For Punjab, and specially Lahore, smog is now a permanent menace. It is a yearly visitor during the early winter months, but this year it has returned with increased vengeance.
Smog occurs when smoke mixes with fog. Smog is a form of air pollution that collects in the air generally during winter. The major contribution to smog includes 43 per cent pollution from the transport sector, 25 per cent from industrial emissions and 20 percent from solid waste burning.
The provincial capital has been ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world by the US Air Quality Index (AQI). Over the past few weeks AQI in Lahore has been as high as over 500 AQI. At 397 AQI, pollution concentration is 34.8 times higher than the annual air quality value set by the World Health Organisation. This is what environmentalists call “hazardous” and “extremely hazardous” at individual points.” Lahore regularly ranks among the worst cities in the world for air pollution — a mixture of low-grade diesel fumes, smoke from seasonal crop burnings and colder winter temperatures coalescing into stagnant clouds. While stubble burning is the main cause of pollution in the rural areas, burning trash and plastics in cities is equally hazardous, as it causes coughing, wheezing and lung complications. Even in some of the so-called posh localities, the practice of burning trash and plastics goes on unchecked.
Since 2014, every year from October to January, Lahore remains in the grip of smog. Owing to the high level of environmental pollution in the city, there has been a dangerous rise in the cases of respiratory diseases and throat and eye infections. As a safety measure, medical experts have advised citizens to avoid unnecessary visits to open spaces and use facemasks and eyewear. Windowpanes of houses should remain closed to minimise the impact of air contamination.
A series of measures have been taken to fight the rising threat of smog. The government has set up special smog committees at the district level while the establishment of smog squads has been ensured in all departments. Brick kilns and industrial units are being monitored on a daily basis, in addition to sealing polluting industrial establishments, fines are also being imposed. A pilot project in collaboration with the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) has been initiated in Lahore to develop different types of environmental models to address the root causes of pollution.
The Punjab government has directed private sector companies to operate with 50% attendance till further notice as authorities take steps to deal with a worsening smog situation. A ban has been imposed on several activities, including the burning of any type of crop residue, vehicles emitting visible smoke and pollutants, industries working without emission control systems and contributing to the deterioration in the Air Quality Index, burning of all types of solid waste, tyres, rubber, and plastics, and sale and use of all types of substandard fuels. The authorities will also reduce by 50 percent the use of all official vehicles plying roads from November 25, 2021, to January 15, 2022. In accordance with the Lahore High Court’s ruling, the Punjab government has also decided to impose heavy fines on individuals and companies responsible for exacerbating the smog situation.
It is relevant to add here that the UN and the World Bank have identified the transport sector as one of the biggest contributors to pollution in Punjab, followed by the industrial and agriculture sectors. The Punjab Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) had been directed to take steps to stop crop burning, but the practice continues unabated. To lower smog levels, the government had directed brick kilns to convert to zigzag technology three years ago. But no follow-up action was taken to ensure the conversion.
Beyond the emergency measures now taken, there is a need for a long-term strategy to improve the air quality of our cities. The strategy should include massive plantation campaigns, reducing vehicular smoke, stopping stubble burning, reducing industrial emissions, and limiting thermal power plants.
Another way to fight smog and breathe the fresh air could be to plan for urban forests in major cities where vehicular and industrial pollution has poisoned the environment beyond redemption. The Punjab Local Government Act 2019 directs municipal authorities and waste management companies to ensure water sprinkling on roads, streets and construction sites producing dust. But this directive is honoured more in the breach.
Over the last few years, creeping pollution has become a serious health hazard. It is time for the authorities concerned to wake up and initiate short- and long-term measures to save the citizens – and the economy — from the disaster looming ahead.