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November 7, 2016

Foggy days


November 7, 2016

Winters traditionally begin with foggy days in the plains of Punjab but the fog that enveloped Lahore on November 2 was unprecedented. The smoky haze stayed all day,  unlike the past when it would fritter away around noon. It was also quite smoky and irritating for the eyes, something that has not been experienced before.

The electronic media coverage of this issue compelled the Punjab government to issue statements, although it was obvious that the fog or smog could not be removed through administrative measures.

The plains of Punjab experience low visibility from October to April in the form of smoke, haze and fog. In Lahore and its adjoining areas, fog usually occurs from November to February with an average of 10 to 25 days. The fog’s intensity, however, has amplified with each passing year.

In central Punjab alluvial soil releases dust particles (‘particulate matter’ in scientific lingo) in the ambient air to form fog during low temperatures and dry spells of winter. The situation has deteriorated owing to higher levels of air pollutants coming from industries and emissions of motor vehicles. Gases from these two main sources, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone, mix with dust particles and smoke and get trapped in the atmosphere causing the kind of thick fog that invaded the city a few days back.

The authorities are so indifferent to this issue that the provincial environment department does not even have an updated air pollution data for Punjab including for Lahore city, which is publicised as a model of development in the country. The half a dozen air-monitoring stations presented to the province by the Japanese government in 2006 have reportedly been lying idle for the last five years.

As a result, there is little to no information that can help the environmental agency map the location of different sources of air pollution and assess the types and quantities of pollutants that are being discharged into the environment. A few months ago, the provincial government bought a new mobile air-monitoring station and installed it in Chakwal. The day fog descended on Lahore, this lone mobile station was moved to the city to gather fresh data in the town.

The number of vehicles in the Punjab province has jumped from nearly three million to 11.50 million from 2003 to 2013, an average annual growth rate of nearly 28 percent. According to Punjab’s official statistics for 2014, more than four million motor vehicles were registered in the Lahore district alone. The other cargo and passenger transport that enters the city daily from other parts of the country is in addition to this. No mechanism exists to enforce smoke-emission standards on these motor vehicles.

Industrial units, particularly those consuming fossil fuels, emit significant amounts of air pollutants. A wide range of small-scale to medium-scale industries, including brick kilns, steel re-rolling and plastic moulding also contribute substantially to urban air pollution in the Lahore district through their use of waste fuels, including old tyres, paper, wood, and textile waste. Some factories in the city burn old tyres to produce a kind of oil which is used for mixing in diesel and as a cheap fuel in place of furnace oil.

Around 1,100 major and 5,000 small industrial units are located in Lahore, according to the EPA. These units were installed in the city suburbs two or three decades ago but as the city expanded they are now surrounded by residential areas. The big units are major pollutants of the air and water and need to be relocated outside the city under a long-term plan. Under the law, industrial units are required to run pollution-mitigation equipment but they don’t so as to save money on electricity. Laws exist but are not enforced owing to widespread corruption.

There are 270 small steel mills in northern Lahore. According to a survey conducted at 120 steel mills and furnaces in the city by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Punjab in 2013, the amount of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide in air was more than ten times higher than the normal range in the vicinity of these units. Smoke levels were also found to be much too higher than normal. However, no action was taken against them. The factory-owners are usually politically connected and rich enough to influence the higher authorities. No effort has ever been made to relocate these factories outside the city.

Shortage of electricity and, consequently, the use of electricity generators run on diesel and furnace oil have exacerbated air pollution in Lahore. The high sulphur content of furnace oil contributes significantly to particulate matter and sulphur dioxide emissions. In big cities, the government needs to reduce hours of loadshedding, keeping in view its adverse impact on the air and public health.

More than a dozen coal-fired plants emitting smokes in neighbouring Indian Punjab have also caused air pollution in our areas, but the government has never taken up this matter with the Indian government. Now the provincial government is building coal-based power stations in different parts of central Punjab; these would worsen the fog issue in the coming years.

Further, millions of tonnes of solid waste are generated in Lahore, most of which is either dumped in low-lying areas or burned. Similarly, as open rain nullahs have been turned into sewage-channels, they emit hydrogen sulphide gas which is a pollutant of the air. For long, the provincial government has been procrastinating over the building of covered sewage drains in the city.

In short, there is no quick-fix solution to the problem of fog and smog in Punjab and in the city of Lahore. This is a complex issue arising from a host of factors. The severity of the smog/fog can decline only if the government takes genuine pollution-mitigation measures. It will not just dissipate through official statements and meetings which are mostly held to hoodwink the public.

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