Karachi’s air pollution levels may worsen, warn experts

Published December 14, 2020
While a confluence of natural phenomenon aggravates air pollution in winters, the quality of air in Karachi largely remains poor the whole year. — File photo
While a confluence of natural phenomenon aggravates air pollution in winters, the quality of air in Karachi largely remains poor the whole year. — File photo

KARACHI: While a confluence of natural phenomenon aggravates air pollution in winters, the quality of air in Karachi largely remains poor the whole year; and levels of air pollution may worsen if drastic remedial measures are not taken, experts have warned.

They were speaking to Dawn in the backdrop of recent global air quality data showing Karachi among the worst polluted cities of the world quite a few times this month.

“While the city currently has no government mechanism in place to monitor its air quality, the data being generated privately is very much reliable; and can be generalised over the entire city and used for reference purposes,” said Engineer Danish Khan working as technical adviser to the vice chancellor of the NED University of Engineering and Technology.

According to him, three air quality monitoring devices are currently active in the city; one is installed near the Karachi Press Club, the other at the US consulate and the third one in the Malir Cantonment area.

Govt’s role in monitoring, enforcing environmental laws missing

According to him, a team at the university has been studying and monitoring air quality data of the city for over a year as part of its research on Karachi’s air pollution.

“We have found that city’s air quality remains ‘unhealthy’ most part of the current year, excluding the period of lockdown imposed due to Covid-19. By ‘unhealthy’ we mean that the city generally has an Air Quality Index (AQI) value of 101-150. It remains on the higher side of this range and shows a further increase during peak hours,” he explained.

Mr Khan emphasised the need to have a network of air quality monitors in the city in order to have a clearer picture of the whole city and to tackle pollution that might have area-specific contributors.

Global scales typically rank an AQI of 0-50 as good air quality. An AQI ranging between 51 and 100 may pose moderate health concern to a small group of people sensitive to air pollution while an AQI ranging from 101 to 150 is typically deemed unhealthy to sensitive groups.

An AQI between 151 and 200 is considered harmful for everyone, with sensitive groups likely to experience more effects whereas an AQI from 201-300 may lead to health warnings. An AQI value of 300-500 is deemed hazardous.

Air pollution, according to experts, is a major environmental risk for health and is estimated to cause approximately two million premature deaths worldwide per year.

Drastic action

Engineer Atif Mustafa, the Chairman of Environmental Engineering Department at the NED University, underscored the need to have a government mechanism to monitor air quality and take required action to tackle pollution.

“The world over, government agencies monitor air quality and disseminate the data for public benefit. The situation in Karachi is likely to deteriorate as an effective role of the government to monitor environmental conditions, vehicular and industrial emissions and to ensure compliance with the law is missing.”

According to him, while there should be a study on the factors contributing to pollution to have a more targeted approach towards the problem, Karachi is in dire need of relief in terms of providing the city with basic necessities and making regulatory bodies functional.

“The growing number of vehicles on roads, a lack of road maintenance and repair and the absence of a solid waste management system, which prompt many people to burn garbage, besides industrial emissions, contribute to air pollution,” he noted.

Karachi was the only mega in the city without a mass transit system, he regretted, while citing an international report.

About the connection between air quality and winters, he said pollutants got trapped in atmospheric conditions in winters due to drop in temperature, humidity levels and denser air.

“In addition, fuel emissions, particularly carbon monoxide, increase in winters due to incomplete or slowed combustion processes. As a result of all these factors, pollutants accumulate in the atmosphere and are seen in the form of a thick blanket covering the skyline.”

Sepa missing

Sources said three air quality monitoring stations of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), which were made operational on the intervention of a Supreme Court-mandated water commission in 2018, have been dysfunctional for two years for want of maintenance.

The air quality monitoring exercises of Sepa, sources said, had been erratic since 2007 when three monitoring units were installed in Karachi with the support of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The environmental agency, they said, neither analysed or documented its data to predict future pollution levels nor did it take the required measures (in the light of data) to minimise pollution.

Sources also questioned why air quality standards were changed for Sindh after devolution as they (Sindh Environmental Quality Standards) significantly deviated from the WHO guidelines and allowed higher levels of pollutants.

“Pakistan’s environmental standards are lenient (as compared to the WHO guidelines). But, what’s perhaps more unfortunate is the fact that the country has been consistently failing to meet even those compromised standards since 1997 when the National Environmental Quality Standards were formulated,” said Engineer Mustafa.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2020

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