Of matters big and smog

November 28, 2021

The Punjab government has issued fresh mandates to combat smog. These include orders to close private offices and educational institutes on Mondays within the metropolitan limits of Lahore

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Populations in developing countries like Pakistan, in particular, are at high risk of exposure to high levels of air pollutants. — Photo by Rahat Dar

The Punjab government has officially enacted sections of the Punjab National Calamities (Prevention And Relief) Act, 1958, effectively acknowledging the phenomenon of smog as a hazard. The Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), under directives of the Board of Revenue senior member (ex-officio the provincial relief commissioner), has ordered closure of private offices and educational institutes on Mondays within the metropolitan limits of Lahore.

Smog has, in effect, become the fifth season for Lahore over the past few years, sandwiched between the ‘dengue season’ and winter. The poisonous cocktail that sets on the city during the cooler months of October and November is a forerunner to respiratory illnesses and a visual screen of smoke and particulate matter (PM) resulting in poor visibility.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that nearly 7 million people around the world die due to air pollution each year. Exposure to air pollution shortens natural lifespans, increases the risk and severity of stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections. Populations in developing countries like Pakistan, in particular, are at high risk of exposure to high levels of air pollutants.

Smog is usually caused by a strong temperature inversion — an occurrence where temperature abnormally increases with altitude (instead of decreasing), thus preventing the upward movement of air, or “convection.” The effect is more pronounced in cooler months when air adjacent to the ground cools faster than the layer above, creating a warm layer of air at a high altitude and keeping pollution trapped underneath. This creates a sort of a “lid” trapping the pollutants and dust near the surface of the earth.

A 2018 study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) discusses details of air pollutants in Pakistan, with over 40 percent of pollution attributed to the transportation sector. Vehicles that burn fuel inefficiently due to older technology (such as two-stroke engines), combined with the poor quality of fuel available in Pakistan, and poor vehicle maintenance contribute to higher emissions. Add to that the increasing overall number of vehicles in Pakistan, and the longer distances they are driven may outweigh benefits of new technology such as catalytic converters.

It is crucial to point out that as urban areas continue to expand, the distance that commuters have to travel on a daily basis also goes up. Add to that the mushroom growth of residential localities around urban centres which means that more commuters travel for longer durations of time on a daily basis.

The second major contributor to air pollution identified by the FAO is industry, contributing around a quarter of all emissions. In the Punjab, the PDMA and Environment Protection Department (EPD) have collaborated to convert brick kilns to “zig zag” technology, which is less polluting than the traditional set-up. Mandating the adoption of technological standard and strict compliance with emission requirement across all sectors of industry is needed in order to control the unabated pollution of the environment.

An approach of staggered timings at offices and schools — for instance, a half- or one-hour gap between adjacent establishments and institutions — will not only help curb traffic but also reduce commute times and decrease overall emissions by reducing the time each vehicle spends on the road.

Agricultural emissions are the third major contributor to air pollution in Pakistan. Following the harvest of rice, farmers prepare their fields for sowing the next crop by burning the remnants, or parali. The approach is cost-effective, quick and retains soil nutrition. The government’s efforts to ban stubble burning, and promote the use of tractors to clear fields instead of setting the crop remnants alight have not caught on. Across the border in India, the volume and intensity of agricultural fires is visible from space, becoming an item of interest on satellite photographs periodically published by the NASA. This centuries old practice will require concerted efforts through behaviour change and communication strategies for a sustainable shift towards environmentally friendly practices.

Air pollution is also attributed in part to the power generation sector. Around 80 percent of power is generated through oil and gas, followed by coal. Hydropower accounts for merely 13 percent of energy production, while other renewables (solar and wind energy) account for around 5 to 6 percent contributions to the national power grid. As the nation struggles to meet its energy demands, it is clear without a doubt that the existing infrastructure — largely built around fossil fuel based power generation — will remain in operation for decades.

Pakistan is already the most urbanised nation in South Asia. Nearly half of the country’s population will live in cities by 2025, indicating increasing in-migration towards mega cities like Lahore. As urban centres in the country continue to swell with people, traffic, and industrial and commercial activities, the demand for transportation and energy alike will increase, and air quality will continue to deteriorate in the years to come.

It would be remiss not to mention the complete inadequacy of air quality monitoring data and associated research. For example, only 1 percent of the country’s industrial establishments report emissions and only one refinery in Pakistan produces fuel according to global standards. While New Delhi shuts down, stopping work on construction sites, limiting the number of vehicles on the roads, and shutting schools — most of Lahore and indeed the Punjab is rightfully feeling neglect in the government’s conduct with respect to air quality.

Simple steps that require little more than effective regulation can be helpful. For example, rerouting traffic and encouraging carpooling in both public and private offices is one simple method for immediately reducing emissions.

Similarly, an approach of staggered timings at offices and schools — for instance, a half- or one-hour gap between adjacent establishments and institutions — will not only help curb traffic but also reduce commute times and decrease overall emissions by reducing the time each vehicle spends on the road.

The exemplary inefficiencies of the PTI-led provincial government have created one public health challenge after another for an already crumbling healthcare system. The resurgence of dengue fever, for instance, after years of successfully control (and becoming a global example of successful eradication of the vector-borne disease) has had disastrous aftereffects, costing valuable lives and wasting years of efforts.

One hopes that decision-makers entrusted with preserving the lives and livelihoods of the people can see through the dark haze before clean air, too, becomes an expensive commodity that the province needs to import.


The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of the World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and the ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan



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