The writer is an
analyst and the
President of All
The United Nations passed a significant resolution to declare access to a healthy environment – including clean and breathable air – a human right. Children are predominantly susceptible to these detrimental consequences. A study reporting the long-term effects of the Great London Smog of 1952 concluded that exposure to smog during the first year of life increased the risk of childhood asthma by 19·87%. This was prompted by the growing concern of rapidly increasing air pollution because of the increasing use of vehicles, industrial development, burning of fuels, and lack of implementation of strict laws and regulations particularly in developing countries. The growing air pollution across the world is a grave concern for public health as about seven million people die prematurely each year. Around 7 million people per year die from air pollution worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.2 million of which are due to exposure to ambient air pollution. In addition, 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits for pollutants, with low-and middle-income countries suffering the most, including Pakistan. Lahore, the second-largest and most polluted city in Pakistan, has been plagued by a heavy blanket of smog recently. On average, the persistent smog smog reduces the average lifespan of Lahore’s citizens by 2.7 years. The ever-growing urbanization and industrialization have contributed to the worsening air quality of the city. Smog, being hazardous to health, is leading to a rapid sprout in multiple health-related problems, as well as raising concerns about the long-term deleterious effects on public health. The current situation is expected to worsen due to the lack of an active action plan from the government’s side and a failure of concerned authorities to take note of the urgency of the situation. Hence, this pressing issue alerts the relevant authorities regarding the detrimental consequences smog can have on public health and urges them to take immediate action to avoid further damage. Over the past few years, Lahore has gone from being the ‘city of gardens’ to one of the most polluted cities in the world. Each winter it grapples with the menace of smog – a mixture of ‘fog’ and ‘smoke’ usually emanating from vehicular and factory emissions, and burning of fossil fuels, and is highly unhealthy for all living beings. Yet, despite its expected occurrence, the government has failed to take timely measures to control and mitigate smog and its hazardous impact on the health of citizens. Furthermore, the fact that only around 1% of the country’s industrial establishments report their emissions raises distressing concerns over the neglected air quality of the city and its effect on public health. Given the damage that smog can incur, it is imperative that prudent measures be undertaken to improve air quality. Most environmental regulatory organizations fall behind due to the lack of specialized equipment, standardized protocols, trained personnel, and funds. According to a 2021 report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), vehicular emissions contribute the most at 43 percent, followed by industrial emissions at 25 percent, agricultural emissions, particularly from burning of crops during harvest season in winter at 20 percent, and burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal to generate power at 12 percent. The higher percentage of vehicular emissions is three-fold. First, in light of a weak and limited public transport system, privately owned cars and motorcycles constitute the majority of the traffic on the road, with motorcycles comprising about 74 percent of the total number of registered vehicles as of 2018. Second, motorcycles and autorickshaws, contributing a significant share of on-road traffic in Pakistan, have incredibly inefficient engines, thus producing a higher degree of emissions. Third, the fuel Pakistan uses falls under the Euro 2 category of the European Union standards, a significantly lower-quality fuel compared to the Euro 6 category adopted by high-income countries. Although the governments have made attempts to switch to a more environmentally friendly fuel, this is yet to happen. Failure to regulate and control these emissions results in an unhealthy increase in smoke and poisonous gases which combine with fog during winter months, resulting in hazardous smog. According to World Health Organisation (WHO)’s guidelines, the cut-off for long-term fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) is 25 μg/m3. However, Pakistan’s average PM2.5 is significantly higher than the acceptable figure. This is a failure of not only EPA but also the policymakers as well, who badly fail in the Implementation. Instead of long-term sustainable measures, the government often resorts to ‘panic responses’ near or during winter months to counter the prevailing smog; an effort often seen as too little too late. Furthermore, despite the existence of laws and regulations for pollution control and waste management, the government has often failed to effectively implement these policies.
The government could start by allocating appropriate funds for monitoring and reducing harmful emissions, carrying out nationwide afforestation programs, and switching to renewable resources. Considering the bleak outlook that the current situation portrays, the need of the hour is establishing a stringent action plan to prevent adverse outcomes on public health and reduce the economic burden on the health sector of the country.
Smog continues to be an issue of grave public health concern for the citizens of Lahore. Despite existing legal frameworks, the inability of the government to effectively implement laws and policies to regulate smoke emissions from a variety of sources has exacerbated air pollution, especially in big cities in the previous years. Each year near winter, the government ‘cracks down’ against brick kilns, industries, and vehicles emitting excessive smoke by imposing hefty fines. However, this is often seen as an ineffective measure that fails to address the root cause of the issue. Oftentimes, many industry owners go undetected or continue emitting hazardous smoke after paying the fines. Furthermore, farmers lament the crop burning ban, a relatively cheaper method to clear the field as opposed to adopting expensive but more environment-friendly technologies. In a 2019 survey, almost 40% of the farmers opposed the ban simply because they were unable to afford alternative methods, arguing that they would welcome the ban if the government provided subsidies and support in acquiring and incorporating other environment-friendly technologies in agriculture practices. In 2017, the Environment Protection Department of the Punjab Government issued policies to control smog. First, the adoption of low Sulphur fuel which has proven to be more environmentally friendly was proposed. However, the government admitted that while this policy was first suggested in 2008, its implementation is annually postponed. On the part of the government, this means having to devise new contracts with international suppliers, such as Kuwaiti Petroleum, for supply for low sulphur fuel. Furthermore, the local oil refineries have shown reluctance in agreeing to switch from low to high sulphur fuel as this would require heavy investments to upgrade their existing facilities; a step seen as unfavorable due to economies of scale. This also requires the government to introduce better incentives to push oil refineries to make the shift. Second, efforts to ensure catalytic converters are operational in all vehicles were also proposed. However, this required the provincial government to liaise with the federal government to import required parts; a task subjected to administrative lags and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Third, revamping government efforts to effectively manage solid waste management, ban crop burning whilst introducing alternative, environment-friendly technologies, and fine industries and brick kilns emanating excessive pollution. Among the broader aims were effective management of urban development to ensure industries are built away from residential areas and build government capacity to monitor air pollution.
The government needs a National Action Plan with effective reforms to address the administrative and bureaucratic challenges that may impede effective implementation. Furthermore, the government needs to focus on establishing new cities despite metropolitan cities and new housing societies in metropolitan cities. There is also a need of long-term goals of building an effective and sustainable public transport system for all citizens to ease pressure off of the roads occupied by private vehicles. Similarly, the government needs to ensure that industries are not built alongside residential areas, and existing industries are either moved elsewhere in the long term or monitored to ensure that they effectively manage their air emissions. To achieve this, the government could also liaise with the industries to ensure they have access to the latest and environment-friendly technologies. In addition, the government also needs to revamp the agriculture sector of Pakistan which still relies on primitive farming methods, and provide the support required to introduce more environment-friendly technologies in the agricultural operations. In essence, the provincial government alone cannot be expected to achieve these long-term goals, and therefore, the federal government must also step in to play its part in controlling smog to ensure a better and healthier environment for its citizens. The relevant bodies need to actively handle the smog weather before its arrival and there is a need to create awareness in the general public because usually, people misunderstand smog as fog. Lesson learned and solutions provided by WHO which are adopted by various countries in order to combat air pollution include:
Investment in energy-efficient power generation. Improving domestic, industry, and municipal waste management and reducing agricultural waste incineration, forest fires, and certain agro-forestry activities are important. Making greener and more compact cities with energy-efficient buildings, and providing universal access to clean, affordable fuels and technologies for cooking, heating, and lighting are also very effective. By building safe and affordable public transport systems and cycle-friendly networks the success of resolving the issue is high. Additionally, there are also certain artificial yet technical measures to contest smog which are: Gas to liquid technology in fuel which is more environment friendly; Usage of hydrogen fuels additive which can reduce the emission of pollutants
Usage of photo-catalytic materials which can remove the pollutants from the air in the presence of sunlight; and air purification like smog-free towers which can suck the pollutants from the air and emit clean air into the atmosphere. The government could start by allocating appropriate funds for monitoring and reducing harmful emissions, carrying out nationwide afforestation programs, and switching to renewable resources. Considering the bleak outlook that the current situation portrays, the need of the hour is establishing a stringent action plan to prevent adverse outcomes on public health and reduce the economic burden on the health sector of the country. The public needs to be made aware of the possible health issues that can be encountered during this environmental hazard and educated on ways they can protect themselves and prevent exacerbations of pre-existing medical conditions. Public service messages on television, radio, and the Internet, along with the distribution of educational pamphlets and brochures can be a few of the effective steps for ensuring this. Whereas, All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) also issued advisories and guidelines for Schools and civil societies as precautionary measures against smog we can follow: Wear a mask and run an air-purifier; Avoid being outside near high-traffic areas to reduce your exposure; Take rest breaks in the shade and drink plenty of water when you’re outside; Avoid doing intense outdoor work; Avoid driving and smoking to reduce your carbon output; Close windows and other air inlets when indoors. If you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, have your inhaler with you at all times; Keep your doctor’s number handy in case your illness worsens. It is important to note that pollution affects everyone differently, and some people are more vulnerable to its detrimental effects. On smoggy days, persons with asthma, children, and the elderly should take extra precautions. Bicyclists must cover their faces and wear glasses to protect their eyes. Drink plenty of water and constantly wash your hands. Avoid crowded areas where you can be caught in traffic if you have breathing problems and need to travel on foggy days. Road junctions can be a hive of exhaust pollutants, so keep your windows closed. Avoid airports, seaports, and industrial locations as well. If you are walking or cycling to work, choose a route that avoids densely populated or crowded areas. Reduce your own emissions as much as possible. Avoid needless car trips in cities, and don’t leave your engine running for long periods of time outside your house on cold days or when stuck in traffic. Due to these harmful emissions, notably transboundary air pollution, air quality is declining day by day in cities. As a result, big cities like Lahore and Karachi, etc, are the most polluted cities in the world, and the smog layer will thicken in the upcoming days. Therefore, in order to reduce smog, immediate action must be taken to address this issue. Both public and private institutions should adopt policies to reduce pollution from sources, particularly the emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. There is a need to fight this environmental issue to save future generations and for a safer future.