[Last year, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate matter in the air, among the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).]
By Sabrina Toppa
Last year, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate
matter in the air. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Nadia Faisal, a cleaning woman in Lahore, remembers the sudden onset of toxic smog that hit Pakistan’s second-largest city last month. When she returned home, she found her children playing in a narrow alley, their eyes red and watering. “My kids were asking me ‘What’s happening?’.”
The hazardous pollutants across Lahore’s skyline caused residents respiratory difficulties, eye irritation, and cardiac complications, among other ailments.
Pakistan’s second-largest city, home to more than 10 million people, is facing elevated levels of air pollution, thanks to rapid industrialisation, growing vehicular emissions and tree slashing, and increased crop burning and coal plant emissions from neighbouring India.
“I have never experienced this before. This was scary,” says 20-year-old college student Salma Khalid. “I had breathing problems, so I skipped two classes today. I’m staying indoors.”
Last year, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate matter in the air, among the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Pakistan’s median exposure levels to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) – among the most harmful pollutants in the air – is 68 in urban areas, compared to just 12 in UK cities, according to the WHO (pdf). The WHO sets a standard safe PM 2.5 level at 25 µg/m3. This month, numbers rose above 100 in Lahore, according to the city’s environment protection agency (EPA) data.
As South Asia’s most urbanised country, Pakistan contends with increasing challenges from the increase in motor vehicles in cities. In the last decade, more than 11m cars appeared on the roads in Pakistan’s most populous province, representing a growth of almost 30%, according to a report from the Punjab environmental protection department (EPD). Although the environmental body has recommended the government mandate low-sulphur diesel and increase higher public transport use, these results have been slow to materialise.
Stubble burning in neighbouring India has also been cited as a major culprit behind worsening pollution, but not all residents are convinced the blame lies across the border: “They’re just blaming it on India, but they’re not thinking about solutions or precautions they can take in Pakistan,” says Sanum Finyas, a 26-year-old student in Lahore. The polluting practice on agricultural land is common in Pakistan’s Punjab, resulting in plumes of toxic smoke carrying over to the neighbourhoods of Lahore.
And natural urban barriers to air pollution have increasingly disappeared. In the past year alone, Lahore cut down more than 2,200 trees in the city, removing a natural carbon sink able to absorb some of the large quantities of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter released into the air.
Reducing deaths from air pollution is one of the aims of the sustainable development goals. One of the targets for goal three, good health and wellbeing, is “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil” by 2030.
It is uncertain how Pakistan can achieve this. For one, there are few ambient air monitors in the city. Earlier last month when air toxicity levels reached critical levels the only monitoring machine was more than three hours away in another city, assessing emissions from a cement factory.
Solutions to address the root causes of air pollution are slowly appearing. The federal government recently unveiled a large-scale tree plantation programme, promising to plant more than 100m trees in Pakistan during the next several years.
The Punjab government has also instituted a number of emergency measures to mitigate the pollution, such as banning the burning of agricultural waste and closing steel mill factories. “We sealed steel mills who have not installed air pollution control devices,” says Punjab EPA director Waseem Cheema.
The most effective solution may be to cut the number of cars on the road. “The government is creating awareness to reduce traffic load,” says Sohail Anwar from the Pakistan Environmentalists Association. “People should know how much we are contributing in creating environmental pollution.”
The lack of public transport in Lahore is a barrier to reducing the number of cars on the road. The Orange Line Metro project is under construction and has ambitions to dramatically increase public transport in the city by serving a quarter million passengers per day, alleviating some of the traffic congestion on the road.
“We must control vehicular pollution,” Cheema stresses. “This includes from two-stroke [auto] rickshaws and from old vehicles that need proper tuning and inspection.” To this end, the EPA has imposed more frequent road checks by teams of a traffic policeman, an official from a regional transport authority and an environmental inspector. Vehicles failing basic maintenance requirements are fined or impounded, and in the most extreme cases, the police may register a case against the owner in the court of the environmental magistrate.
Without interventions, experts predict that Pakistan’s air pollution may worsen in the coming years. Increased motorisation, poor public health warning systems, and unchecked industrial pollution are exposing larger swathes of the population to health risks.
“People don’t understand the implications, or that children are the most severely affected,” says Dr Ijaz Ahmad Butt, a public health physician from Lahore’s Mayo Hospital. “The public needs to be informed through the media.”
The government relied on the PTV public broadcaster to disseminate warnings about hazardous smog, instructing residents to minimise exposure to outdoor air, wear face masks, and keep children inside.
Not all citizens are waiting for the government to take action. Lawyer Sheraz Zaka filed a petition in the Lahore high court, saying the EPD had failed to crack down on the commercial industries most responsible for releasing pollutants: “The EPD is not taking action against commercial enterprises because they have become influential. What regulations exist are not properly enforced,” says Zaka. “The industrialists are polluting the environment and the public is paying the cost.”
Meanwhile, at Lahore traffic stops where groups of men sit out in the open, the lack of public messaging about the risks from prolonged air pollution exposure is apparent. “For the neediest, the government should provide environmental shelter and face masks,” says 22-year-old Lahore resident Noshien Shaukat. “The most vulnerable members of society have no information and remain at risk.”