Smog: some more bad news

December 16, 2019

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The writer chairs the Smog/Environmental Commission and was chairman, Lahore Clean Air Commission.
The writer chairs the Smog/Environmental Commission and was chairman, Lahore Clean Air Commission.

NOVEMBER-December is the middle of the smog season in Pakistan. Every year, this time, we are reminded about the problem and reflect on our inadequate responses to fighting it. This year has been extraordinary in the enormity of the degraded air quality leading to the unprecedented closing of schools and public and media outrage.

International attention has also been focused on some cities in Pakistan (Lahore and Karachi) as allegedly having the worst air quality in the world. Unfortunately, there is more bad news ahead. With our present level of commitment and apathy, things are going to get worse in the future. We all know, and have long known, the reasons for the poor air quality but the requisite governmental actions are not forthcoming. Nor, unhappily, is there an indication that they will.

It is not that we had not sensed the gathering storm. Clean air and clean water have received little attention in our national priorities. Beginning in 1983, we progressed with environmental protection laws and regulations, environmental quality standards, environmental protection councils and agencies, and environmental impact assessments first at the national level and, after the 18th Amendment in 2010, at the provincial levels. But the political will did not include implementation and enforcement of these. The judiciary, however, moved in to handle complaints including of air quality, solid waste disposal, hospital waste and even for an integrated environmental management of Islamabad.

Over the years, I have been appointed chairman of most of the Environmental Commissions established by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Lahore High Court and the Islamabad High Court. These commissions have included relevant governmental officials, civil society representatives (IUCN, WWF-P, SDPI and Lead Pakistan), academics, technical experts and elected public representatives. Their work has included site visits and public hearings. But even these initiatives have to depend on the implementation of the recommendations of the commissions by the executive. This has sadly lagged.

Clean air and clean water have received little attention in our national priorities.

Regarding air quality, the Lahore High Court first established a Lahore Clean Air Commission in 2003. The Commission, in the face of overwhelming vehicular pollution, made holistic recommendations including for Ambient Air Quality Standards, cleaner (lead-free and reduced sulphur content) fuels and technologies, Euro-based vehicle emission standards, a ban on two-stroke and the introduction of four-stroke auto rickshaws, awareness-raising for CNG use, inspection and maintenance of vehicles, promoting public transport, and introducing BRT (Bus Rapid Transport).

In 2017, the chief justice of the Lahore High Court appointed the Smog Commission which, in addition to vehicular pollution from the transport sector, identified industrial emissions, power/energy projects, coal and tyre burning for energy, waste burning, and crop burning in Pakistan and neighbouring India, as principal contributors to smog. This commission made detailed recommendations including the earlier call of the Lahore Clean Air Commission for cleaner fuel and technologies. Target-led and time-bound afforestation efforts in the urban centres recognised the importance of trees for clean air.

The recommendations also included Air Quality Index, health risks at different levels of air quality, and health alerts for preventive interventions beginning with an AQI of 300 although other countries have adopted lower safety levels much below AQI of 300. The closure of schools in Punjab was at levels even higher than AQI 300 pointing to the devastating harm to the health and well-being of our children.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo motu notice under Article 184(3) of the Constitution to take up and approve the recommendations of the Smog Commission, On the direction of the court to implement these throughout Pakistan, the writer has been working with both the adviser and secretary climate change, Islamabad, as well as with all the provincial secretaries, environment protection departments and the directors general of the environmental protection agencies.

Some recommendations of the Smog Commission were overwhelmed by subsequent political developments. There is crop burning in both India and Pakistan, harmful to the quality of air. In spite of finger-pointing on both sides of the border, the effect of crop burning is dependent on the direction of winds that carry the harmful effects from one country to the other.

The Smog Commission recommended trans-boundary cooperation between India and Pakistan on the pattern of the Asean Haze Convention but this proposal routed by the Commission through the Pakistan Foreign Office has clearly become a casualty in the developments after the revocation of the special status of Kashmir by India in August this year.

But the basic problem is the continuing lack of enforcement of environmental quality standards against the polluting industries, the poor quality of imported diesel and petrol products, unsatisfactory vehicle maintenance and poor traffic management. We are, however, poised to make some headway with the conversion of brick kilns to the cleaner, environment-friendly, and cost-effective zig-zag technology developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development while working in Nepal. The State Bank of Pakistan, on the recommendations of the Smog Commission, has enabled the financing of this conversion by scheduled banks on attractive terms.

While the government has to lead in a dedicated implementation of environmental laws and standards, the public also has a supportive role to play in this effort. Vehicular pollution can, for example, be helped through a government policy of importing lead-free quality fuel. But vehicular congestion can also be reduced by actions of civil society through car pools and popularising the use of public transport. These would involve a change of mindset and life styles but the gravity of the problem demands this. Regular tuning and the proper maintenance of vehicles would also reduce pollution levels. In effect, we will see a reduction of smog and a better air quality in Pakistan only if all the stakeholders, the government, industrialists, agriculturists, educationalists, vehicle owners and operators, and the common man join in an overarching commitment to play their due role in this effort.

The writer chairs the Smog/Environmental Commission and was chairman, Lahore Clean Air Commission.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2019