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Polluting our lives

October 23, 2017

A NEW study by the prestigious Lancet Commission on pollution and health carries important pointers for Pakistan. It states, amongst other things, that the incidence of pollution is changing: concerns about ambient air, soil and chemical pollution are now greater than apprehensions relating to impure household air and water. This type of pollution is produced by “industry, mining, electricity generation, mechanised agriculture, and petroleum-powered vehicles”, each of which is growing in Pakistan. The fastest-growing polluters in the world are developing countries with high rates of growth coming from sectors that rely on these activities. This poses serious health risks to the most vulnerable populations, the poor, minorities and children. Beyond health, the study points out that pollution has consequences for the economy as well, and in some cases can reduce the growth rate of an economy by up to two percentage points.

This is important to bear in mind for a number of reasons. First, winter brings with it the smog that usually engulfs parts of Sindh and Punjab, causing a spike in respiratory ailments amongst much else, besides disrupting travel and business. Second, our future growth is heavily dependent on some of the industries listed in the study as the crux of the problem, especially coal-fired power plants. It can be argued that we need these industries to secure our future economic growth, but it must be asked what is being done to assess and mitigate the pollution impact that they are going to have. Third, with our push towards large-scale thermal power generation as part of the capacity expansion plan these days, it must also be asked whether we are locking ourselves out of the revolution under way in clean renewable energy. That revolution is sweeping across the world, replacing power from dirty fuels and electric cars that reduce emissions, while we are investing further in 19th-century technologies that are not only expensive, but bring their own health hazards with them. In the case of climate change, Pakistan’s argument has always been that it is not a major contributor of carbon emissions, and the impact is felt globally. But that cannot be said for pollution. We are already suffering from high levels of pollution, with some of the worst urban air quality in the region and the seasonal winter smog engulfing several areas of the country — and, in large part, the driver for this is local. It is high time to take ecological concerns more seriously.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017