Community takes up cudgels against smog by monitoring air quality in Lahore

Published December 18, 2021
Women wait for transportation as heavy fog reduces visibility, in Lahore, on Friday. — AP
Women wait for transportation as heavy fog reduces visibility, in Lahore, on Friday. — AP

LAHORE: Being on the top of the list of the most polluted cities of the world for Lahore is not uncommon these days in the ranking of the IQAir, a Swiss company that monitors air quality across the globe.

It was shown as the most polluted city of the world on Wednesday. While on Thursday, Lahore was on the top of the list again with 362 AQI, followed by Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

IQAir collects data of air quality of the city from various independent sources that keep an eye on air pollution levels in various areas of the city. The website gives the real-time air quality index. It shows pollution levels in Lahore and other cities of Punjab and Pakistan. The other city that witnesses air pollution like Lahore’s is Faisalabad that sometimes show air quality even worse than that of the provincial metropolis.

The monitoring of air quality offended the authorities so much that the Punjab minister for environment protection last month sought action of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against these monitors under the cyber crime laws, accusing them of misleading and disinforming the public.

“During the smog season, some unscrupulous elements with mala fide intention are trying to damage the image of Pakistan by reporting misreading/false reading of Air Quality Index (AQI) from different unauthorized sources in Lahore.”

The Environment Protection Department top officials still claim that it’s fog that the Lahorites in particular and the people of central Punjab in general breathe in.

One of the initiatives monitoring the air quality of Lahore is the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI) that claims to provide community-driven air quality data and resources to increase social awareness. The initiative was launched in 2016 by installing very first monitors.

“Two monitors were installed in Lahore, as many in Karachi and one each in Islamabad and Peshawar. Now we have approximately 50 monitors across Pakistan and about 30 of them are in Lahore and all of them are working,” Abid Omar, the founder of PAQI, told Dawn.

PAQI bought the monitors on its own while some of them were bought by individuals and companies, he says. After installation of monitors, he adds, they go through two weeks remote validation process using artificial intelligence and comparing it with the satellite data.

Regarding the quality of data and the monitors, Mr Omar says that he had presented his findings about two years back in a conference at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad about the data quality.

“There are more questions about the data quality of the government monitors as even in one city two different monitors give varying readings and it’s often unbelievable what the EPD is putting. Our monitors have been validated by various international organisations. The ones we are using are a part of UN’s environment programme for air quality monitoring. The question is really not of their quality but of the government monitors, which lack in many aspects.”

Abid Omar says the government has not provided the real-time data as ordered by the Lahore High Court. Real-time data is needed to make timely decisions such as closure or opening of schools and monitoring of results of any action government takes to control smog, he stresses.

The EPD website gives AQI of the last 24 hours of different areas of Lahore but not real-time reading; however, even its own figures of monitors from four sites of Lahore paint a horrific picture. According to its website, the PM2.5 levels at the National Hockey Stadium, Gulberg on Wednesday was 401 and it was 420 at DHA, Phase 6. However, it did not show the PM2.5 levels at other two stations of Town Hall and Township Block 1 where CO2 (carbon dioxide) or NOx (nitrogen dioxide) levels were shown.

Environmental lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam has himself installed a monitor at his house. Talking about the letter of the minister seeking action, he says, “I don’t know what the minister was talking about. The cyber laws are implemented when there is crime. Installing air quality monitors at one’s home by any citizen is not a crime.”

He further says: “The US consulate has installed a monitor, which is expensive as it costs around USD100,000. People have installed monitors across the city, which check the PM2.5 levels and they are not too expensive”. His own monitor cost him USD250. He says the government monitors (of EPD and Urban Unit) actually show a worse situation compared to private ones.

He says the data is collected through crowd sourcing, which happens across the world, information is no more a domain of the governments only.

The PAQI in its report, presented in the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, shows that lockdown implemented in the wake of the Covid-19 in Lahore has had telling effects, which could be a way out for the policymakers. As a result of the lockdown, NO2 levels saw a drop of 49pc from March 1 to April 15, 2020. “The large drop in central and peripheral regions appears linked to traffic emissions and power generation (particularly in NW and South).”

Regarding the impact of the lockdown on Lahore, it further says “the particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution shows a sharp drop since the start of lockdown on March 23, 2020. PM2.5 pollution reached Punjab’s Environmental Quality Standards of 15 for one day on April 6, 2020.”

During the period of two months, the PM2.5 level reduced by 63pc while NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) reduced by 33pc. According to the report, during the whole year of 2018, Punjab’s environmental quality standards of upper limit of ambient air was there just for 17 days, and in 2019, the air was safe for just 18 days while it was safe for 71 days due to the lockdown when there was almost no traffic on roads and industrial activity was zero.

For solution to the problem, the PAQI suggests the model of China, which launched a 12-year-plan to improve air quality and reduced PM2.5 levels by 30pc. It revised laws on environmental and atmospheric pollution, implemented stricter emission standards, upgraded fuel standards for transport, promoted cleaner use of coal and made a transition to cleaner energy. It suggests five categories of solutions to resolve Pakistan’s air pollution problem. The categories are industrial emission, agriculture, urban waste, transportation and monitoring and action.

The steps include post-combustion controls at power stations and large-scale industry; advance emissions standards at industry and brick kilns; crop residue management, regenerative agriculture; urban waste management and dust control; improved quality of diesel and fuels; better public transport, rationalization of cargo transport; nationwide air quality monitoring, education on air pollution, establishment of emission control zones around big cities and capacity building of EPD/EPA.

Besides the monitors of PAQI and US Department of State (Consulate), IQAir on its website identifies 12 monitors working in Lahore under various categories like government, educational (Beaconhouse) and corporate (private companies) categories. There are 14 anonymous monitoring stations mentioned on the website which have been installed by individuals.

Instead of living in a state of denial and proving the monitors wrong, the government should take them on board and make solid policies to curtail pollution levels and smog.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2021

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