Air to stay

January 22, 2023

Smog is impacting the way our children are raised

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The smog would not have aggravated to the point it has had it been dealt with better.

Sometime in October last year, Amina Farooq (name changed on request) began noticing her two-year-old son coughing. Initially, she treated him at home but once the symptoms seemed to aggravate and wheezing began she took him to a pediatrician who urged them to rush to the ER, telling them his lungs were not getting enough oxygen.

The child had to be admitted to an ICU at Hameed Latif Hospital and given steroids through a branula for what the doctors called smog-induced asthma.

“While we were at the hospital I saw that we weren’t an isolated case,” says Farooq. “There were three other children in the ICU for pneumonia; more were coming in.”

Even after Farooq’s son was discharged he had to be given medicines via the branula for a week. “It was a terrible time,” she recalls. “It was really hard on all of us as a family.”

Imagine a childhood in Lahore. Summer months bring forth a sweltering heat wave that can trigger a heatstroke, episodes of throwing up and recurring nosebleeds following the slightest exposure. Monsoon season, which feels like a much needed respite for the city, causes a spike in dengue fever cases with hospitalisations touching the roof every year. And as winter approaches, Lahore slowly envelops in a sinister smog that turns something as basic as breathing into a struggle. Respiratory diseases reach all-time highs, schools close down, and hospitals, once again, run out of beds.

For children being raised in Lahore, parks are unsafe, schools are seasonal and health a constant concern. But while the weather and viral infections like dengue fever and Covid are out of the state’s control, the smog would not have aggravated to the point it has had it been dealt with better.

We are currently in the eighth season of smog. 2016 was the first time it was identified as an issue in the Punjab and received traction in the media. According to Fahad Malik, an environmental lawyer and activist, in terms of data we are exactly where we were all these years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to conduct a source apportionate study to reveal the contributors to the pollution, which should then derive smog rules and regulations specific to the sources. However, since 2016 no source apportionate study has been conducted by the EPA.

Malik says that the EPA has not bought any new air monitoring units to determine the air quality index (AQI) accurately and is still relying on the old equipment. “Ideally, when we talk about controlling an environmental problem the impetus to create change has to come from the state institutions. If you pose the question whether or not the EPA has done anything, no it has not,” he says.

According to him, any little improvements so far are thanks to the orders of the Lahore High Court (LHC) through a rolling mandamus. The LHC has been passing orders from time to time with respect to smog, under which all brick kilns across the Punjab have been converted to zigzag technology, which reduces the amount of ash and other dust particles released from the chimneys of a brick kiln. “Furthermore, crop burning has been significantly reduced during the smog season through fines, warnings and facilitation, mainly because of the orders of the court,” he adds.

For children, parks are unsafe, schools are seasonal, and health a constant concern.
— Photos by Rahat Dar

Hassan Aftab, an academic based in Cambridge who has conducted a source apportionate study, says that brick kilns shifting to zigzag technology or a reduction in crop burning won’t have the desired impact because they only contribute about 10 to 15 percent to air pollution. “The main source is vehicular pollution. Until something is done about that, no policies will work.”

Aftab says the government needs to start electrifying its vehicles fleet by fleet. Start with rickshaws, then motorcycles, then buses and so on. The government introduced a Euro 5 fuel policy, which essentially means that the sulfur content would be reduced. But even that policy is not followed at all petrol stations. Meanwhile, countries with better air quality have now moved on to Euro 6 and 7 for fuel standards. “If you look at the data of cars registered last year and then compare it with this year, you’ll see a significant increase,” he adds. “Unless we address that issue, the air quality will remain the same or get worse in the coming years.”

The Lahore Development Authority (LDA) recently got a master plan for Lahore approved which allows for further development and industrialisation in the city. “The EPA has not only approved but fully supported the plan knowing full well that it would lead to a further 12 percent reduction in Lahore’s green area,” says Malik. “Nor does the master plan take into account the factors that have contributed to the smog problem and what steps can be taken at an urban development level to make the city more resilient and adaptive to smog.”

According to the EPA director general, Khawaja Sikandar Zishan, the agency conducted an environmental impact assessment and has given 29 conditions to the LDA which need to be followed for the master plan to move forward. However, those could not be revealed for publishing purposes.

The Punjab Environment Protection Act of 1997, which was revised in 2012, states under the functions of the provincial agency [Section 6 (1) (d)] that the Provincial Agency shall prepare and publish an annual Punjab Environment Report on the state of the environment. However, even though by law the EPA was required to prepare and publish such reports every year since 2012, it has not done so till date. “If they don’t know what the state of the environment is in the province, how will they take any measures to curb the environmental pollutants?” asks Malik.

Zishan claims that the “first environmental report has been prepared and received the go-ahead for publishing.” However, it still can’t be found on their website and it is also unclear why in 2023 the report is being prepared for the first time.

As the smog season nears its end, it is safe to say that it has been brutal on the citizens of Lahore and the province as a whole. The status quo with respect to smog management and urban development suggests that right-to-life issues are not being addressed with the seriousness they deserve. The Environment Protection Department, responsible for addressing the problem and coming up with solutions and strategies to make the situation better, has failed to do the needful. According to the department, more air quality monitors, environment reports and source apportionate studies are in the pipeline. “It’s not easy checking the AQI every time your child wants to play outside and then telling them they can’t,” says Farooq. “Our environment is robbing our children of a normal childhood.”

The author is a writer and journalist based in Lahore. She has studied at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

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