Saturday January 28, 2023

Smog over Lahore

October 14, 2021

One can see that the dreaded smog is gradually descending upon us. It is palpable at the moment, but it is not inevitable – it shouldn’t be. Smog is of our own making; we can easily control it.

But the irony is writ large on the way we handle smog each year. No sooner than the city’s air quality is declared ‘very unhealthy’ that we wake up to the steps that we should have taken long ago.

Only a few days ago, the Air Quality Index (AQI) score was between 223 and 231 in Lahore. As a knee-jerk reaction, the Punjab government sprang into action directing the authorities concerned to implement mitigation measures.

We have seen the recurrence of smog from October to January since 2014. Last year, in November, smog levels reached hazardous levels in Punjab with Faisalabad and Lahore topping the list of the world’s most polluted cities. Strangely enough, that till February this year, Lahore was among the world’s most polluted cities with the city’s AQI score exceeding 500 to hazardous levels still does not give sleepless nights to the champions of the billion tree tsunami project.

While the authorities hide behind the excuses of ‘incorrect’ readings by air quality monitors and stubble burning in Indian Punjab being responsible for the rising smog levels, they have no explanation about stubble burning in Pakistan’s Punjab – an activity which is often observed while commuting on the main highways of the province.

The UN and the World Bank have also identified the transport sector as one of the biggest contributors to pollution in Punjab, followed by the industrial and agriculture sectors. As per news reports, the Punjab Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) had been directed to stop crop burning, but the practice continues unabated as the government has been unable to ban it completely.

Another example of a knee-jerk and cosmetic measure to lowering smog levels is expecting brick kilns to convert to zigzag technology overnight. During the last few years, the Punjab government has cracked down on kilns not converting to the new technology. Is the government helping out the kilns to make the transition in some way? Have they been given a realistic timeframe to phase out old operating systems?

To top it all, we are still unaware if we have a sufficient number of air quality monitors. And that reflects adequately on why we have a lot of room to show our commitment and action of limiting industrial and vehicular emissions.

The seriousness of the government is visible only on paper. The Punjab Local Government Act 2019 directs municipal authorities and waste management companies to ensure water sprinkling on roads, streets and construction sites producing dust. The PDMA allows only zigzag technology-led brick kilns to operate in the province. The Lahore High Court (LHC) has ordered a fine of Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 on people caught in the act of stubble burning.

This is in sharp contrast to the government’s ‘five-pronged’ strategy to reduce smog in the air during October and November. The plan includes massive plantation campaigns, reducing vehicular smoke, stopping stubble burning, reducing industrial emissions, and limiting thermal power plants. But how will that be achieved without timely actions by the authorities concerned?

Our commitment for a clean environment shows in the fact that we have even not been able to stop waste burning at various spots in the city, especially in the outskirts, and remove pressure horns from buses and trucks. So the problem seems to be lying more in the implementation and commitment part than in the planning part. Every year, during this time of the year, the government does its duty by announcing a set of policies to fight smog. Little is done on the ground to actually fight smog, which is disturbing.

Another way to fight smog and breathe fresh air could be to plan for urban forests in major cities where vehicular and industrial pollution have destroyed fresh air, such as at different locations in Karachi.

Some fifty acres of Lyari riverbed in Keamari, Karachi have been turned into an urban forest planted with thousands of native trees. Launched early this year, the project, implemented by the forest department, has so far grown about 73,500 trees.

That model should be replicated in other cities. We should be able to learn from other countries, too, which have cleaned their environment by adopting new and simple technologies which do not require huge capital but the commitment to achieve results.

A result-oriented unending commitment and action plan is required from the federal and provincial governments, instead of the routine and mechanical approach, such as imposing Section 144 across the province during these months.

While we South Asian people don’t care if the ozone layer is damaged by the pollution that we create although it concerns us directly, we should at least be mindful of the immediate challenge smog poses to our health. There should be no harm in India and Pakistan listening to each other on the issue of smog for the benefit of millions of people.

The writer is a staff member Email: