Lahore’s Annual Smogfest

 In Air, Industrial, India, Environment

For a brief period on October 29, Lahore was ranked the most polluted city in the world on the global Air Quality Index (AQI), a rank­ing also echoed by the World Economic Forum. By day’s end, the cap­i­tal of Pakistan’s Punjab province had returned to the second slot on the list behind New Delhi, where Lahore spent much of late October and the first half of November.

On November 17, Lahore’s ranking “improved” on the AQI as it moved to the third slot, with the city’s air qual­i­ty now deemed “unhealthy” from the pre­vi­ous “haz­ardous.” The 157 reg­is­tered on the AQI at the time was a sig­nif­i­cant plum­met from the over 500 that Lahore reg­is­tered at the start of the month.

The haz­ardous levels of smog result­ed in the clo­sure of schools in Lahore and other cities in cen­tral Punjab on two separate occasions this month. The Punjab school edu­ca­tion depart­ment has banned all out­door activ­i­ties till December 20.

An AQI rank­ing rang­ing between 150 and 200 is deemed “unhealthy.” Between 300 and 500, the AQI becomes “haz­ardous.” Values above 500 are “beyond the AQI,” which is what Lahore man­aged to touch over the first weeks of November. Lahore’s rise on the AQI, even­tu­al­ly going off the charts, was vis­i­ble in the grow­ing den­si­ty of smog that engulfed the city, as vis­i­bil­i­ty plum­met­ed and suf­fo­ca­tion soared.

Smog forms owing to the mix­ture of water vapor, dust, and pol­lu­tants, which are released thanks to the burn­ing of fuels and the result­ing chem­i­cal reac­tions with sulfur diox­ide, nitro­gen oxides, and other volatile organ­ic com­pounds.

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Experts high­light that the gases are released into the air from gaso­line and diesel vehi­cles, indus­tri­al plants, and the burn­ing of fields, with the low wind speeds during the start of winter caus­ing smoke and fog to stag­nate and con­cen­trate in cer­tain areas. As a result, smog has become an annu­al­ly recur­ring phe­nom­e­non in Lahore in the latter half of this decade.

And yet, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to tackle a crisis that con­tin­ues to exac­er­bate. Critics say the cur­rent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s down­play­ing of the crisis is espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing.

Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul dubbed the reports of smog “fake news,” accus­ing an oppo­si­tion protest rally of caus­ing the surge in air pol­lu­tion. Officials have also put the blame of smog on “Indian farmers.”

When Punjab’s chief min­is­ter announced the clo­sure of schools on November 6, through his Twitter account, the Amnesty International retorted strong­ly, call­ing the inac­tion over the envi­ron­men­tal crisis a “vio­la­tion of human rights.”

Observers main­tain that not only has the gov­ern­ment failed to take suf­fi­cient action to curb smog, it has actu­al­ly con­tributed in the aggra­va­tion of the crisis for its own gains. The Punjab gov­ern­ment was accused of “politicking on public health” after taking back its deci­sion to close down brick kilns in the region, which are cited as a major con­trib­u­tor to the annual smog.

Experts say that the government’s touted claims of not want­i­ng to render anyone job­less ring hollow given its fail­ures to create alter­na­tives for those work­ing in sec­tors con­tribut­ing to pol­lu­tion and lack of inter­est in incor­po­rat­ing envi­ron­ment friend­ly tech­nol­o­gy.

What made things worse for the locals was the Punjab government’s clash with the Young Doctors Association (YDA), which over­lapped with the rise in smog. The doc­tors went on strike across public hos­pi­tals to protest the Punjab Medical Teaching Institutions Act (MTI) 2019, which YDA called a “pri­va­ti­za­tion” of gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tals.

The Diplomat vis­it­ed promi­nent public hos­pi­tals in Lahore during the first week of November, includ­ing General Hospital, Mayo Hospital, Services Hospital, and Ganga Ram Hospital. At these insti­tu­tions, despite the expect­ed rise in res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases, there was a sig­nif­i­cant decrease in patients in the pul­monolo­gy depart­ments.

“The patients aren’t coming because there are no doc­tors to attend them. The only patients we have in the depart­ment are those that had been already admit­ted here before the strike began,” Dr. Hassan from Mayo Hospital told The Diplomat, request­ing that his sur­name be kept anony­mous.

Separately, doc­tors and staff mem­bers revealed that some patients were being treat­ed, espe­cial­ly those who needed urgent treat­ment, but that was kept off the books given the ongo­ing strike.

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The smog crisis also over­lapped with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being admitted to Services Hospital. The hos­pi­tal staff revealed that much of the hospital’s atten­tion was divert­ed toward the treat­ment of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML‑N) supreme leader, with the Head of Pulmonology depart­ment Prof. Dr. Kamran Khalid Cheema being a part of the Special Medical Board formed for Sharif’s treat­ment as well.

The former pre­mier was even­tu­al­ly shift­ed to Sharif Medical City Hospital on November 5, and left the coun­try for London on November 19 for treat­ment. Following the Lahore High Court (LHC) order, the doc­tors also ended their strike on November 7, allow­ing public hos­pi­tal wards to work back toward nor­mal­cy across Punjab.

But with the gov­ern­ment hold­ing the masses’ health hostage amidst its polit­i­cal strug­gles and exhibit­ing per­sis­tent dis­re­gard for the pol­i­cy­mak­ing needed to over­come the smog crisis in the near future, experts con­tin­ue to ring the alarm bells.

“Tackling this issue requires a con­cert­ed effort, with policy change and imple­men­ta­tion of mea­sures that ensure decrease in emis­sions from vehi­cles and indus­tries. Dirty coal plants, traf­fic emis­sions are com­plete­ly unreg­u­lat­ed because vehi­cles are not required to ensure proper main­te­nance,” char­tered envi­ron­men­tal­ist and cli­mate change activist Saima Baig told The Diplomat.

“Policy change and leg­is­la­tion are the means to do this and there is no inter­est in the coun­try to do so. The PTI government’s sole con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate action is plant­i­ng trees. While this is a good idea, cli­mate change is not just due to a lack of trees,” she added.

Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Ali Tauqeer Sheikh under­lines that the gov­ern­ment has failed to take into account how the agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices have changed in Punjab.

“Other than rabi and kharif, now there is a third season of growth in the provinces of Punjab in both India and Pakistan, which isn’t fac­tored [into gov­ern­ment plan­ning]. It requires the field to be freed as soon as pos­si­ble, which leads to crop burn­ing. Similarly, the area under cul­ti­va­tion for thirsty crops is con­stant­ly grow­ing in Punjab, which causes ground­wa­ter depre­ci­a­tion, result­ing in solid par­ti­cles set­tling in air,” he told The Diplomat.

“Also, Pakistan does not have a refin­ery that can give fuel worth Euro Standard 2, 3, or 4. The con­sumers are sold low grade fuel and charged prices for high grade. This has aggra­vat­ed the emis­sion level in urban trans­port, espe­cial­ly those vehi­cles with two-stroke engines, like rick­shaws,” he added.

Sheikh believes that the gov­ern­ment has cre­at­ed a binary of pover­ty versus pol­lu­tion, result­ing in a lack of action against con­trib­u­tors to smog owing to the eco­nom­ic impact it might have.

“The gov­ern­ment needs to pursue tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions, not admin­is­tra­tive solu­tions. Knee-jerk reac­tions on brick kilns, for instance, would bring the econ­o­my to a stand­still. They need to be shift­ed to zigzag tech­nol­o­gy, for which com­mer­cial banks should be encour­aged to pro­vide loans,” Sheikh said.

“Similarly, solar rick­shaws can be tested. The gov­ern­ment should also invite pri­vate com­pa­nies into trans­porta­tion sector, like [bus hail­ing start­up] Airlift. Industries and mar­kets should be cre­at­ed in Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Wazirabad to pro­vide low cost indus­try solu­tion for farm­ers,” he added.

Dr. Ghulam Rasul, the former direc­tor gen­er­al of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, main­tains that South Asian states should col­lab­o­rate given that they are fight­ing the same battle.

“In Beijing they have adopt­ed, on one hand, strict vehi­cle fit­ness rules; on the other hand, one day odd number vehi­cles [are allowed] on roads and other day even. We can also follow it as the winter fog policy,” he told The Diplomat.

“Unfortunately, India is not coop­er­at­ing with Pakistan to min­i­mize the recur­rence of smog, which has become the health hazard on both sides. Two Punjabs and One Atmosphere con­cept should be real­ized and simul­ta­ne­ous actions can be result ori­ent­ed,” he added.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based cor­re­spon­dent.

Source: The Diplomat

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