LAHORE: As the smog cover over Punjab further thickened to the detriment of public health on Friday and officials saw no immediate relief against it, Environment Minister Zakia Shahnawaz termed it a regional phenomenon being caused mainly by pollutants from neighbouring countries (India).
At a news conference she said there were local contributions (of smog causing particulate matter) but they were lesser than from India where rampant crop stubble burning itself was a huge problem.
Indian farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, start burning paddy stubble by mid-October every year which leads to plumes of smoke blackening the skies. Pakistani Punjab farmers too follow the suit but the ratio of farm fire here is stated to be much less than in India.
A drop in temperature and increase in humidity makes the pollutants remain close to the ground, causing smog that choked many cities in Punjab, including Lahore, for the first time last year.
Environment Secretary Saif Anjum said there was smog over Punjab but its intensity was less than last year when the eye and throat irritation was rampant. Wind too carried pungent smell. Now the situation was not that alarming, he told media persons.
Reports from different cities indicated thickening of fog or smog because of further drop in night temperatures, also causing poor visibility. Lahore, too, remained under a thick blanket of smog throughout the day. It was particularly troublesome in areas where roads have been dug or on the construction path of the orange metro train.
Motorway and National Highway Authority Spokesperson Imran Shah said thick fog blanketed the central and south Punjab last night and on Friday, reducing visibility on the motorway and the national highway from Sahiwal, Khanewal, Multan to Bahawalpur (20 metres), Lahore to Pattoki (50 metres), from Bahawalpur to Sadiqabad (100 to 40 metres, from Kala Shah Kaku to Kot Momin (100 to 50 meters) and Pindi Bhattian to Faisalabad (60 meters).
The Met department said enhanced moisture and lowering temperatures had thickened fog turning into smog by trapping the ever-increasing particle matter.
Official sources said stubble was still being burnt in Pakistani rice growing areas despite a ban under Section 144.
“SUPARCO satellite’s imagery is being restricted by thick canopy of fog or smog. Therefore, the figures showing farm fire in our Punjab may not be correct,” an official claimed.
Minister Zakia Shahnawaz nevertheless blamed Indian farmers for the smog which was causing trouble for them also. They had burnt 35 million ton of paddy residue last year and “are doing so again.”
She said local contributions included emissions from vehicular traffic using substandard fuel, and industrial emissions. But the government was aware of the hazards of smog and was adopting strict measures to control local contributions. The smog policy was also in place engaging all departments to fight the menace.
Mr Saif Anjum said smog had moved towards Attock and Bahawalpur and also beyond New Delhi on the Indian side. Easterly wind was carrying smoke and particulate matter from Indian Punjab to Pakistan. The incursion would be stopped only after reversal of the wind direction.
He said the provincial government was struggling to reduce local pollution contributions. As many as 197 cases had been registered against farmers for burning crop residue under Section 144 and 65 arrested so far. In Lahore alone 175 steel factories had been sealed for burning cheap fuel like used tyres. Cases against defiant owners of 22 factories too had been registered.
He said the agriculture department was creating awareness among farmers on the hazards of burning crop residue, teaching them how to alternately use it instead. Traffic police had challaned 15,718 smoke emitting vehicles in the last one week, realizing Rs 4.6 million fine only in Lahore. Several vehicles were also impounded and fitness certificates of 91 others were cancelled for causing pollution.
Mr Anjum said the EPD had installed five pollution monitoring units in Lahore and was constantly watching the situation.
Prof Ehsan Wahid Rathore of the health department said there was no significant disease development in Punjab due to smog. There was no need of any panic but children and the elderly should be protected against smog as they already were vulnerable to disease in changing weather.
Met Department’s Chief Riaz Khan said dry weather in the past two months was causing smog but its ingredient was less than the last year.
Mr Saif Anjum said brick kilns were generating smoke because of their age-old technology. His department had established a model kiln near Lahore where emissions were zero and the brick quality the highest. This technology would be shared with local brick kiln owners.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif has directed (from London) all departments concerned to take necessary measures to effectively deal with smog.
He has directed that recommendations of experts should be implemented to avoid ill-effects of smog, especially protecting children and the elderly from it. He said all departments had been activated to meet the challenge.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2017