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ENVIRONMENT: UNABLE TO BREATHE

Updated January 20, 2019

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The city has assumed a hazy look significantly reducing visibility | Photos by Murtaza Ali / White Star
The city has assumed a hazy look significantly reducing visibility | Photos by Murtaza Ali / White Star

The past few weeks have passed by painfully for the residents of Lahore. In the crisp coolness of the year’s latter months, Lahoris normally enjoy sunny afternoons basking on their terraces or, venture out in the evenings for some hot soup or steaming coffee in celebration of winter. However, like the past two years, this year, too, a thick, stubborn blanket of grey smog settled around their heads, obstructing visibility, and causing health issues.

Smog is now being referred to as Lahore’s fifth season — and each year from autumn to winter this blanket descends upon the city, creating a dystopian scenario.

In Lahore, smog has been known to reduce visibility to up to 20 to 25 metres, often resulting in fatal accidents. The fact is that smog has indeed been claiming lives — some through traffic accidents, others through severe health problems.

Now referred to as Lahore’s fifth season, smog from autumn to winter has created a dystopia

In a 2014 study by the World Bank, the organisation claims that in Pakistan 22,000 people die every year on average because of air pollution-related issues. Globally speaking, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least three million deaths a year are linked to exposure to what is known as outdoor air pollution. But indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. An estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6 percent of all global deaths) across the world were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together (2012).

Meanwhile, the Health Effects Institute’s (HEI) chart showing the state of global air in 2018 showed that Pakistan saw 207 deaths in every 100,000 people. On a list of 12 countries, Pakistan was second, preceded only by Afghanistan and followed by India.

The HEI report shows that most of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality is unhealthy. An estimated 95 percent lives in areas where ambient (outdoor) fine particulate matter concentrations (small dust or soot particles in the air) exceed WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines. Almost 60 percent live in areas where fine particulate matter exceeds even the least stringent WHO interim air quality target of 35µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre).

The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 reveals that Lahore has now reached the top 10 list of the most polluted cities in the world. According to Air Visual, in the first week of December 2018, Lahore witnessed the worst air quality in the world, followed by New Delhi (India) and Pristina (Kosovo), with an air quality index (AQI) of 256, down from an AQI of 315 and a ranking of number two the week before.

With a yearly average of 68 µg/m3 of PM 2.5, which corresponds to an AQI of 155 — unhealthy — there are many reasons to be worried about the situation.

NOT FOG

Back in the Victorian era, thanks to coal fumes, London was hit by one of the deadliest and infamous smog in history, which continued each year until a Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956.

As in London, the smog in Lahore too was initially mistaken for a winter fog. But it didn’t take long for the facts to sink in as hundreds were affected with respiratory illnesses, and eye and skin allergies.

The toxic mixture of sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO) — all highly noxious gases — airborne particulate matter such as soot, construction material, etc, and carcinogens, generally occurs in the lower part of the atmosphere, less than five kilometres above the ground.

In normal circumstances, hot air remains at ground level, with the air turning cooler and cooler as altitude increases. However, generally in winters, a situation can occur where temperature inversion takes place. Hot air is trapped underneath a cap of cold air, not allowing the smoke and dust to disperse. Instead, smoke and dust particles sink downwards and stay there.

BACKGROUND

In a 2009 report by the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (EPA), it was found that there was a large presence of high suspended particulate matter in the air, especially in urban areas of the country. This very fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) of size 2.5 micron and below was found to be as high as three times the safe standards (35 micro gram/m3) in Lahore especially, out of three major cities being monitored.

Trans-boundary air pollution from neighbouring countries also added to poor air quality. The Pakistan Economic Survey states that dust and smoke particulates in the atmosphere of Lahore is “twice the world average” and “five times” higher than the developed world, while the WHO estimates that air pollution in both Karachi and Lahore is “20 times higher” than the global standards.

Environmental activists have been quick to raise their concerns.

When the first smog hit in 2016, it was pointed out that the construction of the Punjab government’s Orange Line Train had caused an increase in suspended dust particles including PM 10 and PM 2.5. There were also electricity problems, which ended up in factories burning bad fuel for power. Even rain was delayed due to climatic change. The Lahore High Court took notice of the issue.

But the situation ensued again next year.

Under Shahbaz Sharif, a smog commission was formed and a smog policy was adopted and submitted to the court, which approved it.

In September 2018, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) announced that ‘Punjab would be closing down its 100,000 brick kilns for 70 days’. The initial date was October 20, but the hue and cry raised by kiln owners delayed closure to November 3.

“We want to convert all kilns to the new zigzag technology which ensures uniform distribution of heat, minimises the effect of burning coal on the environment and reduces fuel emissions,” says Naseemur Rehman, director of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) section of the EPD. “We are giving them time to change, but the ones which will not, will be closed down.”

As stern as the EPD sounds, environmentalist Aleem Butt says that it hasn’t done much, as out of 11 proposed steps in the policy, only one has been fully completed — the agenda of planned urban and industrial development.

There has been absolutely no work done on introducing low sulphur fuels, installation of vehicular pollution control devices, better traffic management, building a forecast for air pollution, designing urban forests, or any regional environmental agreements made, especially with India.

Instead, the EPD has been mostly focusing on adopting Euro 2 standards for vehicles (European emission standards for road vehicles set in order to define acceptable levels of exhaust emissions), controlling road dust and the open burning of waste and crop residue, and the greening of industrial processes. Even these have only been partially undertaken.

Badshahi Mosque appears dim because of the smog
Badshahi Mosque appears dim because of the smog

More than anything, the EPD’s stance has been of putting the blame squarely on India.

BLAME IT ON THE NEIGHBOURS

During the first smog of 2016, the government was left desperately trying to find the cause — until NASA released an image specifying certain hotspots pointing to crop burning and firecrackers during Diwali.

Two years later, the blame game is still on. A senior EPD official said a monitoring station had been installed near the border to measure air quality there. Meanwhile, Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the PM on climate change, unveiling an 14-point action plan on controlling smog recently said that they are concerned with the smog coming from ‘across the border’.

Indian farmers began burning stubble in October. The landowners in the south have more monetary power to find other methods to get rid of stubble, says policy expert Dawar N. Butt. “This is why there is more burning in the central areas of Punjab rather than the south. But even then, the burnings are comparatively sparse,” he says.

“It is our habit to blame everything on India,” says Butt. “Yes, there is pollution coming from that side — depending on wind direction. But with such dangerous levels of air quality, it’s time we look at ourselves and see what we are producing.”

What may be more worrying is the fact that the Asian continent as a whole produces the most air pollution, and has, therefore, resulted in a curtain of toxins higher in the atmosphere known scientifically as the Asian Brown Cloud (ABC). This is particular to the South Asian region. The ABC in this region is a layer of air pollution that recurrently covers parts of South Asia, namely the northern Indian Ocean, India and Pakistan.

Viewed from a satellite, the cloud appears as a giant brown stain hanging in the air over much of South Asia and the Indian Ocean every year between January and March, possibly also at other times of the year. The cloud is associated with the winter monsoon (November to April roughly), during which there is no rain to wash away the toxins.

Experts say that while trans-boundary pollution does exist, it must be noted that besides this, Pakistan produces 70 percent of its own pollution, with unclean fuel being one of the major causes.

“We use the worst form of fuel in the world,” says Butt. “The mere fact that we are still trying to introduce the use of Euro 2, while the world has advanced to Euro 6, is pathetic. We compare ourselves to India in everything but even they have begun to use Euro 4.”

Refining one of the dirtiest crude oils imported from the Middle East is the responsibility of the petroleum ministry. But the refining is far from appropriate.

PERFORMANCE OF THE EPD

Dr Zafar Nasrullah, secretary of the Punjab EPD, claims that the department’s 100 days’ performance has made a difference. “The efficiency and performance of the department was seriously lacking,” he says. “Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AQMS) were out of order and, since the last two years, no data had been collected. The district environment offices were almost redundant and hardly any useful monitoring or regulatory work was being done. Apart from this, EPD field laboratories were also dysfunctional and without necessary equipment. The staff of the central laboratory was posted to other sections.”

But he admits that no effective measures had been taken to control smoke emissions from industries, brick kilns, vehicles, burning crop residues and solid wastes — until 2018.

“We are monitoring with the help of Suparco and the Met department, through satellite imagery,” he says. “Plus we have revived our stations. AQI is measured and updated every day on the department’s website and app.”

He says that because of all these measures, AQI has remained below safe limits of 300 i.e., mostly around the range of 100 to 150, and fewer people have fallen sick this year.

Everyone does not agree with this line of argument, though.

“Almost everyone I know has some kind of respiratory problem,” says Ahmed Rafay Alam, environmentalist and activist. “This situation of bad air quality is a public health emergency,” he stresses.

Alam is running a campaign called #SaansLenayDo — a declaration of ‘War Against Smog in Pakistan’ comprising concerned citizens, parents, teachers, students and other stakeholders. But he clarifies one thing: smog is only a short-term problem, occurring only once a year and visible to the eye. The fight must be against air pollution as a whole. He reiterates that it is not just a ‘Lahore problem’. The problem is transnational, from Pakistan to India to the Bay of Bengal.

“The problem is that we do not have the necessary data to help us make an argument,” claims Alam, “but we do know through other means that the problem of bad air quality is very much there.”

Privately-owned AQ monitors which have made their data public is one way of measuring AQI — much of which remains in the high range. Just before the rain last week, Lahore’s Mall Road, one of the busiest arteries, gave recordings of 283, while PM 2.5 was an appalling 233. AQI from 0 to 50 means good; from 51 to 100 means moderate; from 101 to 150 it is unhealthy for certain people; 151 to 200 means unhealthy; 201 to 300 is very unhealthy and 301 to 500 is hazardous. Lahore’s norm has lately been between 200 and 300.

Meanwhile according to the 24 hour average, PM 2.5 should be below 0 to 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Above that, it slowly starts to become hazardous.

“Unfortunately, we are more interested in arguing over whether the government’s monitors are more accurate or the private ones,” says Alam. “It’s a tiring debate because the problem is still there.”

Most private monitors give an accurate enough measurement. Some of them are designed to only measure PM 2.5.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

US-based policy expert Shams Hasan, who has been involved with California’s pollution control agency, says that everyone must start discussing the problem.

“A carrot-and-stick strategy can be used — one for the masses and one for the government,” he says. “Whatever happens though, the most important thing is implementation of the policies, otherwise there is no use.”

A working group is essential to the situation, in order to ensure implementation. Also, all stakeholders must be involved in the working group. This would be the regulatory process and could include academics, agriculture sector representatives (especially in a place like Punjab), scientists, industry representatives, etc.

“However, for those involved in creating pollution especially, a carrot and stick approach is workable,” Hasan says. “You can have a strict policy but you must complement it with an incentive-based approach.”

An example of this is by giving incentives to poor farmers such as subsidies or tax exemption so that they do not eventually burn the crop stubble. In India, IKEA, the world’s largest furniture retailer, has designed a plan to work with farmers, companies and state governments to turn rice straw into a raw material that can be used to manufacture new products. The plan could work well as a solution to straw and stubble burning, and it not only affects Delhi but also Lahore.

“Either the government can be dictatorial which would mean a crackdown without taking into consideration the problems faced by the other side, or it could simply create an encouraging atmosphere and give incentives,” says Hasan. “Likewise for a brick-kiln owner, perhaps a tax subsidy or loan can be offered along with being awarded a heavy fine for violations.”

BECOMING CONSCIOUS CITIZENS

Meanwhile, Hasan says that while the general public complains about smog-related problems, they leave it all on the government to shoulder.

“People also need to reduce pollution levels from their end,” he says. “They need to understand that there are serious financial and economic costs arising from this, along with other problems. A person who is always unhealthy because of respiratory problems or any other issues thanks to unhealthy air quality just means a lot of productive time and money gone to waste. Not to mention endangering lives and living a life with illnesses.”

“The most important thing is to take up this issue ourselves as citizens,” says Alam. “If we don’t consume food that’s poisonous or water that has E-coli in it, why do we go on consuming air that’s as poisonous?”

He points out the need for media support.

Samiullah Randhawa, president of the Environmental Journalists Association of Pakistan, agrees with this assessment. “Coverage of the environment is not [seen as] a priority and reporters are disinterested and do not probe these issues. Otherwise, media can be instrumental in creating awareness,” he says.

“It can be understood that the PML-N government which promoted construction a lot, did not do much about the environment,” says Rafay. “But the PTI, which has been calling for ‘Clean and Green Pakistan,’ should now prove itself in this regard.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 20th, 2019