Deadly seasonal blooms of air pollution
Since 2016, Lahore’s smog issue has only been getting worse. Every year since the beginning of autumn, a thick blanket of acrid smoke and haze can be seen enveloping the city like a shroud, suffocating people, causing serious health problems, and of course visibility issues. This then leads to persistent winter fog with air pollution. What can be done to change these seasons for good?
As the weather begins to change around October every year, the number of people visiting doctors instantly starts rising. The landmark 2016 haze event in Lahore has been a harbinger of such events which are now occurring every autumn and fall season heavily affecting North Eastern Pakistan. A recent scientific study titled, “Analysis of a dense haze event over North-eastern Pakistan using WRF-Chem model and remote sensing” published at the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar Terrestrial Physics (M.Z. Shahid, I. Shahid, F. Chishtie, M. I. Shahzad, G. Bulbul) studied the 2016 haze event in scientific detail (for details see link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364682618303559). The methodology involves utilizing satellite observations, modeling and ground observations, and the main findings were that particulate matter concentrations, and concentration of pollutant gaseous components increased many folds than normal levels during this event. Via satellite based observations, it was also revealed that vertical layers of pollutant aerosols of thickness ranged from 2 to 5 km in North East Pakistan indicating the deadly levels of pollutants engulfing the atmosphere in this region.
Indeed, after the fateful 2016 event, life for many has changed dramatically especially with respect to health. “At first I used to get a simple allergy – a few sneezes, or a cough that would fade away in some days,” says Mahnoor Ahmed, a school teacher. “But now I can tell it’s far worse than that. Now I am down almost every year at the same time, with an awful chest infection, a sinus issue that is prolonged, eczema and eye irritation.”
It sounds farfetched – all of the same happening to one person. But Mahnoor is not the only one who has suffered all these symptoms.
College student Ali Malik has been suffering from fever, a cough and a cold too, and because he rides a bike, he has also suffered from eye infections.
Faisal, an executive has had a chronic chest problem, and since the weather turned, his cough has not gone, despite all the medications he has been using.
“It keeps coming back, because of all the irritants in the air,” he remarks.
The truth is, that the health of the public has been badly affected.
Lahore being the busiest city has suffered the most, but places like Faisalabad have also seen bad days.
On one of the early January mornings, while the Lahore air Quality Index (AQI) read a dismal reading of 153 through privately owned Air Visual monitors, in Faisalabad the readings through the same Air Visual monitors was 340 – extremely hazardous. The PM 2.5 in Lahore was 60 micrograms/cubic meter – gone down considerably because of the rains, but in Faisalabad it was a startling 290 micrograms per cubic meter.
On a normal day in Lahore for example, the AQI is as high as 200 to 300. According to the world standards, this means the air is unhealthy to breathe in, a mask is needed, and outdoor activity should be avoided. Meanwhile PM2.5 which is the smallest measured particulate matter in the air, and which is breathed in directly into the bloodstream, is also dangerously high.
Where ill health is concerned, one merely needs to visit the city in order to find out how many people are sick. Or to narrow the search, a visit to the nearest clinic or state hospital will show the number of patients – especially children and other vulnerable people – who have come in with respiratory illness, and other problems arising thanks to the smog.
Then there are the accidents that take place thanks to low visibility.
Lahore’s smog has been known to reduce visibility to up to 20 to 25 meters often resulting in fatal accidents. It is relatively unknown but smog has indeed been claiming lives – some through traffic accidents, others through severe health problems. (In a 2014 study by the World Bank, the organization claims that 22,000 people die every year on average because of air pollution related issues.)
According to WHO (World Health Organization) at least three million deaths a year occur because of smog – both directly and indirectly. But deaths also occur because of indoor air pollution –mostly stoves that burn using coal as fuel – a common practice in the poor parts of the country.
The most recent figures by Health Effects Institute (HEI) shows that 207 deaths in every 100,000 people happen in Pakistan because of air pollution as a whole. On a list of 12 countries, Pakistan was second. The first was Afghanistan and the third India.
The HEI report shows that most of the world’s population in fact lives in areas where air quality is unhealthy. An estimated 95 percent live in areas where ambient (outdoor) fine particulate matter concentrations (small dust or soot particles in the air) exceed WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines. Almost 60 percent live in areas where fine particulate matter exceeds even the least stringent WHO interim air quality target of 35 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre).
Meanwhile, the Living Planet Report 2018 by WWF shows that Lahore has now reached the top ten list of the most polluted cities in the world.
With a yearly average of 68 µg/m3 of PM2.5, which corresponds to an AQI of 155 – Unhealthy – there are many reasons to be worried about the situation.
Smog and then persistent winter chemical fog – a historical problem!
The London smog is infamous in history, and took place during the Victorian era, after the usage of coal increased drastically. Even though motor cars did not come then, the situation was so bad that visibility was often zero and it was described as being blind.
“It was not surprising that often blind people found their way home in that time, and even helped others,” says Dr Christine Corton, researcher on the London ‘fog’. “The fog was so bad that people could not see their own feet, and that they could easily get lost.
London was being hit by deadly toxic gases and irritants in the air. Because the marshy area and outer regions of London which were empty, were often seen with a silvery winter fog, a beautiful and romantic sight especially used in novels and poems, this greenish yellow air too seemed to be of the same kind to the general public – until its effects kicked in. Several people fell ill.
Like London, Lahore too – landlocked on all sides – gets a winter fog every year, especially in the early hours of the morning. But two years ago in 2016 the ‘fog came early’ – in autumn and people were confused if winter was early this year and if they should bring out their jackets.
The answer soon came to them as a blow: while the motorway was blocked, and flights were delayed, health problems suddenly started to rise.
Almost within one week, hundreds were seen in the hospitals both public and private, with upper and lower respiratory illnesses, eye irritations, and skin allergies.
What brought international attention to the issue was the fact that a NASA image showed hotspots in the region, which were later discovered to be crop stubble burning. The situation persisted until the rain came, and washed away the smoke and dust.
Simply put smoke and fog makes smog, but what really comprises this toxic air is a mixture of sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO) – all highly noxious gases – airborne particulate matter such as soot, construction material, etc and carcinogens.
It generally occurs in the lower part of the atmosphere, less than 5 km above the ground.
In normal circumstances, hot air remains at ground level, with the air turning cooler and cooler as altitude increases. However general in winters, a situation can occur, where temperature inversion occurs. Hot air is trapped underneath a cap of cold air not allowing the smoke and dust to disperse. Instead they sink downwards and stay there.
Effects of smog are almost immediate when it comes to humans.
Speaking of London, Dr Christine L Corton who has also authored a book “London Fog: The Biography”, speaks of times that most Lahoris can identify with. She says transport was suspended, and feelings of panic and anxiety increased. Dr Corton says November was a month known for its high suicide rate.
“Trains and bus services were suspended,” she says. “Even sports was affected as the audience could hardly see the game. Despite the romance attached to the fog by many impressionist writers, poets and painters, the fog ended up killing around 12,000 people once in just a matter of five to six days!”
The smog was primarily of coal fire and then in later years cars added to the problem. This situation remained until the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956.
Dr Khuzaima Arsalan can vouch for the increase in patients as soon as smog increases.
“The first people to be affected by this are both children and the elderly,” he says. “Its common to come down with flu like symptoms, throat irritation, chest infections, eye irritation – but if they already have allergies like asthma or hypertension or sensitive skin the factors may aggravate.”
At the same time pregnant women are likely to also pass on irritants and noxious gases to their baby, particularly particulate matter. “Fetal malnutrition and stunted growth can result in extreme cases, says the doctor.
The worst of the gases is Ozone (O3) a colourless and odourless gas, known for its role in protecting the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays. Where it is needed, it is being slowly destroyed by chemical and poisonous gases.
But in the Earth’s lower atmosphere, near ground level, ozone is formed when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources react chemically in the presence of sunlight – here it negatively affects the health of people who breathe it.
It can for instance irritate the respiratory system, with coughing, throat irritation, as symptoms; reduce lung function (the volume of air that you draw in when you take a full breath and the speed at which you are able to blow it out); it can aggravate asthma, inflame and damage the lining of the lung, damage the cells that line the air spaces in the lung.
Experts believe that repeated short-term damage from ozone exposure may permanently injure the lung. For example, repeated ozone impacts on the developing lungs of children may lead to reduced lung function as adults. Also, ozone exposure may speed up the decline in lung function that occurs as a natural result of the aging process.
The measure of the air quality or the AQI is a cumulative index which includes the level of Ozone, particulate matter concentrations along with other pollutants in the air. When smog forms, several other dangerous gases add to this including dioxides of Sulphur and nitrogen, and carbon monoxide.
“The very first thing that I would like to say is that the problem we are facing is that of bad air quality,” says Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, and activist. “We are faced with bad air quality all year round, not just in the winters. Smog is only a projection of this situation.”
Alam also adds that the problem is not just restricted to Lahore only. It is a nationwide issue but because Lahore is a landlocked area, like Peshawer it faces the brunt of the matter.
One of the biggest issues that Pakistan faces in the Punjab region, is what is called trans-boundary air pollution. This primarily points to exhaust fumes from coal factories and crop stubble burning coming to Punjab from India.
While the government chooses to blame the entire problem on India, environmental experts and activists face the situation more realistically, blaming a huge chunk of the problem on domestic causes.
For example when the smog first hit in 2016, it was pointed out that the construction of the Punjab Government’s Orange Line train in Lahore caused a large quantity of dust particles to be suspended in the air. This may have been true, but added to this was the problem of local factory owners using cheap fuel such as burning rubber and plastic to make do, in the absence of electricity. This is not to mention the gradual increase of vehicles in the city in fact across Punjab.
Overall climatic change did not exactly make things easier. Because of a change in temperature and overall weather pattern, since some years now, the winter rains or Western depressions have been delayed, pushing seasons forward. In 2018 for example there was no rain in the winters. The only rain came in the middle of January, almost two months too late.
In 2016, Lahore High Court took notice of the smog issue.
In 2017 again Lahore and parts of Punjab were faced with the same situation. An emergency smog commission was formed and a smog policy was adopted – however this policy never became part of an Act.
The recommendations which were approved by the court included adopting and enforcing European standards for vehicular emissions, mandating all new vehicles to carry catalytic converters (meaning challenging the vehicle manufacturers), and framing policy for phasing out old vehicles. Developing guidelines and formulating an air pollution index for shutting down of pollution-emitting industrial units, especially in case of smog; improved solid waste collection, mainly in congested urban centres; creation of woodlands around cities; and stabilization of road shoulders for control of dust were some of the other medium-term measures proposed. And long-term measures included announcement of deadlines beyond which no unit could be established outside the industrial estates and implementing a step-wise plan for shifting industrial units from residential areas. Schools were shut and everyone was told to stay indoors.
Meanwhile in 2018, the Environment Protection Department of Punjab (EPD) announced that ‘Punjab would be ‘closing down its 100,000 brick kilns for 70 days’ and that no arguments would be heeded. however although the original deadline for closure was October 20th, kiln owners raised a hue and cry and the date was pushed forward to November 3.
“We are giving them time to change, but those that will not, will be closed down,” said spokesperson and director EIA Naseemur Rehman. “It is a good omen that smog did not come for a long time, and came only for a few days unlike before.”
But the EPD’s ineptitude is known to many.
Environmentalist Aleem Butt, says that out of 11 proposed steps, only one has been completed.
“The only thing completed has been the agenda of planned urban and industrial development which meant that master land use plans for cities was to be prepared,” he says. Such plans were to indicate, the location of industrial zones and a dead line by which all industrial units located within urban areas to shift to such industrial zones. This says Aleem has been done successfully.
Introduction of low Sulphur fuels, installation of vehicular pollution control devices, better traffic management, building a capacity to forecast peaks in air pollution, creation of woodlands in and around cities (urban forests), and regional environmental agreements, have not even been started.
What may have been started off however are adopting Euro 2 standards for vehicles, control on open burning of waste and crop residue, controlling dust on roads, and the greening of industrial processes. However a lot more needs to be done.
Meanwhile by their own admission sources within the Government have said that there were several steps that should have been taken before but were not.
According to information recorded within the department, EPD’s position on 30th August, 2018 was grim. The most outstanding issues were as follows.
9 Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AQMS) were out of order /non-operational. No data was collected for last two years.
The District Environment Offices were almost made redundant and any useful monitoring and regulatory work was not being done.
EPA Field Laboratories were also made dysfunctional as neither provided necessary equipment, chemicals, glass-ware for carrying out monitoring and analysis of Environmental samples. Staff of Central laboratory was posted in other sections.
Smog has been the main issue during last three years. No effective measures were taken to control smoke emissions from industries, brick kilns, vehicles, burning crop residues and solid wastes.
After elections however EPD claims things started gaining momentum, especially because of the ruling party’s claim for a greener future. The Secretary Environment, Dr Zafar Nasrullah said that the following had been achieved during their first 100 days.
Three high level meetings were held under the chairmanship of Chief Minister, Punjab and two meetings were held under the chairmanship of Chief Secretary.
The Department is monitoring the Smog phenomenon by using satellite imagery through technical support of Met Department and SUPARCO.
Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AQMS) have been got revived. The AQMS installed at 3 sites of Lahore (MET Office, Township & near Wahga Border) and one AQMS each at Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Multan. Moreover, other Lab. Equipment namely Stack Emission Analyzers etc. have also been got functional.
Air Quality Index (AQI) is measured by EPA Labs. and daily updated on Department Web Site and Mobile Phone App. for information of general public and stakeholders.
Due to effective anti-smog measures, AQI has remained below safe limits of 300 i.e., mostly around the range of 100 – 150
Health related Smog cases reported by Health Department are also very negligible during the year 2018.
Meetings were arranged with major Industrial Associations including Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Steel Mill Associations, All Pakistan Brick Kiln Owners Association, Cement Factories, Sugar Mills Association, in order to formulate policy for compliance of Punjab Environmental Quality Standards.
Scrubbers and other Emission Control Devices have been installed in about 70% steel furnaces of Sheikhupura. Similar devices are being installed in the factories of Lahore, Gujranwala and other districts of the Province. Strict actions are being taken against violators under the Punjab Environmental Protection Act, 1997 (Amended 2012). 3201 Notices have been issued to violators and 759 polluting factories were sealed. Similarly 4210 Notices were issued to smoke emitting brick kilns.
In collaboration with the All Pakistan Brick Kilns Owners Association (APBKOA), a new Zig zag Technology has been introduced and about 50 old technology BTK brick kilns have been converted to Zig-Zag technology. Keeping in view weather conditions, BTK Brick Kilns have been shut down during November and December, 2018 only in 11 districts falling in Red Zone (Lahore, Sheikhupura, Kasur, Okara, Sahiwal, Khanewal, Multan, Nankana Sb, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Narowal).
Construction of old technology conventional brick kilns has been banned in Punjab.
Loan facility is being arranged to accommodate the brick kiln owners for conversion of brick kilns to environment friendly Zig Zag Technology.
Technical guidance is also being provided to industrial associations for installation of wastewater treatment plants and emission control devices
Honorable Supreme Court was assisted in case of Cement Factories in Kahun Valley, Chakwal. Resultantly Air pollution was controlled
The major Companies involved in vehicle manufacturing and import have been directed to provide information regarding category, fuel, quantity, make, model, engine capacity, engine type and pollution control devices in order to ensure if the vehicles are Pak-II/ Euro-II compliant or otherwise and what is their CSR contribution towards Environmental protection.
First Provincial Hospital Waste Supervisory Committee meeting was conducted under the chairmanship of Secretary, EPD whereby a Sub Committee was notified to discuss the issues and requiring amendment in Punjab Hospital Waste Management Rules, 2014.
The Pakistan Environment Commission on Air & Water Pollution has been got constituted, under the chairmanship Dr. Parvez Hassan by Honorable Supreme Court’s order dated 11.10.2018. First meeting of the National Commission was held on 17.11.2018 with Secretary (Environment) and Director General, EPA Punjab in order to take steps for combating Air and Water pollution.
Working in line with political will of Chief Minister Punjab, legal action was initiated across the board against all those culprits involved in generating air and water pollution.
Regular meetings were held with District Officers Environment to improve their working by providing them Key Performance Indicator (KPI) and obtaining feed back on actions taken. EPA Punjab took following Anti-smog actions and checked air pollution control measures adopted by Industrial Units from July, 2018 to November, 2018.
144 Cr.P.C. was imposed by the Punjab Government on Stubble Burning, Solid Waste burning, Tyres and Plastic waste burning w.e.f. 1st October, 2018 up to 16th December, 2018.
More than 600 FIRs have been lodged against violators. Stubble burning was controlled in Punjab as compared to Indian Punjab.
Issue of Smog was taken up with Ministry of Foreign Affairs to request the Indian Government for similar actions to control this regional environmental issue.
984,744 trees have been planted with the efforts of EPD in the Province
18,860 smoke emitting vehicles have been challaned with the assistance of Traffic police and fine of an amount of Rs. 84,09323/- was imposed on these vehicles.
“We have also thought about our lined way forward,” claims Dr Nasrullah. “We will try our utmost to implement these plans so that the problem is solved.” He says that because of all these measures, AQI has remained below safe limits of 300 i.e., mostly around the range of 100 to 150, while less people have fallen sick this year. According to universal standards however 200 to 300 spell dangerous levels of AQI. The only accepted range is 0 to 100. Anything above that is unhealthy going towards hazardous.
Meanwhile EPD’s future plans include:
Implementation of recommendations of Pakistan Environment Commission on Air & Water Pollution constituted under the Honorable Supreme Court’s order dated 11.10.2018 passed in S.M.C. 03 of 2018 and H.R.C. No.6257-P of 2018.
Implementation of assignments under Clean & Green Pak
Air pollution control devices will be installed in all steel furnaces and other industries during the year 2019
An awareness campaign will be launched to convert all brick kilns to environment friendly Zig Zag Technology.
Industrialists will be motivated for the installation of wastewater treatment plants in their industries.
Transboundary Pollution and India
Two years after both India and Pakistan were badly affected by a sudden influx of smog, and NASA’s daily hotspot image showed the image of hotspots especially in Haryana, and both sides of the Punjab province, even now officials from the Government tend to fully blame India for passing on their exhaust to Pakistan. Even Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the PM on climate change, recently said, that they are concerned with the smog coming from ‘across the border’.
A senior official from the Meteorological Departmen said that more than 70 percent of the pollution comes from India. To measure the air quality the EPD has set up a monitor at the border.
Indian farmers began burning stubble in October. These are specifically those who are owners of small land holdings which means they generally belong to the lower socio-economic strata. It is the same in central Punjab. Land holdings are smaller than those found in South Punjab. The landowners in the south are more monetary power to find other methods to get rid of stubble, says policy expert Dawar N Butt. “This why there is more burning in the central areas of Punjab rather than south. But even then the burnings are sparse comparatively.”
“It is our habit to blame everything on India,” says Dawar. “Yes there is pollution coming from that side – depending on the wind direction. But with such dangerous levels of air quality, its time we look at ourselves and see what we are producing.”
However in India, despite threats of filing cases against violators, and even incentives in the form of subsidies for machines and equipment and awareness campaigns, farmers in the northern side in 2018 continued to opt for the quicker method of getting rid of the crop residue. Paddy is grown over 65 lakh acres in Punjab. After harvesting, over 20 million tonnes of paddy, straw is left in the fields to be managed by farmers before sowing the next rabi crops (wheat and others). It is estimated that 15 million tons of paddy straw is burnt by farmers for early and easy clearance of the fields. Punjab alone contributes 65 per cent of the total residue produced by the northwestern states.
“Yes, stubble-burning of paddy straw has happened in Punjab and Haryana and has even been reported in the national news channels and print media,” says Pradeep S. Mehta from Jaipur based think tank CUTS International. “Sadly this is despite some incentives announced to farmers and such burning being punishable with fines. Although the situation is better than last year (2017) and the year before, the very instances of crop stubble burning shows that carrots and sticks have limited effect.”
It means that the economics is not working for farmers or the potential takers of paddy straw. The agro-machines that are available to manage crop residue puts additional economic burden on farmers, which according to one account is to the tune of Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000 per acre, some are even demanding Rs. 5000 per acre.
“It is sad to see that there is no sustainable commercial model for valuable bio-resources like paddy straw, which could be used as raw material for animal feed or power generation,” says Mehta. “And this is despite presence of such technologies in India,” he adds. “Long term solution has to be based on circular economy principles, and government’s role is to give adequate policy environment for this to happen,” he adds.
But the pollution problem is not restricted to merely this. Pakistan produces 70 percent of its own pollution, say experts.
One of the major issues is of unclean fuel being used.
“We use the worst form of fuel in the world,” says Dawar. “The mere fact that we are still trying to introduce the use of Euro 2, while the world has advanced to Euro 6, is pathetic. We compare ourselves to India in everything but even they have begun to use Euro 4.”
Besides, the fuel that is imported from the Middle East is more or less crude oil, and refining it is the responsibility of the Petroleum Ministry. But the refining is far from appropriate.
“It is squarely the responsibility of the petroleum ministry, and throughout the whole problem of smog and air pollution, the ministry has remained silent,” says Rafay Alam. “I also do not see how the Government refuses to see that there were few health problems this year. Almost everyone I know has some kind of respiratory problem. Why can they not see it is a public health emergency?”
Alam’s major problem has always been that the lack of AQ data gives very little for anyone to go on.
“The problem is we do not have the necessary data to help us derive useful information, but we do know through other means that the problem of bad air quality is very much there.” AQ monitors owned by companies or individuals is one way of knowing the AQI – much of which remains in the high range.
However Abid Omar who has brought Air Visual to Pakistan says that there is a vast discrepancy between the EPD data and their monitors’ data.
Omar also disputes EPD website data, saying that Pakistan’s safe limit is 35 for the AQI, whereas EPD figures show that the average is 188.
“The air quality index and PM 2.5 measurements by air visual monitors is showing the numbers to be much higher than what the government is giving us,” he says.
In Dec 2018, for instance, the PM2.5 average in Lahore (24 hours) was recorded once to be 334 micrograms per cubic metre – beyond hazardous according to international standards – while the EPD readings showed just 188 ug/m3 average.
Similarly, the EPD readings on Jan 17, 2019 were 156 AQI, while Air Visual showed an average reading of 228 in Lahore, based on the readings of eight metres.
“With such a high number of vehicles, if they claim to fine only about 18,000 of them, there is a lot of work to be done,” says Omar who has founded the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI). Omar also says if even one brick kiln is shut down completely there would have been a 30 to 40 percent of reduction in the AQI but the index has constantly been going up since October. “I doubt if the EPD really closed down 100 kilns across the province,” he says.
“Shifting to the zig zag technology is redundant,” he says. “Why not stop making bricks in a kiln?” he compares the concrete ones used in Karachi with the red mud bricks used in Punjab.
Meanwhile, Aysha Raja, who runs a Facebook page Citizens For Clean Air says that the government was supposed to determine the air quality in Lahore by installing air quality monitors, according to the Clean Air Action Plan, but they failed miserably. Instead they have taken to attacking citizens who have installed meters from a reputable company, to distract from the crisis and throw credible sources into disrepute.
She continued saying they not met a single deadline in the action plan: not a single milestone has been met.
“Ad hoc decisions to crack down on brick kilns, and introduction of new technology depends on world bank money, the funds are part of the Punjab Green Development Programme which the Secretary of the EPD has not approved. There is no Minister for Environment at the Punjab level. There is no engagement with doctors and hospitals to ascertain the risk to the public despite the commitment to do so at the provincial level. There are no instructions issued to schools on curtailing outdoor activity on heavily polluted days. No awareness campaign whatsoever. It’s just their word against the evidently toxic air that we breathe daily and is slowly killing us,” she says.
Rafay Alam resorts to concluding that even the Air Quality monitors did not matter if you could plainly see, how hazy the air was.
“We are more interested in arguing over whether the monitors used by the government are more accurate or the ones that people have bought. It’s a tiring debate and doesn’t make any difference. The problem is still out there.”
The clear gap is therefore taking effective measures based on the findings of the measurements into implementation of Pak-EPA and EPD guidelines and laws to curb pollution levels. Detailed abatement strategies which are tied to observations and are practically implementable are the need of the hour. These strategies have to be connected to scientific findings and observations as the effectiveness of each strategy is not just a matter of visibility, but even with clear, visible air, high concentrations of pollutants may exist. Another key aspect besides monitoring is forecasting of air pollutants which are based on measurements and models, and can help inform all to plan effective actions against this menace. In other words, the government needs to establish continuous monitoring stations to establish baselines and bring abatement strategies to address these issues in a systematic manner. As we have seen in the case of both London and Los Angeles smog issues, these approaches have proven to be effective and are urgently needed to stem the increasing impact on public health and transportation.
Air pollution causes 7 Million premature deaths worldwide and has become the 4th leading cause of mortality in the world. (WHO)
Air Quality Index (AQI) is used to measure the level of air pollution in a specific region. The lower is better and anything above 150 is considered harmful for humans. AQI in Lahore has crossed 300 which is hazardous and requires immediate action to protect public health.
Average AQI of Islamabad, Karachi and Faisalabad in December 2018 has been recorded 110, 170 and 250 respectively. None of our big cities has an AQI below 50 which is considered safe and healthy air for human being to breath.
Smog and round-level Ozone adversely affects people with respiratory allergies and asthma.
The Great Smog of London (1952) paralyzed the British Capital and believed to have caused 6,000 deaths making it one of the worst nightmares in the continent after WW-II. After that, the first Clean Air Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1956 to control air pollution in the United Kingdom.
The ground level ozone in Canadian cities has been steadily increasing at an annual rate of 0.5% for the last 18 years. (Toronto Environmental Alliance)
New Delhi, the 5th most polluted city in the world is all set to introduce Euro-VI compliant fuel. After successful trial in the Indian Capital, the cleanest quality fuel would be available nationwide by the end of 2020 to combat alarming levels of air pollution. (Ministry of Environment and Forest, India)
Los Angles, which was once declared the SMOG City of America till mid-1990s has now become a better place to live. In 2015, the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that LA has been successful in reducing the levels of particulate matter and Nitrogen Dioxide by 47% and 33% respectively since 1998.
The 1997 Southeast Asian Haze in resulted in an estimated U$ 9 Billion from disruptions to air travel, public health damages and other business losses.
In November 2017, United Airline cancelled all flights to New Delhi due to severe smog crisis. Poor visibility and dangerously high level of toxic air pollutant forced the leading American airliner to suspend its operations in India.
Writers: Xari Jalil, Prof. Farrukh Chishtie, Sultan Kiani
Tips for Staying Safe on the Road
Fatal accidents do not just happen by ‘coincidence’. They are often caused by our mistakes and recklessness. Here are some safety tips for you to consider.
More than 15,000 Pakistanis were killed in road accidents during 2017–18 according to NH&MP (National Highways and Motorways Police). The World Health Organization (WHO) statistics revealed that the number of traffic accident victims in Pakistan was even larger; WHO report claims that more than 25,000 people had lost their lives in 2013. Irresponsible citizens, lax regulations, poor infrastructure and lack of traffic rules enforcement are some of the key reasons for alarmingly high road accidents in a country with a relatively lesser number of cars ownership rate than the developed nations. The worsening road safety situation requires the government to take revolutionary steps to save lives and reduce economic losses resulting from traffic accidents. Nonetheless, we can also make a difference by following traffic rules and few simple safety tips to keep ourselves and other road users safe.
General Safety Rules: Always remember to follow these rules whether you are walking, cycling or driving to stay safe on the road:
Stay alert all the times. Do not use cell phones even when you are walking down the road. You could end up hitting a pole or worse, run over by a vehicle if you are distracted.
Always give way to an ambulance and other emergency vehicles. Do not attempt to cross a road when you see an emergency vehicle approaching. There could be two or more vehicles so be patient and let them pass before you could safely cross the road.
Always obtain a valid driver license before you could start driving a car or riding a motorbike.
Do not drive a car or ride a bike if you are not feeling well or taking medications which may affect your ability to stay alert. Use public transport and ask someone for help while crossing the road.
Keep your vehicle in roadworthy condition. Do not risk your life by delaying necessary maintenance and repair works.
Wear eyeglasses or contact lenses if your eyesight is weak. The better you see, the safer you are.
Haste makes waste! Be patient and watch out for potential hazards on roads. Uncapped manholes, downed electric wires, potholes and construction works are some of the most common road hazards which can cause a serious accident if you are in hurry and do not pay attention to the road.
Avoid unnecessary travel during bad weather conditions. Fog, thunderstorms and heavy showers can increase the risk of an accident.
Go defensive; the roads are filled with irresponsible people, always make room for mistake of others to steer clear of the accidents. Do not argue or start a fight with lawbreakers, you are not the police!
Pedestrians: You must follow the safety rules because your reckless behavior can kill you and may also put other law abiding road users at risk. Distracted and ignorant pedestrians also cause deadly accidents by not following the rules. Here are few basic safety rules everyone should follow:
Walk on the footpath whenever possible. If there is no sidewalk or it is occupied by illegal encroachments, then walk against the oncoming traffic staying as close to the edge as possible so you can better see the approaching cars and take precautionary actions.
Always use a pedestrian bridge/underpass wherever it is available. Jaywalking could not just kill you but it can also cause a major accident.
Never expect a motorist to stop for you on a crosswalk, always wait for the traffic to stop on traffic signal before you could safely cross the road. Be extra cautious on intersections with no policeman controlling the traffic as reckless drivers often run red lights when they do not see an officer on duty.
Do not cross the road from behind a parked vehicle. You could be run over by a passing vehicle as both of you cannot see each other.
Look for both sides even when crossing a one-way road. Wrong way violation is a common practice in Pakistan which is responsible for countless accidents happen every day.
Wear light color clothes, preferably with some reflective material when walking at night. Carry a flashlight with you as most of the streetlights are out of order.
(Motor)Cyclists: Riding a two-wheeler makes you more vulnerable road user. Exercising a few simple safety precautions can significantly reduce the risk of an accident.
Always wear a good quality helmet all the times whether you ride a bicycle, a regular motorbike or a sports bike. Pillion riders must also wear a helmet because s/he is just as vulnerable to injuries in case of an accident. More than 80% of deaths in bike crashes happened as a result of fatal head injuries which can be prevented by using a crash helmet.
Do not forget to replace worn out tires, poor road grip can cause your bike to slip and also increases the braking distance.
Always ride on the left side of the road, use ‘bike only’ lane if it is available.
Be sure to check mirrors and use indicators before taking a turn or switching lanes on a highway.
Being the most vulnerable road user, a biker should not only obey traffic rules but should also be extra cautious for mistakes by others. Watch out for reckless drivers running red lights, passengers opening car doors without looking behind and vehicles overtaking from the wrong side.
Follow the speed limits. Watch out for potholes, wet and under construction roads with loose gravel.
A motorcycle is made for only 2 riders. Do not risk your life by taking more passengers and overloading your bike with large cargo to save few bucks. Hire a taxicab or a pickup truck to safely transport extra passengers/cargo.
Never try to overtake vehicles in a way where the driver cannot see you. Be careful while overtaking buses, trucks and large tractor trailers as they have many blind spots on their all sides.
Car/Truck Drivers: Driving a car, bus or a truck is relatively safer but it also requires the driver to be more responsible to avoid accidents. Here are a few important rules to remember for safe driving:
Make sure to fasten your seatbelts all the times. Install the retractable seatbelts if you own an older vehicle without them.
The front seat is not suitable for underage passengers. It is recommended to use child safety seats for small children if you have rear seatbelts installed in your car.
Keep your car well maintained, pay attention to tyres, brakes, steering and suspension. Driving with worn out tyres or faulty suspension can adversely affect your car handling.
Warning lights should not be ignored, they are installed by the car manufacturer to keep your journey safe.
Avoid distracting yourself by using the phone, satellite navigation, adjusting mirrors and switching radio stations etc.
It is good to use Google Maps for directions, but do not over-rely on the maps and keep your attention on the road.
While it is generally safe to have short conservation with passengers but do not talk too much and too long. Driving does not go well with serious debates; it is could be just as distracting as talking on a cell phone. Always keep your eyes on the road while talking to someone in the car.
Keep checking the rear-view mirrors for traffic behind you. Always make correct use of indicators before switching lanes or taking a turn.
Speed thrills but kills! Drive in speed limits; it is safe to reduce your speed in poor weather conditions and heavy traffic. Commercial vehicles, old cars and those driven by inexperienced drivers should also cruise at 20 km/h below the legal speed limit.
Always carry a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, emergency tire inflator, spare tyre(s), water bottle and a flashlight in your car.
Use hazard lights to warn other road users if your car ever breaks down. Do not attempt repairs e.g. changing a flat tyre before moving the car to a safe location.
Do not park your vehicle:
Too close to an interstation or a turn
In front of an entry/exit point of a building
Blocking the way out of a parked car
Where there is ‘No Parking’ Sign
In private property without permission of the proprietor
Be careful with driving in reverse. Watch out for small kids as they could be hidden in blind spots and they are at greater risk of being run over by reversing cars. A reverse assist camera screen is quite inexpensive to install which can make your car safer to reverse.
Do not overload or overcrowd your car. It not only affects the handling but also increases the risk of damage in case of an accident.
Be prepared for surprises; jaywalkers, cars and motorcycles doing wrong way violation, vehicles suddenly taking a turn or switching lanes without blinking indicators and those running red lights are the leading causes of dangerous accidents. You can avoid or at least reduce the impact of such accidents if you stay calm and focused behind the wheel.
We should always behave like socially responsible citizens on the road. This is how we help everyone to safely reach their destinations. Following these small and practical safety measures could save your life and others as well.
Writer: Sultan Kiani
Bears are a precious part of our ecosystems and given increased threats to their existence, require active conservation now.
When I visited the London Zoo, the director, Dr. Morrison, went along with me for a friendly round as a courtesy. When we reached the bear enclosure there stood the seven foot or so tall, grizzly bear which was eating food that will feed two tigers, cost wise. Such a majestic giant could not be fed less or ordinary filler like cucumber, carrots,turnips and protein; it had to receive its full meal,but when kept for years, the bill cost will be frighteningly high. It was not the only animal that had to be fed daily but a time comes when the cost effective problem does crop up in some places. It was, it seemed to me, a luxury they could do without; such an expensive exhibit. But the British love animals and the tradition had to be honoured.
Grizzly bears are not easy to trap, procure or purchase as they are from the new world, and obtaining one will require heavy correspondence, so I politely thanked him and said no more. I did, however, want to take the demon for exhibition, but it would also have been a problem with my nutrition budget as it was for them. Bears are an excellent exhibit to keep in any zoo because they are so playful and full of inquisitiveness that keeps the visitors pinned for a long time. I had excellent results with them in Karachi zoo where they bred regularly. The young ones rode the back of their mothers, sloshed in the water for hours, and relaxed on the X shaped log I had planted in the centre of the enclosure where they snoozed like a tired farmer. If the monotony of confinement was too much they staged a mock wrestling for hours. It was a pleasure watching them enjoying their ‘Kheer’, munching carrots and other fresh fruits. The gusto while slopping their sweet kheer when the kheer was served to them resembled a rozedar breaking his fast in simmering June. When they had a full belly, they will sleep like a baby free from worry;at times when they licked their paw they also gurgled audibly. At times it appeared as if they were dreaming because they made happy sounds as if talking to someone in sleep.
But the daddy never liked the young ones. He could kill them outright, so we kept both in different enclosures – the mama with babies and the heavy ill tempered papa in another.
Karachi zoo was the only one in the country where the Himalayan bears, as they are called, bred and raised their young ones. They do not breed like cats and any cub with a mother is a matter of pride for any zoo, it cannot be purchased from the open market or from any zoo.
The WWF Fund Pakistan wanted to ascertain if there were bears in the wild in the remote areas of Baluchistan where the possibilities to locate a pair, although remote, may be possible. And they undertook what scientists do – search. Selenaractos thibetanus was once found in Pakhtunkhwa dense forests and in the thorny forests of Pab Range in Baluchistan
There is an interesting episode in this connection which goes as under.
While I held the office of the Karachi zoo, one Bhoory Khan – a juggler who roamed from village to village exhibiting wild animals like hyenas, wolves, caught sight of the bear babies in the enclosure. In the wild they are almost impossible to capture; here was a sweet morsel he could gobble with ease and approached me to sell one. Selling zoo bred young ones – any – for an animal lover like me was the greatest crime, it was like selling away my own baby! I chased him out of the zoo twice, which infuriated him. He ended up complaining to the Administrator of the KMC who issued an order to sell one to the applicant.
I politely reported that money was not important for any zoo, but a baby was and requested him to cancel the sale. Instead of trying to be sane, he came down to the zoo along with the applicant and ordered my keepers to open the small window to allow Bhoory Khan to capture one. The mother was cornered through heavy torture, and the cubs were left alone shrieking and wailing in despair being left alone from the loving mama.
Bhoory Khan and his henchmen entered the enclosure and pinned the cubs to the ground which created a great din from all three cubs and the mother. A cub was overpowered and held helpless by two employees—one holding the hind legs and the other caught the baby by the ears. In this desperate condition, it was brought out and pinned to the ground where they put a thick wooden pole in its mouth to keep it open. Bhoory Khan picked up a rock and broke the baby’s canines which also broke its lower jaw. The mouth, still open, was tied along with the log in its mouth and taken away. The administrator was a living picture of pity and despair because he never imagined that it will be that brutal. He may have imagined that it will be like catching a kid in a herd of goats. He left in despair, in total silence, full of regret for this macabre scene. After three months he fell ill and died; he was thirty eight.
I think I am a hard core scientists and do not believe in superstition. I have crossed dark graveyards at two in the night alone and never feared some jinn or devil will catch me from behind and throttle me to death. No. Never.
I personally know six people who died a miserable death because they continued to kill wild or tame wild animals for fun, or for starving and/or not offering them water and proper housing. One was shot dead recently for killing a loving mama who came after her baby he had captured. He was healthy, wealthy and absolutely not sick. I also know a very poor man who became rich and wealthy for continuously offering food and water to birds.
You have the right to disbelieve me.
I will take the reader to the arid and not too friendly wilderness of Baluchistan, where the rule of law is controlled by the Sardars. This party consisted of highly knowledgeable, hardworking and experienced scientists. You leave them in the swampy Brazil or in the Gobi desert of China and they will know what to do to survive and work. They were no strangers to Baluchistan but if you have the support of the Sardars, you will succeed easily and will not bump around helplessly.
So they approached Sardar Ataullah Mengal and his son Sardar Akhtar Mengal. They advised the search to be divided into two parts: number one was to observe Dameer, Saree, Dahar, Sukhi Talr, Essa Ghur, Dasht Boheer, Dona Dhori, Kohizindo, Lohinndo, Bhorar, Sukhis and Kuns Pishee. The second search was in Bhit, Malir, Majee dasht, Monbhundi, Guni Dasht, Zariena Warainch, Balai Bikattar, Taboni and Reekhhi.
But it was like searching a needle in a haystack. The team consisted of Abdul Munaf Qaimkhani, Fayaz Ahmad and Shamim Fakhri. The co-ordinators were Najam Khurshid and Rasheeda Qureshii from WWF- Pakistan.
The search was no picnic. They walked on foot after loading the equipment on a donkey. A shepherd informed that he had seen a bear a month ago; he was in the wild grazing his goats, not knowing there was a cave nearby that harboured a female bear with two cubs. She attacked and carried away a kid. In the morning they discovered the bones of the kid in the cave.
I must remind the reader that most bears are omnivorous. Not that they carry away human being but a lonely child is a possibility in great deprivation and hunger. Nine times out of ten it will be a female with cubs. By and large they move away on sighting a human being. They are not ferocious like leopards. It reminds me of a story: two friends, one fat and the other skinny, accosted a bear in a jungle. Out of fear the fat one lied on the grorund and closed his eyes pretending as if he was dead to deceive the bear and imagined, perhaps, he will leave him alive. The skinny fellow quickly climbed a nearby tree. Bears are inquisitive and can take hours gambolling with as minor an object as a twig. When the bear came close, out of curiosity he smelled him. The fat one stopped breathing to cheat him when he felt he was close by. The bear was on a morning walk not seriously interested in a dead body; so he left him alone and walked away. The skinny friend descended from the tree and asked his friend, “the bear was came close to your ears and was perhaps give you some message. Please tell me what he said.” The fat friend told him, “the bear said when a friend runs away from his friend at the moment of crisis like this, do not trust him any more in the future.”
Different caves confirmed the presence of bears; the pug marks, the droppings had seeds of Russian Olive which grows naturally in the area. They decided to form two groups and search different areas particularly at night. They should not have done that because bears are short sighted even at day time; at night they will never move out, but the scientists were obviously unaware of this fact. Group one sighted a bear one afternoon eating wild fruits and tender leaves of ‘Peesh.’ It was observed with binoculars but the absence of powerful lenses prevented them from photographing. The second group could not locate any bear. They decided to visit other probable areas.; in Bhit, Malir, Majee Dasht, Monbhndi, Guni Dasht, Zerien Warainch, Balai Warainch, Frass, Pachinee, Togi, Ghunnie, Took, Dhanger Jhekheer, Hajieassa Goth, Bikattarand Javarie. Local hunters also confirmed of not having seen any bear in several locations. They also discovered hibernation sites and in a few caves pug marks, remains of kids and hair. Bears, yes, but not great in number.
I must remind the readers that shepherds move with rifles for protecting themselves and the herd from wolves. If they locate a bear they will shoot to kill because of the fear that the kids will be taken away by them. They are afraid of bears as the bears are of the shepherds. No wonder bears were rare.
The most severe threat is from wolves and hyenas. The Sardars had instructed the shepherds to kill them if they attack the herds. Last winter a pack of eight wolves attacked the herd; the shepherds shot a six of them, the wolves had killed forty-nine goats and sheep. If there are goats and sheep in as wild a spread out as Baluchistan, wolves and hyenas are bound to follow them for their food; wolves for the meat and the hyenas for the leftover. In this province, the bears are in peril almost to the point of extinction.
I have seen a house in Tharparkar district that has about two hundred skulls of male gazelles nailed on the parapet. Forty years ago i read an article in Dawn, written by an army captain who disclosed they had pheasants in breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was not a lone case – the northern area and the border has thick vegetation and wild animals have been living there for centuries. The pheasants are halal so their elimination is rampant. That is why the gazelles and pheasants have almost vanished.
Man is blood-thirsty by instinct. Our ancestors have survived by hunting wild animals. I have read “An Account of Bison Roamed The Prairies By The Million”. When the herd moved, earth would not be visible. In a stampede, it seemed the entire prairie was undulating up to the horizon. The red Indians were the local inhabitants and killed for a meal. Then came the white man. They were wiped out, and now they are protecting the bison from getting extinct.
Dodo also disappeared from its habitat because the Spaniards filled up their ships with the helpless, fat bird that had, through generations of disuse, had forgotten to fly. They were caught by hand and went into the bags.
This awareness to conserve is very recent. It sparked when it was evident the precious wild life is not being seen as often as before. The consciousness came too late. Now even the whale is endangered. Bear by comparison is trivial. That is why hunting the excess is the rule of thumb.
The legend of abducting a female bear, confining her in the cave by tying her feet until she can no more escape is a rot. I once met a trickster who boasted by narrating funny concocted stories. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “It is fun” he said basing his stance on the assumption that some people will believe you for some time, some all their life and others never.
In spite of all these conservation talks, bear fight with a dog is a favourite pastime in Punjab. National parks in the frontier regions have them, and you can procure anything with money anywhere in Asia.
Writer: Dr. A. A. Quraishy