The air quality crisis in Pakistan: causes and solutions
Air quality is rapidly deteriorating across Pakistan which has led to recent episodes of heavy fog and smog, as well as heavy health impacts. What are the reasons and sustainable solutions to this unseen menace? We interviewed Dr. Imran Shahid, an air quality expert for his views on this worsening crisis.
Worsening air quality across the country is clearly a huge public health risk which is leading to loss of life and environmental degradation at a daily level. Globally tens of millions die and hundreds of millions are afflicted with lung related maladies to heart related issues. Pakistan is suffering even more due to the relatively unregulated and unaddressed air quality issues since its formation. In the last two years, smog episodes in Lahore have crippled city life and the well-being of people with rise in lung related maladies. Subh-e-Nau interviewed Dr. Imran Shahid, an atmospheric scientist and air quality expert for an in-depth discussion on the root causes and possible solutions to the crisis of air pollution in the country.He is presently an assistant professor at the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad.
Causes and challenges
SN: What are the major challenges regarding air quality in Pakistan?
IS: Air quality in Pakistan is deteriorating with every passing day, especially in North-Eastern areas and urban parts of Punjab. The big cities, such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, have very bad air quality. These cities are experiencing smog from the last two years in early October and November. Smog is mainly triggered by less or no rainfall in the region. This is not only limited to Pakistan, but Delhi, closest major city in India, is also heavily affected by smog during the same months of the year.
SN: While both look the same, what is the difference between smog and fog?
IS: They look the same but their composition is totally different. Fog is simply condensed water droplets. In fog, you just feel wet if you pass through it. You don’t feel any trouble breathing. You can say fog is just clouds descending on the ground. Smog, on the other hand, is the combination of dust, haze, water droplets, and pollutants, everything together. Smog can even be denser than smog. In smog, you have immediate impact on breathing, irritation in the eyes, sore throat, and other allergies (such as skin allergy) as well. In short, smog is far more dangerous than fog. Smog is persistence of the pollutants.
SN: If one says, as a lay person, that smog is just a seasonal issue and does not have long lasting impact, what will be your response?
IS: Previously, there used to be just mild fog in late December or early January. In winters, when rain would fall at night, fog would appear in early morning hours and disperse once the sun came up. By 9 or 10 am, the sky would become clear. Smog, on the other hand comes in early winter – end of October or early November. In these months, we have biomass burning and Diwali. So, smog and fog have become two separate events now as smog has occurred regularly in these months from the last two years. During the two to three weeks of smog, it becomes disastrous for Lahore, Delhi and surrounding areas.
Fog was, and is, a seasonal thing; smog, on the other should not be a seasonal thing and measures should be taken to reduce and minimize it.
Overall the atmospheric temperature has also increased as compared to the previous years. This has also affected the rainfall count in the region. Ever since the smog issue became prevalent in 2016, September to January period has seen very less rainfall.
SN: What causes smog to occur?
IS: Two prominent factors in causing smog are biomass burning, mainly burning of rice paddies, and celebration of Diwali with fireworks. In autumn, the farmers in Pakistan and India burn rice paddies in almost millions of hectares.The second major triggering event is Diwali in India, which is celebrated with a huge number of fireworks.Both events occur in the plains of the Indian and Pakistani Punjab.They blow up millions of fireworks in Indian Punjab. Such a large area contributes an explosive number of particles emitting in the atmosphere, and these particles remain suspended for a long period.
Another factor is deforestation due to poorly planned or unplanned expansion of cities, such as Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The site of Institute of Space Technology’s campus,where we are sitting right now, used to be a jungle just a few years ago. It has now become heavily populated and you do not see empty lad fifteen kilometres on either side of this campus. All the forested and agricultural land is now covered by expanding housing societies, which cutoff trees, change the entire landscape and then do not bother planting vegetation.
Industrial scale emissions are a major cause of pollution, which occurs round the year. Industries are burning any solid waste they can burn as cheap fuel – biomass, rubber tyres, etc. The new Faisalabad Industrial Estate on the M3 Motorway between Pindi Bhattian and Faisalabad is a very big industrial estate. Its location should make it a big cause of concern for environment protection. Similarly, Sahiwal coal power plant is located centrally to urban areas. Once Sahiwal coal power plant is functional, the air quality in Lahore, Faisalabad and surrounding areas will worsen even more.
The vehicle population in urban areas is increasing exponentially by every passing year. At the same time, very old vehicles with unacceptably high emissions are still on the road. There is neither any control on the new nor the old vehicles. Combined, these emissions contribute to pollutants causing smog.
Trans-boundary pollution also plays a role. Because India is also contributing in biomass burning, both countries face similar challenges in urban areas.
SN: What are some major challenges faced by Pakistan in air quality?
IS: Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there is a critical lack of air quality monitoring systems. Previously, JICA, Japan has donated five monitoring stations, one for each Provincial Capital and one for the Federal Capital. At this time, none of these is functional.
The Government of Punjab has established eight air quality monitoring labs, but they are also not working optimally. Because of this lack of monitoring systems, we have no idea how bad the situation of air quality is – what is the concentration of particulate matter? What is the pollutant composition? What health impacts are associated with the smog?
This information is important because the composition of particles, the health and other impacts (such as that on agriculture) are different. In 2017, when the intensity of smog was high in Lahore, the Lahore High Court ordered the Provincial Government to take and issue measurements of the air quality index on a daily basis and to take action to reduce the smog. As a result, the Environment Protection Department (EPD) now has four to five monitoring stations in Lahore. Sometimes these centres provide online air quality date on a daily basis, sometimes it is not updated. So the issue regarding air quality is unavailability of data. When we don’t have the information about what is going on actually in the region, we cannot take measures to reduce smog.
Present policies and drawbacks
SN: Do policies or regulating bodies at Provincial or Federal policies exist to address air quality issues?
IS: Policies, laws and regulations exist, but the most needed thing is their implementation and compliance. Vehicle inspection system exists but no one implements it. Nowadays, Lahore High Court is very active about air quality, giving instruction to the Government on Thar Coal Power Plant and other power plants to be controlled for emissions. We can control emissions from the industry using different technologies. But our industrialists are not willing to adopt new technology due to the costs involved in upgrading.
Regarding environment and air quality, Punjab has Environment Protection Department and Environment Protection Agency exists at the Federal level. Learning from 2016, the Government banned burning rice paddies in the fields for two months, October and November in 2017. It was observed that people were still burning lots of things.
In my opinion, the Government has many policies regarding emissions from vehicles and from industries, but no one is actually implementing these.
Impacts of poor air quality
SN: What are some of the direct and indirect effects of air quality issues?
IS: Smog has some direct and immediate effects, such as irritation in the eyes, throat infection. When the smog becomes too dense, we should use precautionary measures – such as to use the mask, limit outdoor activities.
The emissions from vehicles are contributing to worsening health issues. Asthma among children is now becoming a big challenge in urban centres in almost entire Pakistan. Newborn babies and infants have more severe diseases than the adults because they have less-developed immunity for the pollutants.
Another thing is the indoor pollution. These days, houses are designed as closed structures. Stale air, including the fumes from kitchen when something is cooked, remains trapped inside the home. Therefore, the air is more polluted inside the house than outside at many times. When you do not open the window, the pollutants trapped in the house remain so for many days. We ought to take of ventilation systems in the houses, should open the doors and windows to let the air circulate.
The indirect impacts include change in atmospheric temperature and reduction in rainfall. One point of view says these high levels of pollutant concentration have contributed to a decrease in the rainfall pattern in the region. When there is high loading of pollutants in the air, there is a high temperature in the region. The clouds may become dry because of the heat island impact over the region. In my view, this is an underlying reason for less rainfall in the region. The pollutant particles are so fine, they contribute towards clouds formation due to water condensing on hydrophilic particles which attract and absorb water. However, they are hydrophobic particles which do not allow water to condense on them This inhibits cloud and hence rain formation as the droplet sizes in clouds is typically smaller due to this physical effect caused by hydrophilic particles. When the droplet size is small and below a certain size threshold, rainfall is therefore not possible. And these small pollutant particles remain suspended in the air. Both temperature and meteorology is supporting smog formation in our country – the wind is almost stagnant during this time in October and November and there is no wind coming from the outside. Previously, we used to have the westerlies that used to cause winter rains; since the last two years the rainfall has dropped to almost 10% of the regional rainfall.
This reduction in rainfall is also impacting our agriculture. You need lots of rain for the rice cultivation as well as the wheat crop cultivation. Due to the less rainfall, combined with the pollutant deposition on the plant species and the ozone concentration also impacts the growth of the crops. It takes longer days to get ready for harvesting because pollutants block the radiation coming from the sun. This is because of insufficient radiation reaching the crops for the growth, photosynthesis and other necessary processes. Previously, if it took 45 days, it would take 50 or 60 days.
The direct cost includes the changes in the flight patterns and road accidents. Every year, even if there is one week of dense smog, there are hundreds of accidents and delayed or cancelled flights.
When you do not know the composition of smog, it becomes even more dangerous. If you know the composition of the particulate matter – whether it has ions, metals, etc. – you can identify the health and other impacts. Also, if you know the composition, you can identify the sources, where it is coming from – whether it is coming from the vehicles, whether from biomass burning, or from industries.
The composition is known through the chemical analysis of the particulate matter. Until now, we don’t have the continuous air quality monitoring system in whole Pakistan. We should have integrated, comprehensive, monitoring system in all Pakistan so that we can have air quality data on a daily basis, and even on hourly basis during smog events. Then we can identify the hotspot and then try to minimize the impact.
SN: Right now, what exactly do we have available for air quality monitoring and where?
IS: Federal Environment Protection Agency has two stations. One is stationary and one is mobile station. But I don’t know whether they are working or not right now, because previously, they were not working.
Lahore EPD has five monitoring stations in Lahore. You can check the results produced by these on their website. Sometimes they are working, sometimes they are not. Besides these two cities – Islamabad and Lahore – there is practically nothing. We do not have any information about Faisalabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi.
Karachi is the biggest city and we don’t have any information about its air quality. The city has very bad air quality. During summers, the impact of urban heat island increases the impact of heat waves manifold. When the temperature rises with the humidity, more people get affected. In 2015, about 1,500 people died in one week. Similar heat waves were experienced in 2016 and 2017.
Solutions and way forward
SN: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is implementing Billion Tree project. How effective will that be to control the air quality overall?
IS: Billion trees project is a very good effort of forestation in Pakistan. It will definitely contribute towards minimizing climate change impacts in Pakistan and towards cleaning air. However, urban air quality is more related to indigenous activities. What is happening within the city or the surrounding areas, such as the industrial estates inside and around the cities, and the vehicle population on the road. Regarding forestation, we must have vegetation within the cities as well. We have a large number of societies everywhere, and these are growing, as I said earlier. These societies should preserve vegetation and should plant trees. Almost a thousand of trees have been cut in Lahore in the last ten years. They didn’t plant anything, anywhere as alternate. That is why Lahore’s air quality is becoming worse. Even in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, air quality is becoming bad every day, because the housing society. The size of Islamabad has increased by two-times in the last five years due to these housing societies and cutting off trees. For example, in Bani Gala, forests are being cleared for housing societies. Margalla Park is also experiencing deforestation.
If we have forest land almost everywhere in Pakistan, then it will be good for regulating rainfall patterns and improve air quality. On the other hand, if you plant trees in one corner of the country, it will definitely contribute in the long term, but will have little effect on improving urban air quality as it is affected by activities within the city.
SN: What are the solutions for this problem?
IS: This issue of smog will not go away in one or two years.
First of all, we need a continuous monitoring system. In all mega-cities of Pakistan, we must know about the air quality, what is the composition of the pollutants and where it is coming from.
When you do not know the composition, you cannot do anything about it. Once you know the composition, then you can identify its source (or sources). Once the sources are known, whether industry, vehicles, biomass burning, measures can be designed to control that particular pollutant source that is causing the smog. We must see what harmful matter is increasing in the air, whether it is calcium, magnesium, led or ozone or black carbon, whether it is coming from burning of tires, or coal, or biomass, or emissions from diesel vehicles, or gasoline.
Also, we need to know the hot spots, the areas where the pollutants are most concentrated. By locating composition and concentration areas, we can pinpoint its source and then aim to control it. For example, if the smog is in Lahore and composition tells us that the pollutants are coming from Sahiwal Coal Power Plant or any other industrial estate in the surrounding areas. But we aim to control vehicles in the area, it will not solve the problem. On the other hand, if the smog is being caused by vehicles and we completely close the plants and industries, smog will still remain. It is very important to know the composition, concentration and right source of the pollution.
Plantation can also control and improve air quality, but, as I said, it will take many years to have an impact. It is a good long-term solution. However, for improving air quality of urban areas, small hubs of trees count a lot.
Controlling the number of vehicles on the road in the areas that are heavily impacted by smog can be an effective solution provided we know the heaviest pollutant counties due to vehicle emissions.
Implementation of air quality standards is also a way to control the smog at its source. There are emission standards for industries and for vehicles. We have vehicle models dating back to 1970s, 80s. In 2017, Nepal took a remarkable action when the Government abandoned all vehicles that were older than 20 years in the entire country. This resulted in fewer emissions. Here, in our country, we have vehicles that are even 30-40 years old. Also, there needs to be check and balance on vehicle maintenance to reduce the number of emissions. Local public transport, rickshaws, etc are using LPG and CNG as the fuel. These fuels increase N2O concentration more than gasoline. Similarly, industries need to be monitored. They are burning biomass, coal, rubber waste, everything they can use as fuel. It is very important to control industrial emissions.
We also need to provide solutions to the farmers and give them alternate technology that offers sustainable solutions. Previously, the people used to cut rice paddies with hands. Only small residue was left in the fields. With advancement in technology, now the process is machinated. The machines cut only the upper part of the paddies, leaving behind about two feet of straw. Thus, the total residue mass has increased as compared to the past. This is a technology failure. The farmers have three times of more biomass left for burning. That has added to worsening air quality in the region.In April and May, we have wheat crop cultivation season. At that time, there is also lots of burning. But there is no smog at that time. This is because the temperature is high and pollutant disperses in the region and the impact is minimal. In October and November, the temperature is low and meteorology is supporting to that (less rainfall, if there is rainfall, the pollutants will not remain suspended) and pollutant gets trapped and stays in the air. Same thing (burning) is happening in the two seasons, but the difference in temperature causes these. In summers, we feel less pollution because we have higher temperatures (more than 40 Celsius) which cause dispersion and dilution of pollutants.
Moving industries away from the urban areas can also help in diluting the pollutants. Such as if we have industrial estate in Baluchistan’s least populated parts, the pollutants will get dispersed in the environment. Industry’s concentration in urban areas, such as near Pindi Bhattian and along Grand Trunk road, such as Kala Shah Kaku, increase the pollution and air quality problems. When the Sahiwal Coal Power Plant becomes fully functional, it will be a disaster for air quality.
SN: What are our neighbouring countries that have similar air quality problems doing to minimize the impact?
IS: India is doing lots of research on air quality at the moment. They have designed winter fog experiment at Delhi airport. They have a vertical tower that is about 400 feet high. They have installed sensors on it vertically to measure the density of the smog and fog. They have equipment for monitoring meteorology, pollutant concentration with the height. Using this information, they are guiding their planes accordingly for landing. If the thickness of the smog is only 100 or 200 meters, you can guide the captain to lower the plane. They have installed state of the art instruments at Delhi airport to measure the composition. They are also providing different solutions and alternates to farmers for the rice paddies as well. For example, teaching farmers to make different products of the paddies and also the methods to use it as fertilizer.
Pakistan and India are two neighbouring countries affected by fog. The pattern of fog starts from the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, with the foothills of Himalayas, then it crosses India and travels to Lahore and then to the adjacent areas of Multan, Faisalabad. All these areas are covered with fog. On the other hand, smog event is concentrated in Delhi, Lahore and Faisalabad. The area is small as compared to fog. It is mainly because of pollution and less rainfall during that time of the year that smog is concentrated in these areas.
SN: If nothing is done to address this, how bad the situation will become?
IS: We need to take immediate steps to mitigate smog. Crucial steps need to be taken.
The first step is to stop deforestation and one of the leading cause of deforestation outside urban areas is the expansion of urban population. Government should disallow new housing societies to cut off forests. In Islamabad too, trees are being cut off at unprecedented rates and housing societies are sprawling to cover green areas.
A critical step is to control vehicle population and the emission of vehicles that are currently on the road.
The third option is to control industrial emission control. The industries can easily control emissions by technology upgrades, with the use of catalytic converters, scrubbers. Lots of technology solutions are available. But the industries are not willing to pay anything. An example is the zig zag brick kilns in Nepal and Bangladesh, which are more energy and output efficient through their design. They consume less fuel and at the same time, their emissions are less. Similar initiative has been started in Pakistan from three or four months ago. First such kiln has been installed in 2017 and in this year more zig zag kilns will be built.
Also, we need to create awareness among the people. When the cold weather comes, people are burning whatever they have available – plastic bags, garbage waste, everything in the streets. So we need to stop burning at the small scale. Even though it has less effect than the industrial emissions, still it needs to be stopped.
SN: How is China, being a developed country, however, facing the same air quality problem is solving the air quality issue?
IS: China has industries on a much larger scale, very high number of vehicles and human population. They have restricted vehicle movement in their mega cities. In addition to the number, the Government allows the car owners only a specific mileage, let’s say 200 or 300 kilometres, during a month. Moreover, they are changing the location of industries, such as they are moving away from Beijing, their capital, to Xinjiang. In the industries, they are changing the fuel type. China is the largest producer and consumer of coal. Still, many of their industries are dependent on coal, that’s why they are so heavily polluted. So, Beijing and some other cities are still polluted but they have controlled the pollution in other areas. They have more than 20 monitoring stations within one city. We do not have that many in entire Pakistan.
Writers: Prof. Farrukh Chishtie & Muhamad Imran