Dr. Farrukh Chishtie
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. 2022 is no different, with record level pollution levels recorded and smog as well as fog episodes are harming and killing people and destroying our natural environment as well.
Pakistan is suffering even more due to the relatively unregulated and unaddressed air quality issues since its formation. In the last five years, smog episodes in Lahore have crippled city life and the well-being of people with rise in lung related maladies. Air quality in Pakistan is deteriorating with every passing day, especially in North-Eastern areas and urban parts of Punjab. Big cities, such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, have deadly air quality. In 2022, with air quality even becoming worse these cities are experiencing smog from the last five years in early October and November while persistent fog is experienced from December till February.
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. 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. 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 vehicle population in urban areas is increasing exponentially by every passing year. At the sametime, 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. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there is a critical lack of air quality monitoring systems.
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 daily 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 daily, sometimes it is not updated. So,a key issue regarding air quality is unavailability of data. Policies, laws and regulations exist, but the most needed thing is their implementation and compliance. First, 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 there is no knowledge about the composition, we cannot do anything about how to reduce 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 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 bean effective solution provided we know the heaviest pollutant count is 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.
Last but not least, 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 this needs to be stopped.