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Govt urged to act promptly to tackle air pollution

Experts demand ban on use of substandard fuel, and install air quality monitors across Karachi

By News Desk
February 07, 2023
Govt urged to act promptly tackle air pollution. — Twitter/Rahat Dar
Govt urged to act promptly tackle air pollution. — Twitter/Rahat Dar

KARACHI: Environment and health experts have demanded the government ban the use of substandard fuel in Pakistan, install air quality monitors across Karachi, shut down pollution-causing industries, impose heavy fines on pollution-causing vehicles, dispose of trash through scientific methods, form a centralised authority to oversee the city’s affairs, prohibit setting up industries within the city and ensure citywide green cover.

These demands were made during a seminar on air pollution that was organised by the Karachi Citizens Forum, a group of senior citizens, at the PMA (Pakistan Medical Association) House on Monday.

The speakers expressed concerns over Karachi’s degradation and decay as it continues to suffer a worsening position in international indices, staying in the highest rank of the most polluted and unlivable cities of the world, in addition to being in the top 10 countries with the highest levels of toxic air.

They said Karachi is not enveloped in Lahore-like smog, so the residents and environmental authorities live in a state of denial of its toxic air quality. They lamented that it takes a tragedy like the Keamari gas leak and deaths to cause realisation and raise alarm.

Dr Abdul Ghafoor Shoro and Dr Qaiser Sajjad of the PMA were of the view that the toxic air quality of Karachi, and especially the particulate matter inhalation, is the number-one health destroyer and silent killer.

“After every inhalation, toxic air penetrates our organs, enters our bloodstream, our DNA destroys immunity not only of the individual but also of the unborn foetus, and leads to debilitating diseases such as asthma, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney diseases, liver diseases, skin diseases, TB, etc., and, worse still, to mental and physical stunting,” said Dr Sajjad.

He said issues in Karachi are increasing day by day: the city already lacks clean drinking water, there is no sewerage system, and now air pollution, which is a silent killer, has endangered the lives of the residents.

Environmental expert Dr Kulsum Ahmed said that 128,000 lives are lost every year in Pakistan because of toxic air quality. She said that the average Pakistani life expectancy goes down by 4.3 years every year, while around 52 per cent of the population is suffering from poverty.

She also said air quality causes stunting in the residents, adding that around 57 per cent of those stunted are under the age of five. She further said that a million children die from pneumonia worldwide, adding that the highest death ratio is reported from four countries, including Pakistan.

Citing the World Health Organisation’s statistics, she said that approximately seven million premature deaths occur in the world annually because of air toxicity, and it is also the primary agent of climate change and reduces the feasibility of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

She said that low-income and poor countries are the worst-affected. As no accurate data is available, an estimated 60 per cent of the poor are the most affected in Karachi and suffer from very serious illnesses that lower their productivity, she added.

Citing a recent study, she said that precautions taken by the rich, such as household air purifiers, have not saved them from catching airborne diseases. The very high hospitalisation numbers in the city testify to this, she pointed out.

Nargis Rahman said smog in Lahore can be seen, but in Karachi we cannot see the air pollution. She said that a large number of people are dying because of air pollution, but there is no one to take responsibility.

She also said that countries across the globe are actively working to reduce air pollution and have successfully controlled it. This session aims to speared awareness and wake up the authorities to take steps, she added. “We say children are our future, but children with lung illnesses are surely not a bright future.”

Linked Things Air Quality CEO Sophia Hasnain said she and her team had initially installed 20 air quality monitors across the city, but they are not enough for a city that hosts such a large population. She said that big cities of Pakistan like Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Multan and others have the worst air quality.

She cited the use of substandard fuel as one of the reasons. She admitted that there are also some natural causes, but pointed out that they are between 20 and 25 per cent. The rest of the air pollution causes are man-made, she stressed. “Industrial pollution, unplanned construction and burning garbage are the top listed causes of air pollution in Karachi.”

She said that around 10 air quality monitors should be installed in a city that hosts one million people. India has formed an air pollution control board, while Europe and America have also taken some measures, but we are still in the denial phase and our authorities think that no such problem exists, she added.

Environmental activist Yasser Hussain said that just like fishes need water to live, humans need fresh air. He said that it is our collective responsibility to work for the betterment of fresh air.

He added that we have laws but there is no implementation. “We can provide technical assistance to the government and the authorities concerned to reduce air pollution.” He also said air pollution is a silent killer, and the people of Karachi live in the red zone, which is unhealthy. He added that some areas show the colour purple, which means the air is highly polluted. “We don’t have mass transit. The more diesel and gasoline burns, the more it gets into the air.”

Prof Dr Noman Ahmed of the NED University’s Architecture & Planning Department said that with the passage of time, the natural landscape was deliberately destroyed. “We started unplanned construction in the suburban areas of the city and it is still continuing.”

He said that for a city that hosts 10 million people, 10 per cent of the area must be specified for trees and nature. In advanced countries, urban planners cannot think about city development without building parks full of trees, he pointed out.

He also said that today’s Karachi is devoid of forests and trees. “New development projects continue without any checks and balances. Even the area of Gutter Baghicha was reduced to 400 acres from 1,100 acres.”

He presented some solutions for the reduction of air pollution: firstly, there should be public oversee committees in government bodies such as the Sindh Building Control Authority, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency and the Karachi Development Authority.

The second solution is that the physical limits of the cities must be defined, and the third is that all stakeholders should sit together and take appropriate steps, he said.

Dr Abdul Ghaffar of the NED University’s Environment Department said his university’s faculty have been working on air pollution reduction. However, he said, we need to work jointly to save this city. Humans can survive for a day or two without food and water, but they cannot survive for a few minutes without air, he added.

He said they have installed two air quality monitors. “We have started an urban forest at the university. Work on plastic recycling is also under way. We have to promote walking and cycling instead of using vehicles. At present, around 1,100 new vehicles are being registered.”

Shariq Vohra, former chairman of the Sindh Industrial Trading Zone, said that after the 18th amendment, powers have not been devolved to the local bodies, which actually deal with city-related problems. “Air pollution is an entirely local issue, and it must be resolved by the local authorities.”

He claimed that the federal climate change ministry is doing nothing apart from collecting funds from international donors. He said the provinces still have no such government departments and resources to deal with climate change.

“Pakistan is a small industrialised country, and Karachi especially has very well-planned industrial zones, but unfortunately, the authorities are not interested in controlling air pollution.”