Out of breath

Published November 14, 2023
The writer is an expert on climate change and development and founder of Clifton Urban Forest.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development and founder of Clifton Urban Forest.

PICTURE yourself residing in a lavish mansion, boasting a multiple-digit price tag, in the heart of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhood. Despite the opulence, the very essence of life for you and your family is being gradually eroded; your lifespan is curtailed by several precious years, and the once pristine quality of life tainted by the persistent spectre of asthma, throat infections, and itchy eyes. Moreover, there is an ever-present apprehension, a gnawing fear that cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and respiratory issues may be just around the corner, casting a shadow over your otherwise luxurious abode. That is how the issue of air quality has hit Pakistan’s cities. This paradoxical reality, the contradiction between affluence and the compromised quality of life is the top odd feature of life in Pakistan.

While Lahore and Delhi have been in a fierce competition, not just this week but throughout the past month, to claim the top two spots on the Air Quality Index for the world’s worst air quality, Karachi hasn’t been far behind. Ironically, the air quality woes extend beyond these cities, as Islamabad and Rawalpindi have also surpassed dangerous levels. Last week, Islamabad recorded an AQI of 154, and Rawalpindi reached 180 — both falling into the ‘unhealthy’ category (151-200).

The competitive streak persists among other cities as well, with Attock at 143, Jhe­lum and Chakwal at 159. Even the usually pristine hill station of Murree saw its AQI rise to 104, surpassing the ‘moderate’ level.

In response to the escalating air pollution, the Punjab government recently declared a ‘health emergency’ and implemented a smart lockdown in seven districts: Lahore, Nankana Sahib, Sheikhu­pura, Kasur, Gujranwala, Hafizabad, and Narowal. These areas had reportedly witnessed the highest recorded AQI levels. The onset of winter exacerbates air pollution, leading to smog that disrupts traffic and work life. Typically, the smog season extends from the beginning of November to the end of February — a third of the year. This adversely affects the 48 million-strong population residing in bustling business and industrial hubs, resulting in economic losses, hindering education, and disrupting travel and transportation.

Rapid urbanisation in the region forecasts that almost half of Pakistan’s population will reside in cities by 2025, heightening concerns over air pollution. Failing to address this issue immediately could expose over 120m people to harmful air quality, causing significant economic and social repercussions. The urgency to control air pollution is evident in the dire consequences it poses, emphasising the need for preventive measures to protect the well-being of the projected urban population.

Air quality deterioration results from various sources, including industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, agricultural practices, waste burning, and natural events. Population density in urban areas exacerbates emissions. In Lahore, external air pollution from Jalandhar in Indian Punjab contributes, while Karachi faces complex sources, including vehicular emissions and unsafe construction practices. The absence of an efficient public transport system increases vehicle numbers and emissions. Fossil fuel burning produces harmful byproducts like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Despite being a coastal city with marine ecosystems, Karachi should ideally be free from air pollution due to its potential for ‘blue carbon’ — carbon sequestration through mangroves. The high carbon sequestration potential of the mangroves highlights their importance not only for the health of the coastal ecosystem but also in the global context of climate change mitigation. Protecting and restoring mangrove ecosystems can contribute significantly to efforts aimed at reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Planting mangroves not only purifies the air but also generates carbon credits. An average mature mangrove tree can sequester 22-30 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide yearly. For example, 600,000 mangroves planted at the Clifton Urban Forest in August 2022 can fetch $225,000 per year, starting from year 2024. It is time to bring creeks, sub-creeks, and beaches across Karachi under mangrove cover. Apart from the revenue aspect, these mangroves will purify the city’s air and create resilience against cyclones and tsunamis in addition to producing food for fish, shrimp and aquatic birds like flamingos. Pakistan stands at a crucial juncture, requiring bold decisions and a paradigm shift from a real estate-based shallow economy to embrace innovative opportunities such as blue carbon and beach tourism.

The writer is an expert on climate change and development and founder of Clifton Urban Forest.

mlohar@gmail.com

Twitter: masoodlohar

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2023

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