Pakistan’s air pollution epidemic is a major cause of alarm

Pakistan’s air pollution epidemic is a major cause of alarm


Just a couple of years ago, Beijing was the most polluted city in the world, with 1.4 million deaths annually due to particulate matter in the ambient air. These were days when the Chinese government had to declare an “airpocolypse” and shut down schools, offices and businesses because the city would be choked by toxic smog. Delhi in India followed suit with 645,000 deaths annually attributed to air pollution.
Following these two most polluted cities, was Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore, with an annual death rate of 111,000 and ranked third for premature deaths due to air pollution. The southern city of Karachi ranks fifth. Somewhere along the way, the situation has become even more dismal for Pakistan. Now, Lahore tops the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 256, surpassing Delhi by a wide margin. And Beijing is no longer part of the list, due to aggressive and extraordinary measures taken by the Chinese government.
Air pollution in Pakistan has become a major problem and must be termed a public health emergency.  According to a World Bank report on air quality in Pakistan, outdoor air pollution is responsible for more than 80,000 hospital admissions yearly and the harm caused by Pakistan’s urban air pollution is among the highest in South Asia, exceeding several high profile causes of morbidity and mortality.
The extent of urban air pollution in Pakistan is among the world’s most severe, significantly damaging human health, quality of life, life expectancy, the economy and the environment.
Experiences from neighboring countries, and innovations that they’ve adopted to combat air pollution, indicate that well-targeted interventions can significantly improve air quality in our cities.
In 2014, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang declared war against air pollution. By his statement, the premier broke away from the country’s longstanding policy of putting economic growth over environment. In a couple of years, due to the draconian anti-pollution measures and a robust National Air Quality Action Plan, China has succeeded in cutting concentrations of particulate matter by more than 32% on average.
In order to achieve these targets, China imposed a cap on coal-fired power plants. Large cities restricted the number of vehicles on the roads, invested in mega mass transit projects and started investing in renewable energy sources, divesting from coal. Many vertical gardens were erected around major cities.

The extent of urban air pollution in Pakistan is among the world’s most severe, significantly damaging human health, quality of life, life expectancy, the economy and the environment.

Mehreen Mujtaba

In 2018, WHO reported that 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India, which is alarming in a country with such a huge population. Earlier this year, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change launched the National Clean Air Program (NCAP). As part of NCAP, several cities are leading efforts to address the crisis.  Delhi, which has the highest levels of pollutants in the air, implemented a Graded Response Action Plan during peak pollution season by halting construction, closing thermal plants and banning the use of diesel generators which cut pollution levels down by 25%. It seems India has it’s agenda set for clean air.
In Pakistan, winter is upon us again. Though the air pollution in Lahore in particular and other cities in Pakistan is bad throughout the year, in winter there is thermal inversion from November till March where a layer of hot air is prevented from rising and hence traps all the pollutants below the layer, and results in a thick toxic smog.
What are we doing to address these issues? It seems like nothing much, apart from asking people to wear masks during peak pollution period.
The main sources of air pollution include mobile sources, such as vehicles and stationary sources such as industry emissions, power plants, waste burning and natural dust. The number of vehicles has increased from 2 million to 10.6 million over the last 20 years.
We have to reduce air pollution at the source, be it industry, agriculture, urban waste or transportation. This will require time, money, planning, commitment and dedication.
Curbing emissions from factories and brick kilns by levying pollution charges could be used as an efficient mechanism to reduce pollution emission from different sources.
Renewable energy sources for industrial purposes must be adopted, coal run plants closed, and the number of vehicles on the roads reduced, with investments in electric and hybrid vehicles.
Despite this epidemic of preventable deaths, a smog of complacency pervades the corridors of power. Political action is urgently needed to speed up action to reduce air pollution.  Instead of a focus on a local pollution problem, the government gives precedence to climate change mitigation and other problems that have global impacts.
Now, a National Action Plan for Clean Air must be devised, based on data from consolidated air quality monitoring. It will require tough policies, but it is the only way to save hundreds of thousands of lives, while also boosting the economy.
– Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.

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