Thursday May 30, 2024

Cost of bad air

By Dr Farrukh Saleem
November 12, 2023
A vendor carries balloons down a Lahore street amid heavy smog. — AFP/File
A vendor carries balloons down a Lahore street amid heavy smog. — AFP/File

Were you aware that Pakistan experiences 40 million cases of acute respiratory infections annually due to air pollution? Did you know that air pollution is linked to 11 million premature deaths in Pakistan? Did you know that air pollution is associated with various severe physical, behavioural, and psychological health risks? Are you aware that air pollution poses a persistent and escalating threat to Pakistan?

Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, and now Islamabad emerge as some of the most polluted cities in the world. The top-three sources of air pollution are: vehicular emissions, industrial emissions and biomass burning. Exhaust emissions from vehicles release pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. There are so many vehicles on the road that lack proper emission control systems and contribute significantly to air pollution.

Pakistan's industries persist in releasing pollutants at levels seldom seen in other parts of the world. Power plants, the textile and garment industry, traditional brick kilns, the chemical and petrochemical industries are neither regulated adequately nor monitored properly. The government adamantly refuses to quell the haunting specter of pollution, foreboding a present and a future enveloped in ecological terror. Then there’s burning of biomass that releases greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane and volatile organic compounds.

The government bears nearly exclusive responsibility for 40 million cases of acute respiratory infections and 11 million premature deaths. Regulatory measures are insufficient, marked by limited enforcement and monitoring. Then there’s rampant corruption that plagues the enforcement infrastructure, exacerbating the severe toll on public health.

The government must do three things: increase surveillance through satellite imagery, on-the-ground inspections and the use of air quality monitoring stations. The government must introduce stricter emission standards, promote public transportation and launch initiatives to reduce crop residue burnings. The government must monitor air quality trends, implement effective policies to mitigate air pollution in urban areas and promote public awareness.

The treatment of illnesses related to air pollution places a substantial economic burden. Poor air quality has a direct impact on workforce productivity. Air pollution is harming our crops and affecting agricultural productivity. Damage to crops means decreased yields and a negative impact on the income of farmers. Air pollution in Pakistan costs us some $50 billion a year, every year.

Pakistan is now the fourth most polluted country in the world. In urban areas, air pollution shortens the average Pakistani’s life by almost seven years. From 1998 to 2021, “average annual particulate pollution increased by 49.9 per cent, further reducing life expectancy by 1.5 years.”

There is an imminent threat to public health, the environment, and the overall wellbeing of the nation. Should the government falter in undertaking the necessary measures, the trajectory toward a major disaster is inevitable. The time to act is now, as failure to do so risks irreparable damage to our environment, exacerbation of health crises, and a bleak future for generations to come. The responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of those in power to make choices that safeguard our collective future.

The writer is a columnist based in Islamabad. He tweets/posts @saleemfarrukh and can be reached at: