LAHORE: The latest smog situation has left Lahore in a choking haze, but even in the past environmental experts and activists have been vocal about air pollution issue. Now NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has pointed out that burning of crop stubbles may be a major reason for a smog blanket in New Delhi, and also in Lahore, as the map shows several places in West Punjab that have thermal emissions.
Both East and West Punjab have two growing seasons — one from May to September and the other from November to April. In May and November, Punjab farmers typically sow crops and vegetables for the next season; but before sowing, they often set fire to fields to clear stubbles of previous crop and make them suitable for next sowing.
Experts’ views vary on the matter.
“While burning is a major problem... I don’t believe this is the reason why the smog has seen a spike this year,” says environmentalist Aleem Butt. “Action should definitely be taken for burning crop stubbles, but in the meantime we are being invaded by noxious gases from coal power plants. Another very big cause which is being ignored is the high level of deforestation this year. Too many trees were cut down first for the Kalma Underpass and now the Orange Line.”
As for an alternative method for crop stubble burning, the best method is to plough the stalks back into the earth where they can decompose into humus.
Environmentalist and researcher Noman Ashraf says that labs of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not operational, and without any empirical evidence, there can hardly be any crackdown on factories and other offenders.
“There are third-party labs which are doing this work, but the EPA has not bothered to renew their collaborative licences with them either,” he says.
According to him, the Air Quality Index monitors were installed at five points during the last decade, but because the instruments were not calibrated they eventually became useless. “If we look at China and India, they at least have figures to go by,” says Mr Ashraf.
“If the EPA claims to have regular readings then, under the public’s right to know, these figures should be uploaded on a website or publicised through media.”
EPA argues that it has state-of-the-art labs and regular readings. “We only had one purchasing issue... otherwise all our equipment is working just fine,” says an official of the EPA. Now with air pollution levels high enough to cause concern, EPA has worked out readings of between November 2 and 4.
And these reveal some startling figures.
For example, nitric oxide should not be more than 40mcg per cubic metre but during this period Mall Road saw over 306mcg/cubic metre, and Mohlanwal (near Bahria Town) 332mcg/cubic metre.
Particles less than 2.5µm (micrometres) are called PM2.5. They are approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair. The benchmark for PM2.5 should be 35mcg/cubic metre, but none of the figures recorded during the period fell within this range.
Readings were similar for PM10, whose levels should have been below 150, but were recorded to be higher in Shahdara area (264). However in other places levels were below 150.
Sulphur dioxide, which should be well below 120mcg per cubic metre, was seen highest in Mominpura, an appalling 1,373mcg per cubic metre. The carbon monoxide levels, which should have been below 5msg/cubic metre, were recorded at 21mcg/ cubic metre on Mall Road, and 17mcg/cubic metre at Mohlanwal, while at other places the levels were slightly higher than 5.
Meanwhile, Ashraf says the issue of crop stubble burning may have been misinterpreted. “This is nothing new in the region and has been happening for decades. But this recent spike is because farmers in East Punjab, who had originally been selling their wheat stalks for biomass plants, burnt their agri-waste this year after their requested price was turned down by the biomass plants.”
A sharecropper farmer of Okara area says that seeds and other agriculture inputs are so costly nowadays that it is inconceivable to buy more land only in order to plough the stalks back in the ground. “Burning is much more convenient for us.”
Naseemur Rehman Shah, a spokesperson for EPA, says his department has urged the agriculture department to take notice of the problem, but no action has so far been taken.
He too doesn’t agree with the view that crop burning is the major reason behind the smog. “Climatic change is happening at a global level, and every region is affected. Smog or fog that used to come later in the year has happened earlier this time.”
But when asked about the trees cut down in Lahore because of various development projects, Rehman says the EPA did not disallow it because that was the last resort. “The government has announced that for every public sector project one per cent of the total cost has to go into tree plantation,” he says.
He adds that even corridors like the Motorway are having trees planted along them. “Sometimes tree cutting has been allowed because it was the need of the day,” he says.
There are also other factors contributing to air pollution and one of these is factories, he says. “While crop stubble burning is a serious issue, most of the fumes are coming from East Punjab; but at the same time from within Lahore, we have factories that cannot use natural gas and therefore burn all kinds of materials including rubber to create fuel.”
He says that around 300 units have been shut down by the Punjab government in the recent past and these include large- and small-scale industries.
Regarding air pollution, Rehman says that currently there are about 3,000 cases under trial in environment tribunals from all over Punjab.
But apart from industries, there is the huge issue of traffic as well.
Rehman says that traffic congestion, bad roads, increasing number of vehicles, old vehicles with bad engines, and banned vehicles were main causes and many were still operating. The two-stroke auto and cycle rickshaws both are seen running despite being banned.
“We are fully aware of the situation and the ban is being implemented slowly. After all changes cannot happen overnight. A decade ago we were worried about how the air pollution issue was being neglected but by introducing alternative transport projects like the Orange Line... the government is moving in the right direction.”
“These projects are most environment-friendly,” says Rehman. “Orange Line will run on electricity, new LTC buses will use CNG and other Euro 2 and 3 standard buses will use good quality diesel.”
Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, says unless there are proper metering systems, not just in Lahore but all over Punjab, no one could make any conclusive claims.
“First off, monitors are needed to tell us what the pollution levels are,” he says. “When we get accurate data the pollutants will be precisely identified and so a proper response can be formulated.”
Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2016