Pakistan’s Lahore sees peak pollution as coronavirus surges

Vehicles drive on a highway in Lahore as smog envelops the city on Nov. 11, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 11 November 2020

Pakistan’s Lahore sees peak pollution as coronavirus surges

  • Air quality in Lahore deteriorated to hazardous levels, putting additional burden on healthcare system amid a surge in coronavirus deaths and infections
  • Air Quality Index at one point rose to 750 in the city’s poorer areas, about 12 times the recommended level

LAHORE: A thick blanket of smog enveloped Pakistan’s cultural capital of Lahore on Wednesday, prompting officials to warn that tens of thousands of the city’s residents risk respiratory disease and eye-related problems while doctors urged people to stay at home.
The air quality in Lahore deteriorated to hazardous levels, putting an additional burden on the fragile healthcare system amid a surge in coronavirus deaths and new infections. The Air Quality Index at one point rose to 750 in the city’s poorer areas — about 12 times the recommended level.
Earlier in the day, Switzerland-based air quality information platform IQair declared Lahore the second most polluted city, after New Delhi, India’s capital. Pollution indexes peak dramatically in Pakistan in winter, when farmers burn off stubble in the fields. Winds worsen the pollution by further spreading smog across the region.
“The air quality level was hazardous today,” said Sajid Bashir, a spokesman for Environmental Protection Department.
By mid-day the situation had improved, he said, as authorities took steps to keep smoke emitting vehicles off the roads and shut brick kilns across the province of Punjab, where Lahore is the provincial capital.
Lahore, once dubbed as the city of gardens, remained pollution-free for months after March, when the government imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. But the restriction was lifted in May, allowing a return to industrial activities and normal businesses. With cars back on the roads, the air quality gradually deteriorated, falling again to unhealthy levels.
Pollution is no stranger to Pakistan, a country of 220 million — or Lahore, with some 12 million people. Cars are the top pollutants in Lahore but the city also has other sources of pollution, including the stubble burning, steel manufacturing furnaces and the city’s famous brick kilns.
“Coughing, throat infection and irritation in the eyes are common,” said Anza Farid, an environmental expert, warning that the situation could worsen in the coming weeks as more people burn garbage in the cities and farmers burn off the stubble in their fields.
Dr. Talha Ayub urged people to wear face masks for protection, both from pollution and the coronavirus. “People should try to stay at home if they can,” he appealed.
Pakistan on Wednesday said it registered 21 new COVID-19 deaths and 1,708 new infections over the past 24 hours — despite a government-imposed partial lockdowns in 4,136 residential areas across the country. The government is turning to sealing off hotspots in a bid to contain rising fatalities and infections from coronavirus.
Authorities also banned large gathering, shut shrines, cinemas and theaters to contain the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 348,000 people in Pakistan and killed 7,021 since February.

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In Pakistan’s southern desert region, climate-change driven poverty linked to suicide spikes

Updated 5 min 59 sec ago

In Pakistan’s southern desert region, climate-change driven poverty linked to suicide spikes

  • At least 143 people took their lives in Thar Desert’s Tharparkar and Umerkot districts between 2016-2020
  • Extreme weather patterns are a frequent threat and major cause of poverty, now increasingly driving people to suicide

MITHI, SINDH: Last year, two cousins who wanted to marry each other in a town hemmed in the rolling dunes of Pakistan’s Thar desert took their own lives by hanging themselves from a tree because they did not have the money to arrange their wedding. Just a few years earlier, the girl’s father had also killed himself due to financial troubles. 
Earlier this month, at a bus stop near the multi-billion dollar Thar Coal Power Project, Amru Kohli, the couple’s 60-year-old grandmother waited in the scorching heat for the next bus to arrive, hoping to collect some charity — her only source of income in a region where climate-change driven poverty is increasingly pushing people to suicide.
“With no livelihood available and family in debt of over Rs100,000, I have no option but to beg,” Kohli told Arab News.

Amru Kohli, 60, collects alms on a highway in the Islamkot area, Tharpakar district, Pakistan, on April 2, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

Six people in her village had committed suicide in the last two years, she said: “The main reason was extreme poverty.”
The UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index for Pakistan reports that 87% of the population in Thar lives in poverty. Climate change is now driving locals into more deprivation.
Between 2016 to 2020, the Sindh Mental Health Authority (SMHA), an arm of the provincial government, said 767 suicides were recorded in Sindh, out of which the highest number, 79 cases, occurred in Tharparkar district in the Thar desert and another 64 cases were recorded in the desert’s Umerkot district. With a total of 143 cases reported in Thar, one in every five suicides in Sindh occurs in the desert region, SMHA said.
The non-governmental organization, the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), put total deaths by suicide in Thar at 348 between 2016-2020.
“With every day passing, suicide cases are rising in the desert,” Ali Akbar Rahimoo, AWARE executive director, told Arab News. “In the first three months of 2021, suicide cases in Tharparkar district reported in mainstream media were 20 cases, out of which 13 were women.”
While the SMHA report cites mental illness, domestic issues, and poverty as the main reasons for suicides across the province, researchers link the spike in suicide rates in the Thar region to climate change-driven droughts.
“After the 1970s, the area has witnessed prolonged droughts and famine coming more frequently than in the past,” Rahimoo said. “Nowadays, even if there are rains, they are erratic and delayed, which reduces their effects on the area whose economic cycle and agriculture is solely dependent upon rainfalls. Each drought takes locals five years back.”
Dr. Lakesh Khatri, a Mirpurkhas-based psychiatrist who has worked in Thar, said mental health issues linked to droughts and their effect on household incomes were contributing to rising suicide rates in the desert.
“Thar’s economy is dependent on rainfall as there is no comprehensive river water supply in the desert or any other major livelihood source,” the psychiatrist said. “Prolonged droughts shrink available means of income. Hence lack of livelihood opportunities and inaccessibility to resources triggers inhabitants toward depression, ultimately [to] taking their own lives.”
Locals have also protested Chinese-funded projects like the Thar Coal Power Project, with its estimated 175 billion tons of coal, saying the project will pollute their water and threaten their ancestral lands. But construction has continued. 
“Locals don’t see any trickle-down effect coming to them from the mega projects built on natural sources they are the owners of,” Rahimoo said. 
Marium Shabbir, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), said climate-change driven poverty was a new addition to the impoverished regions problems, with “extreme weather patterns” increasing people’s vulnerability. 
“It could be handled through pre-policy making,” Shabbir told Arab News. “If this is not addressed, it could turn into a political, social, and economic disaster of international scale.”


Major social media outlets blocked to ‘maintain public order’ — Pakistan telecoms authority

Updated 4 min 30 sec ago

Major social media outlets blocked to ‘maintain public order’ — Pakistan telecoms authority

  • “In order to maintain public order and safety, access to certain social media applications restricted temporarily,” PPTA spokesperson says
  • Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok and Telegram blocked on orders of PTA, Internet service provider says

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan blocked multiple social media apps temporarily on security grounds on Friday as part of what is believed to be a crackdown against a religious political party that has held violent nationwide protests this week, a telecommunications authority official said, while a major Internet service provider in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad sent text messages to its users apologizing for the “inconvenience.” 
Pakistan Internet users had difficulty accessing apps including What, Facebook, You tube and Twitter from late on Friday morning, Reuters said. 
Pakistan said this week it would outlaw the religious political party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan after the arrest of its leader on Monday sparked major nationwide protests.
“In order to maintain public order and safety, access to certain social media applications has been restricted temporarily,” Khurram Mehran, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) told Arab News, without specifying which social media.
Internet, cable TV and phone service provider Nayatel, based in Islamabad, sent text messages to users saying:
“On directions by PTA, below mentioned social media platforms have been blocked. Twitter. Facebook. WhatsApp. YouTube. TikTok. Telegram. Inconvenience is regretted.”

Usama Khilji, a director at digital advocacy group Bolo Bhi, said it was “against the constitution to suspend people's access to information by blocking social media just because of a group and in the name of law and order.”

"Also, this isn't a wise security strategy to suspend internet because this won't send protesters home, instead it will project a bad image of our country abroad,” he told Arab News. 

Nighat Dad at the Digital Rights Foundation said: 

“What kind of national emergency we are dealing with that government banned entire social media temporarily? These arbitrary decisions of blocking and banning have never done any good instead opened ways to blanket bans.”


Chief of Tehreek-e-Labaik asks supporters to call off protests as Pakistan moves to ban party

Updated 23 min 29 sec ago

Chief of Tehreek-e-Labaik asks supporters to call off protests as Pakistan moves to ban party

  • Saad Rizvi tells supporters not to indulge in illegal activity, immediately clear roadblocks, return peacefully to homes and cooperate with authorities
  • Rizvi’s appeal comes a day after cabinet approved proposal by interior ministry to ban TLP and file a case with Supreme Court to dissolve the party

KARACHI: Saad Rizvi, the head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan religious political party, has called on his supporters to “immediately” halt protests being held across the country against Rizvi’z arrest, the party chief said in a handwritten letter shared on Twitter on Thursday by a top government aide. 
TLP supporters have been holding violent nationwide protests since Monday when Rizvi was arrested for threatening to launch a major protest campaign against the government if it did not expel France’s envoy to Islamabad over blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) printed in a French publication last year. 
“I am addressing all shura [TLP council] members and Tehreek-e-Labaik workers and appeal that no illegal activity should be done for the sake of people and in the better interest of the country,” Rizvi said in his note, which was tweeted by Dr. Shahbaz Gill, special adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on political communication.
“All protest demonstrations and roadblocks should be immediately cleared. All workers should return to their homes peacefully. Fully cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”


Rizvi’s appeal comes a day after Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved a proposal by the interior ministry to ban TLP and file a case with the Supreme Court to dissolve the religious party, which is a registered political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan. The interior ministry says it is moving to have the party banned for killing two policemen, attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during this week’s protests. 
“We have proscribed [the TLP] and the notification for that will be issued shortly,” federal interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters on Thursday. “Tomorrow, we will send another summary to the cabinet to file a reference in the Supreme Court since we are moving toward [TLP’s] dissolution.” 
The TLP gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. The party also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. 
In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form. 
In the 2018 elections, the party managed to win two seats in the Sindh Assembly from Karachi and got a female member elected on a reserved seat of the assembly. 
Religious parties — some new, others long-established — fielded more than 1,500 candidates for national and provincial assemblies in Pakistan’s general election on July 25, 2018.


India ‘more likely’ under PM Modi to use military force against Pakistan — US report 

Updated 16 April 2021

India ‘more likely’ under PM Modi to use military force against Pakistan — US report 

  • Annual threat assessment report for 2021 prepared by US Director of National Intelligence and sent to Congress
  • Says Modi more likely than in the past to respond with military force to ‘perceived or real’ Pakistani provocations

ISLAMABAD: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India was more likely “to respond with military force” to provocations from Pakistan, heightening the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, a US intelligence report sent to Congress this week said.
Ties between India and Pakistan have been frozen since the suicide bombing of an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in 2019 that India said was carried out by Pakistan-based militants (Islamabad denies state complicity) and because of which New Delhi sent warplanes into Pakistan. Islamabad shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured its pilot in a subsequent aerial dogfight.
In August of the same year, India’s prime minister withdrew Indian-ruled Kashmir’s autonomy in order to tighten his grip over the territory, provoking outrage in Pakistan and the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade. Both India and Pakistan rule Kashmir in part but claim the Himalayan valley in full.
“Although a general war between India and Pakistan is unlikely, crises between the two are likely to become more intense, risking an escalatory cycle,” said the annual threat assessment report for 2021 prepared by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and sent to Congress.
“Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations, and heightened tensions raise the risk of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, with violent unrest in Kashmir or a militant attack in India being potential flashpoints.”
“The tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan remain a concern for the world,” the report said, referring to regional conflicts that continue to fuel humanitarian crises, undermine stability, and threaten US persons and interests.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars and had tense ties since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
But in a rare sign of rapprochement, they held the first meeting in three years of a commission on water rights from the Indus River in March.
In February, the two nations announced a rare agreement to stop firing on the bitterly-contested border in Kashmir.
This week, the United Arab Emirates envoy to Washington said the UAE had played a role in getting longtime rivals India and Pakistan to agree to a cease-fire amid tensions over disputed Kashmir.
Speaking in a video released Wednesday by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Yousef Al-Otaiba acknowledged an Emirati role “in bringing the Kashmir escalation down.”
“We try to be helpful where we have influence with two different countries,” Al-Otaiba told H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser to Trump. “India and Pakistan was the most recent one.”


Over 1.4 million Afghan refugees to get new 'proof of registration' smartcards

Updated 15 April 2021

Over 1.4 million Afghan refugees to get new 'proof of registration' smartcards

  • Supported by the UN refugee agency, the program will also help prepare targeted health, education and livelihood programs for refugees
  • The country conducted a similar documentation and verification survey about 10 years ago

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has launched a nationwide verification exercise for 1.4 million Afghan refugees to distribute new smartcards among them, said a statement issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Thursday. 

The Documentation Renewal and Information Verification Exercise (DRIVE) was inaugurated in by Federal Minister for States and Frontier Region Mehboob Sultan in the presence of UNHCR Representative Noriko Yoshida. 

“Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees for four decades, and a lot has changed since the last verification exercise 10 years ago,” said the minister. “It’s crucial that we update the data of Afghan refugees to understand their situation better.” 

The UN refugee agency also highlighted the necessity of the program by mentioning its administrative significance.  

“The DRIVE exercise is a leap forward for everyone,” Yoshida noted. “This step will allow refugees to have better, faster and safer access to services, including schools, hospitals and banks.” 

The UNHCR representative added that the exercise will not only be helpful in verifying the existing data but will also record the skillsets of Afghan refugees, their education level and socio-economic circumstances to provide them more targeted health, education and livelihood support in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, Sultan urged all Afghans with Proof of Registration cards to fully participate in the exercise. 

Six hundred male and female staff – a combination of government and UNHCR personnel – will be working at some 35 DRIVE verification sites around the country. 

Measures have also been taken at all DRIVE sites to mitigate COVID-19 risks through enhanced hygiene, physical distancing and the scheduling of set numbers of appointments each day.