Can smog be far behind?

October 18, 2020

The phenomenon of smog has become a regular feature — the fifth season, so to say — of the Punjab, and acts as a very unwelcome harbinger of winters

Research has uncovered links between exposure to air pollution and the risk of Covid-19 mortality. Simply put, poor air quality diminishes immunity and increases risk of exposure to coronavirus. — Photos by Rahat Dar

Last year, the Air Quality Index (AQI) ranked Lahore’s air quality as the second worst in the world in terms of health risks posed by the ambient air pollution. Parts of Lahore scored as high as 454 on an index of 500, second only to New Delhi, India. The phenomenon of smog has become a regular fifth season in the Punjab, acting as a very unwelcome harbinger of winters.

For a number of years now, the month of October heralds in a period of increasing respiratory illnesses and eye diseases, accompanied with a thick, acrid odour of burnt garbage in the air. But that is not all, for air pollution brings with it particulate matter (PM) — microscopic particles of pollution that can end up causing long-term, permanent health damage, even fatalities.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) research clearly indicates the impacts of short-term exposure to PM10 on respiratory health, including deficits in lung function, reduced lung development in children and a host of other illnesses. In terms of mortality, especially due to long-term exposure, PM2.5 is a stronger risk factor, most adversely impacting populations with pre-existing lung or heart disease, the elderly, and children. The exposure (to bad air) is ubiquitous and involuntary, increasing the significance of smog and air pollution on public health. There is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.

Around the world, increasing air pollution in pre-Covid days was combated by shutting down schools, encouraging the public to wear N95 masks and restricting the operation of vehicles and industries emitting air pollution. A growing body of research has uncovered links between exposure to air pollution and the risk of Covid-19 mortality. Simply put, poor air quality diminishes immunity, increases risk of exposure to coronavirus, and may result in severe symptoms which can tip the scale away from recovery.

The emergence of smog as a new phenomenon, particularly in and around Lahore, has been attributed to everything from burning crop remnants to wind vortices to poor quality fuel being consumed by vehicles. Indeed, the provincial government’s Environment Protection Department (EPD) vacillates between closing brick kilns using “old technology,” banning stubble burning and tightening the noose around small industrial and semi-industrial units.

The consensus seems to be that smog or air pollution is a seasonal issue caused by massive crop-burning across the border in India. This explanation, however, cannot be lent much credence, considering that the air quality in Lahore is generally poor throughout the year.

Historically, notable smog events have been accompanied by a temperature inversion — a phenomenon that is akin to a ‘lid’ trapping pollutants close to the surface of the earth. An inversion generally occurs when air adjacent to the earth cools rapidly, becoming cooler than the overlying warm air. This usually happens in cool weather, especially in the early mornings and late nights.

Although meteorological conditions do cause air pollution to build up, it is ultimately human activities that are the culprit behind excessive pollutant emissions. Research conducted by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) on the sectoral emission inventory of the Punjab showed that the major portion of total air pollutants are emitted by the transport sector (43 percent), followed by industry (25 percent), and agriculture (20 per cent).

A report by the World Bank identified main sources of air pollution in Pakistan as heavy-duty vehicles and motorised 2–3 wheelers; followed by power plants and waste-burning. The report analysed a partial inventory of emission sources (using available data) to highlight that the transport sector alone is responsible for a whopping 85 percent of particulate matter emissions of potentially carcinogenic and lethal PM2.5 and PM10 particulate matter.

The exposure (to bad air) is ubiquitous and involuntary, increasing the significance of smog and air pollution for public health. There is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.

According to the UNDP, Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia. It is estimated that nearly half of the country’s residents will live in cities by 2025. With urban centres in Pakistan continuing to swell with people, traffic, and industrial and commercial activities, the air quality is likely to deteriorate further in years to come.

The increasing dependence on cheap but inefficient and highly polluting fuels, including coal, is worsening the air quality around the world, particularly in developing countries.

It is estimated that the number of vehicles in Pakistan has increased by around fivefold in the past 20 years alone. The number of two-stroke engine vehicles has grown more than tenfold, and emissions from large industries and power generation have also increased. The situation is compounded by a combination of weak environmental legislation and inefficient implementation of global emission standards — one example of this is that the EPDs have no say in vehicle emissions; it has been deferred to the Petroleum Division.

The Global Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch analyses global extreme weather events and their socio-economic impact. The 2020 Index ranks Pakistan as the “5th most vulnerable country to climate change.” Among growing climate challenges, air quality is emerging as a formidable new foe — one that is largely misunderstood. The general assumption appears to be that until visibility is greatly diminished, the eyes and throat are irritated, and you can wipe off pollutant particles from you face; the air is just fine.

Moreover, declining government attention to air quality management results in a paucity of reliable data, further hinders effective policy interventions to tackle air pollution.

Strategic interventions on air quality control should start with an emphasis by the Health and Environment Departments on reducing levels of pollutants linked to high morbidity and mortality — PM2.5, PM10, sulfur oxides [SOx] and nitrogen oxides [NOx] — in collaboration with the Petroleum Division. This includes improving fuel quality, enforcing vehicle emission standards particularly on heavy vehicles, and promotion of battery electric vehicles in the country.

The Punjab government should also assign resources to develop an inventory of mobile, industrial and stationary sources of air pollution. Reliable air quality data must be made a provincial and national priority to understand the sources, transport, dispersion, and fate of air pollutants. Restrictions on burning solid waste, stubble, and ensuring control of emissions from brick kilns and industry already exist, but must be enforced.

In terms of legislation, the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) need to be realistically revised in view of attainable goals under the conditions that currently exist in Pakistan. Both industries and municipalities must be given incentives to reduce both the concentrations and masses of air pollutant emission, the provisions for which are there in the Pakistan Environment Protection Act.

Pakistan’s sectors with significant climate change mitigation and air pollution control co-benefits are energy, transport, and agriculture. Finally, national and provincial frameworks for air quality monitoring must be strengthened in order to take a solid step towards eliminating the nation’s severe urban air pollution problem. Institutional strengthening at both federal and provincial levels, and effective coordination and liaison among stakeholders from climate, energy and health must be prioritiaed so that future generations are not left gasping for air.

The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan

Can smog be far behind?