Why Pakistan’s smog crisis is a public health emergency

Every November a thick smog descends upon Lahore, blocking out the winter sunshine and causing air quality monitors to record hazardous readings. In cooler weather air pollution caused by emissions from traffic, industries and the burning of crops and solid waste gets trapped and they are all major contributors to the winter smog.

I grew up in Lahore and always looked forward to the cooler winter months – now I avoid travelling to the city in these months as the bad air literally gives me headaches. The air is so polluted that Lahoris routinely complain of burning eyes and sore throats. Today, with the advent of Covid-19 in its the second wave, the air pollution is even more dangerous as many scientific studies have shown the link between poor air quality and the spread of the virus.

Increasing vehicular and industrial emissions have certainly worsened the air quality in Lahore and other urban cities of Pakistan in the past few years. “The smog in our cities will only increase with higher urbanization and lack of adequate public transportation. We need to introduce better, greener policies,” said Mome Saleem, the Executive Director of the new Institute for Urbanism (IU) based in Islamabad.

The smog hanging over Lahore is only relived when it rains and the pollution is washed away for a short while as it did earlier this week. Last Friday before the rainfall, Lahore and Faisalabad topped the list of the world’s most polluted cities on the US Air Quality Index. “It is a public health emergency,” explained Farah Rashid from WWF-Pakistan at a meeting of journalists on urban transport and air pollution held recently in Islamabad by the IU.

“Lahore’s first smog event was recorded in November 2015, then in November 2016 there was a second smog event and the Lahore High Court took notice. Then in 2017 a smog policy came out and but no significant action has been taken and Air Quality Index levels in Lahore still cross 300 which is hazardous to human health,” she explained. She said there were around 20,000 brick kilns around the country, which burn all kinds of fuel including plastic that releases cancer-causing dioxins into the air. She said there was a solution: “Some brick kilns are now converting to zig zag technology which controls pollutants up to 90%”.

She also mentioned that the technology now exists to use organic rice stubble as a form of fertilizer, which can also help farmers to desist from burning the stubble to clear their fields. These technologies needed to be subsidized by the government to make them affordable.

Since the bulk of Pakistan’s emissions come from transport and given that there are 16 million registered cars in the Punjab alone all using bad quality fuel, this is where the government needed to focus. “The new electric vehicle policy could be a game changer and will help in reducing emissions in the long term. For now, vehicles across the country should use catalytic converters to bring down emissions,” she pointed out.

In her view, when air quality index numbers go up and the AQI stays in the 200-400 range which is unhealthy to hazardous for Lahore’s citizens, especially the old and the very young, schools should be shut down and children told to stay indoors. “Covid-19 plus air pollution is alarming”.

The meeting on urban transport and air pollution linked up journalists in Islamabad who write about environmental issues with journalists Kabul via video link. In Afghanistan about 26,000 people lost their lives due to air pollution related diseases nationwide in 2017, while 3,483 people lost their lives due to conflict and violence, according to a report published by the Afghanistan Research Center. Kabul ranks amongst one of the most polluted capital cities in the world, the report said. About 3,000 people die every year in the capital due to air pollution-related diseases as citizens burn trash, plastic and tires in the winters to stay warm.

Urban air pollution in Pakistan and Afghanistan is in fact amongst the world’s most severe, significantly damaging human health, quality of life, economy and the environment. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) first Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Assessment Report released a year ago noted that there has been a rapid rise in air pollution affecting the mountain belt in the past two decades. Across the region, levels of particulate matter have increased. They listed three urban cities in the HKH, including Peshawar (Pakistan), Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan), and Kabul (Afghanistan), to be on the list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

According to Dr Stefanie Groll, who heads the Department of Ecology and Sustainability and joined in the meeting via video link from Berlin, there is a vision of better mobility in cities and urban areas. She gave the example of Copenhagen, which is the cycling capital of Europe and said in most European cities cycling education starts in school. There are now electric trucks in Germany and car free main streets in Berlin. In Vienna there is cheap public transport (costing one Euro a day).

“We are in the transition to cleaner, renewable energy systems and battery powered vehicles…and digital technologies will shape the future of mobility,” she explained. In the future our smart phones and digitisation will be the key to mobility in urban centres. There will be a ban on fossil fuel cars. She pointed out that public/private partnerships in improving public transportation should be encouraged which would be a win for everyone. She described it as “multi-modality” – people and goods using different modes of transportation according to their needs. In Europe these are mostly powered by electricity.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan where we are still largely dependent on fossil fuels for transportation, in order to control air pollutant emissions from road transport (which amount to around 40% of total emissions in the Punjab according to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation), options available include changes in engine design and fuel quality and better inspection and maintenance of vehicles. Unfortunately, a promised certification system to inspect cars in the Punjab has not yet been executed. Long-term recommendations include investment in public transport and a shift to cleaner fuels and renewable energy.

Until we start cleaning up our emissions and people start using more fuel-efficient transportation, people will just have to avoid going outdoors or wear masks as they once did in the heavily polluted cities of China. After all, breathing in all these trapped pollutants (dust and harmful substances like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide) can create major health risks, including asthma, lung tissue damage, bronchial infections and heart problems.

Our government should try to restrain the growth of cars with parking restraints and taxes in the city and the introduction of car free pedestrian areas. Along with introducing new technologies, they should implement priority action for checking emissions from power plants and industries and completely ban open garbage burning.