Breathing poison

April 08, 2019


THE reality is inescapable, and it is terrifying: the air we breathe is killing us. Pakistan is second on the list of the top 10 countries with the highest mortality due to air pollution; India and China tie for first place. These are among the findings of a major study by the US-based Health Effects Institute and compiled in a report titled State of Global Air 2019. According to its data, a total of 2.4m people died in China and India from air pollution-related conditions in 2017; in Pakistan the same year, 128,000 deaths were attributed to the same cause. The health burden is incalculable: air pollution is the fifth leading cause of premature death globally, which makes it more lethal than malaria, road accidents, malnutrition or alcoholism, and nearly as deadly as tobacco use. Children are particularly susceptible due to their physiology. In fact, minors in South Asia can expect to have their lives cut short by 30 months due to the toxic air. Excessive particulate matter is a daily peril for Pakistanis: according to the report, 52pc of people in this country are exposed to household air pollution. That’s not all: Pakistan’s entire population lives in areas that exceed WHO’s air quality guidelines.

These chilling figures call for an immediate, top-down course correction. Not only do we have a national emergency on our hands, but the situation has a bearing on our international commitments. Among the SDGs are specific environmental targets, including improvement in ambient air quality. Legislators had a recent opportunity to engage with experienced advocates in this field. Air Quality Asia, a global advocacy group that drives change through national policy, held a meeting in late March with a gathering of parliamentarians. Indeed, the country’s leadership has a critical role to play if we are to stave off disaster. Examples from our own part of the world illustrate how decisive government action can turn back the clock on toxic air. China, for instance, declared war on particulate matter a few years ago, strictly implemented emission limit regulations, and began to adopt clean-energy technology. As a result, it has begun to see steadily falling rates of air pollution. Pakistan, however, has adopted an inexplicably paradoxical approach. While environmental awareness and the importance of a ‘green Pakistan’ have increased, the country is embracing coal-fired power ever more tightly. Can cheap electricity ever be a substitute for breathable air?

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2019