Amin Aslam of the IUCN, was rusting. Alternatively, we can ask the United States to include our major cities in the AirNow International monitoring system which was tested in Shanghai 2010 and gives hourly readings in Beijing and Delhi among others.
Studies show that 88pc of traffic police in Karachi develop respiratory disease after two years on the job.
Imported, hand-held air-quality monitoring devices are being used by “some environment consultants and industry to monitor industrial emissions,” says Rafay Alam, vice-president, Pakistan Environmental Law Association. Independent studies are also being undertaken by Pakistani hospitals and universities; all showing very high levels of pollution. In fact, a study on Karachi done by the Aga Khan University shows that air pollution, according to pulmonologist Dr Javaid Khan, is five times greater than the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. The Pakistan government’s own compendium of environmental statistics 2010 shows air pollution from double to five times WHO levels.
There is a resulting rise of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, including among non-smokers, children and the elderly. Studies by the Environment Protection Agency of Karachi’s traffic police show that 88pc develop respiratory disease after two years on the job.
The causes of rising pollution in Pakistan are well known — industrial emissions including from small-scale industries in densely populated areas, continued use of diesel and other fossil fuels, weak emission control laws, lack of an adequate garbage disposal system, with burning of plastic bags adding more chemicals into the air.
The lack of a national coordination system on environmental health has become the obstacle to solutions. “Devolution has created challenges,” says Pakistan WHO head Dr Michel Thieren. “WHO technical consulting mission is working with the Ministry of Health to set up a national health policy framework … part of the challenge is how do we read the Constitution in public health terms.”
The Constitution, however, should not be read as an impediment to national policies ensuring citizens’ health. As pointed out by Supreme Court Justice Mansoor Ali Shah “the right to healthy air is within the right to life and dignity under our Constitution”.
Changing energy systems and environmental bad habits while difficult will be beneficial to the economy. Pakistan does not currently calculate the negative health costs of environmental pollution. The government should commission an opportunity cost comparison — what is the base year (2015) cost of respiratory diseases/ working days lost/ decline in agricultural produce resulting from poor air quality and how does that compare in cost to investing in retrofitting/ new green technologies that will get us to the goals agreed for 2030.
For example, in China industrialisation at the expense of citizens’ health is finally being turned around after studies showed a year’s estimated health cost of air pollution as $535 billion. This amount was found to be much higher than the cost of change to green energy
As the largest solar energy producer worldwide, China has already jointly launched Quaid-i-Azam Solar Power Park in 2014 which is supposed to generate 1,000MW electricity for the national grid by December 2016. Pakistan, apparently, has pointed out “a number of solar park sites; and Chinese companies are willing to aggressively invest in this emerging sector due to high demand of clean energy in Pakistan,” says Masood Khalid, Pakistan’s ambassador to Beijing.
New technology for urban mass transit from Europe should also be reviewed; the Netherlands railways, for example, will be completely wind-powered in three years.
Pakistan’s Vision 2025 does include several of the SDGs, including major sections on energy and water, air quality is however missing. After having adopted the SDGs at the UN, Prime Minister Sharif should order a revision of plans in light of all 17 goals.
Pakistan’s journey to 2030 must begin by bringing environmental health back up to the highest levels of government responsibility; starting with daily measuring and reporting of the quality of the air we breathe.
The writer was consultant on air-quality parameters for SDGs.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2015