FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 07

Lahore’s breathing problem

People face breathing problems after pollution has increased in Lahore. The situation has aggravated despite measures taken by the government on court orders. Brick kilns have been closed and stubble burning banned in the province but smoke from vehicular traffic and factories is enough to make the provincial capital one the most polluted cities in the world.

It has been weeks since the sun has shone brightly in Lahore. It has been blanketed by a thick sheet of dust, which makes breathing difficult and full of risks. The Pakistani Punjab’s capital is competing with India’s New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. According to IQAir, a Switzerland-based real-time air quality information platform, Delhi was recently ranked the most polluted city in the world with an air quality index (AQI) of 719 while Lahore was ranked the second most polluted city with an AQI of 430. An AQI between 0 and 50 is considered good while anything over 300 is “hazardous” and requires an emergency response. When the AQI exceeds, health experts advise people to avoid outdoor activities and keep windows and doors closed. The US Embassy, which also monitors the air quality in major cities of Pakistan, placed the AQI at 623 for Lahore. After Lahore, the second most polluted Pakistani city was Faisalabad.

International organisations have warned that the air quality index in Pakistan, especially in big cities, will worsen in the coming weeks. Pollution inflicts damage worth a whopping $12.51 billion every year on the country. The depleting air quality has contributed to reducing the average age of Pakistani citizens by around 2.5 years. Experts say about 12pc smog is caused by burning of crop residue in India and 8pc in the Punjab, 43pc from vehicle smoke, 25pc from gas and fumes from factories and 20pc by burning waste. The World Air Quality Report 2019 ranked Pakistan as the second-most polluted country in the world, accounting for one of the highest concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air. The poor air quality accounts for some 113,500 deaths in Pakistan annually, or around nine per cent of all deaths recorded in the country annually.

Lahore’s toxic smog and dust not only blur its beauty, but also pose serious health hazards to its population. Its historical buildings, parks, roads and clear blue skies have been blanketed by thick smog and dust for weeks now. 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 industrialization, tree felling, and increased crop burning and coal plant emissions from neighboring 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 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.

People in Lahore are complaining about the shortness of breath, stinging eyes, and nausea from thick, acrid smog. 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 measures to improve the situation.