A video is doing the rounds on the social media of Lahore during a lockdown. It shows historical buildings, parks, roads and clear blue skies, which are usually blanketed by thick smog and dust all the time except after heavy rains. Like most of the world, big cities in Pakistan are breathing in the fresh air after unexpected relief from pollution in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns.
Until recently, Lahore was one of most polluted cities of the world. Its toxic smog and dust not only blurred its beauty, but also posed serious health hazards to its population. However, it appears to be rehabilitating from years of choking air pollution. With most factories shut and unnecessary movement of people stopped to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it seems the provincial capital is finally making a recovery on the Air Quality Index (AQI). The city’s AQI has improved significantly since the government has limited economic activity and traffic. Its AQI readings vary between 18 and 65 which are far below the hazardous range it has crossed several times in the past. During the summer, the city routinely crosses the pollution red line, with AQI readings higher than 300, which is very unhealthy and hazardous for humans.
Besides factories which emit toxic fumes, Lahore also suffers due to vehicular traffic. According to the Punjab Environment Department, the emission of toxic fumes from vehicles accounts for 43pc of pollution in the city. Rapid industrialisation, tree felling, and increased crop burning and coal plant emissions from neighbouring India are other factors contributing to the elevated levels of pollution in the second largest city in Pakistan, which is home to more than 11 million people.
In November last year, Amnesty International issued an “urgent action” warning for hazardous smog in the Punjab’s capital, saying every resident of the city was at risk due to the poor air quality. The unprecedented step aimed at mobilising supporters around the world to campaign on behalf of Lahore’s population to seek relief from the authorities. “The government’s inadequate response to smog in Lahore raises significant human rights concerns. The hazardous air is putting everyone’s right to health at risk. The issue is so serious that we are calling on our members around the world to write to the Pakistani authorities to tell them to stop downplaying the crisis and take urgent action to protect people’s health and lives,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International. The organisation noted that for one in every two days in November, the air quality in Lahore was classified as “hazardous” by air quality monitors installed by the United States Consulate and the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative. The situation forced the provincial government to shut schools three times in the month.
The situation in Karachi and other big cities is not much different from that of Lahore. In 2019, Pakistan ranked second most polluted country in the world. It is the sixth most populous country in the world with 36.4pc of its population living in urban areas. The country also has the highest urbanisation rate in South Asia. As a result, population density has increased and it has negatively impacted air quality, particularly in the country’s urban regions. According to the World Air Quality Report 2019, several cities in Pakistan, including Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Faisalabad, ranked prominently among the most polluted cities in the world.
Air pollution has the highest contribution to the environmental burden of disease in Pakistan and is responsible for nearly 22pc of premature deaths in the country. The World Bank estimates that 9pc of the country’s annual deaths are because of air pollution. The loss equivalent to 2pc and 2.5pc of GDP annually in 2016, was accounted for the costs of illnesses and premature deaths from ambient air pollution and household air pollution respectively. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from a high level of fine particulate matter in the air in 2015, making it the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution.
However, lockdowns in Pakistan have come as a blessing in disguise for the people. They are no longer complaining about the shortness of breath, stinging eyes, and nausea from thick, acrid smog. In fact, the pandemic and lockdowns have transformed the whole world. Restrictions on travel and industry have resulted in unprecedented reductions in deadly air pollution around the world. Researchers from IQAir, a global air quality information and tech company, saw significant improvements in air quality in major cities of the world.
The study compared levels of harmful microscopic particulate matter known as PM 2.5. The pollutant, which is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, is considered particularly dangerous as it can lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs and the bloodstream, causing serious health risks. Seven out of the 10 cities studied, including New Delhi, Seoul, Wuhan and Mumbai, saw significant improvements in air quality. Those with historically higher levels of PM2.5 pollution witnessed the most substantial drops in pollution. The Indian capital New Delhi, which frequently tops the world’s most polluted city lists, saw a 60pc reduction in PM2.5 levels from March 23 to April 13 from the same period in 2019.
Both New Delhi and the country’s commercial centre Mumbai experienced their best March air quality on record in 2020. During the initial three-week lockdown period, the number of hours rated as “unhealthy” in New Delhi dropped from 68pc in 2019 to 17pc in 2020. The South Korean capital Seoul saw a 54pc drop in PM2.5 levels from February 26 to March 18 from the previous year. And the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the deadly virus was first identified, saw a 44pc reduction in air pollution levels from February 26 to March 18 from the same period last year. Elsewhere, other major cities experienced cleaner air. Los Angeles saw its longest stretch of clean air on record, over 18 days from March 7 to 28. PM2.5 concentration levels were down by 31pc from the same time last year, and down 51pc from the average of the previous four years. In Europe, London and Madrid both experienced reductions in their PM2.5 compared to 2019 during their lockdown periods.
Despite the benefits, lockdowns cannot remain in place for months and years. However, lessons can be learnt from the situation to minimize pollution in the future. The environment remains one of the most important issues on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s agenda. On his orders, Lahore recently conducted a survey to determine the sources that contribute to pollution. It is hoped he will take practical measure to improve the situation in the country.