THE slogan ‘I can’t breathe’, associated with Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was killed by a chokehold executed by a New York City police officer, never felt more relevant to me until I landed recently in my hometown, Lahore, in its infamous ‘fifth season’, marked with poisonous smog.
If you are visiting Lahore after a couple of years, nothing refreshing is waiting. The city will speak volumes about how political anarchy mars the quality of life in an eminent, historic and powerful city where people are deprived of their most fundamental right to life; to breathe.
Staying longer in the city will mean endless visits to hospitals, loads of medicinal intake and sporadic outbursts of vomits due to the hazardous air quality, which is 40 times worse than the standards set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yes, 40 times.
Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes varied health complications, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, strokes, heart problems, and shortened life expectancy.
The problem is even more grave for those who go out for work or exercise using bicycles. Such people suffer from chest infection which renders them unable to work for many days.
The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to illnesses related to air pollution. Decision-makers, on the other hand, have been sluggish, to say the very least; if not incompetent.
Many officials and politicians continue blaming stubble burning by Indian farmers as the main cause for Lahore’s smog problem. Blaming India may be a tit-for-tat response to similar Indian accusations, but it is not an accurate assessment.
The smog in Lahore, according to a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel, is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors. The long list includes vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, fossil fuel-fired power plants, the burning of waste materials, and coal being burned by thousands of brick kilns scattered across the province. These are all part of the problem.
A Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) source appropriation study in 2020 singled out power producers, industry and the transport sector as the main culprits. The government must take steps on a war footing to combat alarmingly high level of air pollution in Lahore.
There is a dire need to prioritise bicyclists and pedestrians, who made up almost 45 per cent of traffic in Lahore back in 2015. There is a clear absence of bicycle lanes or even sidewalks. And while Lahore has invested in expensive Metro bus and rail projects, the feeder transit system is in a shambles.
Lahore, along with the rest of Pakistan, desperately needs to shift away from its reliance on fossil fuel. Doing so would help clean up the transport and energy production sectors simultaneously.
Decision-makers in Lahore should focus on Band-Aid solutions as well. For instance, on particularly pollution-heavy days, offices and schools should be closed to lessen human exposure and reduce traffic emissions. Punitive measures should also target farmers who burn stubble and clamp down on brick kilns.
Experts suggest that Lahore needs a multipronged approach to contend with its environmental woes, including air pollution, which in turn necessitates attention to improved urban planning as well. Regularising urban slums that lack any form of waste management could help address problematic practices, such as trash burning.
More efficient urban management can reduce energy consumption and vehicular emissions. Instead, there is a profusion of encroachment into surrounding agricultural areas to create gated communities without much thought to the enormous environmental stress that is caused by unplanned urban sprawl.
Lahore’s 13 million residents find themselves choked, suffocated, poisoned by the hazardous smoke, with everyone yelling, “I can’t breathe”. The administration needs to listen before it gets too late. Or is it already too late?
Muhammad Ali Falak
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2023
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