Air quality woes

Lack of effective policy implementation has given rise to serious air quality concerns

Air quality woes


hese days, our newsfeeds are inundated with press releases and news related to curbing smog in the Punjab. Various measures have been proposed to solve the problem but have produced no tangible results.

One of the reasons behind this perpetual issue is our limited understanding of the gravity of our air quality crisis, which only gets attention during the smog season. Air quality is a perennial problem that only becomes visible with the onset of winters.

The Air Quality Life Index 2023 provides a grim reminder that 98.3 percent of Pakistanis reside in areas that fail to meet the national air quality standard of 15 µg/ m3, positioning Pakistan as the fourth most polluted country.

Prolonged exposure to toxic pollutants, including PM2.5, has reduced the average life expectancy of Pakistanis by 3.9 years. For those living in Lahore, Sheikhupura, Kasur and Peshawar, their lives are shortened by almost seven years.

Exposure to toxic air warrants serious concern. High concentrations of PM2.5, comprising nitrates, sulphates, and black carbon, correlate with higher risk of lung and heart diseases.

The Country Climate and Development Report 2022 of the World Bank estimates that air pollution incurs an additional annual loss of 6.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP.

The Punjab government announced a three-day ‘smart’ lockdown in November to address the issue. Rainfall on the first day brought some respite and the air became breathable, albeit briefly for a few hours. After the slight improvement in AQI the government ended the smart lockdown.

Beginning with December, Fridays are public holidays, purportedly as an anti-smog measure. The government claims to have taken “proactive measures.” It has established an anti-smog cell and urged citizens to cooperate in combating smog and protecting communities. Recently, the caretaker Punjab chief minister has announced the formation of “high-powered environmental commission.”

Between 1998 and 2021, the average annual particulate pollution in Pakistan surged by 49 percent. The severe air pollution is an indictment of our development practices over the years. The hazardous levels of air pollution are a grim reminder that our development models are unsustainable and detrimental to the environment.

The development policies violate the National Clean Air Policy. For instance, the sectoral recommendations for transport advocate stringent fuel quality standards and, transitioning to Euro-6 by 2030. They also call for more mass transit systems to reduce dependence on personal vehicles. There is a proposal also for a taxation mechanism to discourage motorised transport in major cities.

Prolonged exposure to toxic pollutants, including PM2.5, has reduced the average life expectancy of Pakistanis by 3.9 years. For citizens in Lahore, Sheikhupura, Kasur and Peshawar, their lives are shortened by almost seven years. 

Let’s consider the case of Lahore to illustrate how the development policies are at cross purpose to the clean air policies. Lahore has a population of around 13 million. The air quality oscillates from unhealthy to hazardous throughout November. This isn’t an anomaly. This year, the city has had no clean air day (AQI less than 50).

All the city’s residents are passive smokers now. This includes children, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals. Everybody is breathing air that is hazardous.

The air pollution is caused by vehicular emissions, industrial waste, burning of crop residues and construction activities etc. The relentless chopping down of trees for “development” and uncontrolled urban sprawl also cause air pollution.

The unregulated urban sprawl has transpired under the watch of government officials who glorify underpasses and flyovers as “symbols of progress.”

The ideal “modern” cities for our administration are those with uninterrupted flow of traffic. The narratives of progress by the administrators needs to be questioned. Their approach to city planning overlooks the need for an efficient urban transport system, resulting in an estimated yearly cost of 4 to 6 per cent of the GDP due to an inefficient urban transport sector.

The Punjab government appears keen on green posturing. It organises smog awareness activities every year.

A Green Cycling Lanes on The Mall from Istanbul Chowk to the Lahore Branch Canal was recently inaugurated. Another cycling lane is going to be created in Gulberg, from MM Alam Road and Noor Jahan Road to Liberty Chowk. According to the Lahore Development Authority, this eco-friendly cycling lane in the upscale neighbourhood is a “sustainable solution to Lahore’s transportation challenges.” To promote cycling, the Punjab Information Technology Board, has prepared a Cycle Culture application. It nudges citizens to take up cycling. However, the messaging is directed only at prosperous neighbourhoods.

Recently, roads around the Quaid-i-Azam Industrial Estate near Kot Lakhpat were repaired. There is no space left for a footpath even though this is a factory area where many cycle and walk to work every day.

The policy measures and development practices in Pakistan are inadequate, ineffective and inefficient. What we need is concerted action by concerned citizens to evaluate the efficacy of existing air pollution reduction policies. It is time for urgent, holistic action to confront and combat Pakistan’s air quality crisis.

Maleeha Sattar teaches at the Department of Government and Global Studies at ITU, Lahore. She can be reached at @malyhaz

Air quality woes