As millions gag on toxic smog, can Pakistan clean up its act?
Pakistan’s second largest city of over 10 million people, Lahore, is currently choking under debilitating smog and has repeatedly been finding itself ranked among the three most polluted cities in the world in recent years, including in 2021.
And yet this sprawling metropolis isn’t alone; Lahore is in bad national and regional company. A staggering 94 of the world’s worst 100 polluted cities in the world are in three countries of Asia – China, India and Pakistan – according to IQAir’s recent rankings. These include 46 cities in India, 42 in China, four in Bangladesh and six in Pakistan – Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Multan, Rawalpindi and Gujranwala. Ironically, these are the richest cities of Pakistan, housing about a quarter of Pakistan’s 220 million population, and yet failing to clean up their environment.
There are several reasons why Pakistan’s cities are dirty and exhausted and choking up the lives of their teeming residents. One is policy. Pakistan has a federal ministry on climate affairs which is spectacularly failing to provide adequate leadership and workable solutions on tackling pollution in the country’s ten cities with a population of one million or more.
Seasonal winter smog – mainly caused by Punjab’s agricultural heartland defying the ban on setting alight the stubble of its harvested wheat and rice crops – summer flash floods resulting from poor water management and inadequate embankment along the long rivers that course through the country’s sprawling provinces, and not enforcing policies on treatment of year-round industrial waste and effluent.
Also helping choke up the air is the runaway addition of hundreds of thousands of vehicles to the roads every year that is worsening both traffic jams and clogging up not just concrete highways but also human arteries, as well as the widespread use of poor grade fuel by the unbridled transport and energy sectors.
Pakistan’s provinces must establish climate ministries of their own to tackle their largest environmental challenges and allocate adequate resources to address the problems.
Not prioritizing adequate enforcement and management of these four main areas is choking up the metropolizes of Pakistan with a resultant phenomenal spike in respiratory diseases and cancers that is affecting millions. Runaway urbanization without appropriate environment management policies and resources are entrenching a sense of drift that is making life unhealthy and difficult to sustain.
The human and economic costs are high. In 2019, members of Pakistan’s Senate were shocked when told by the government that over 128,000 Pakistanis die every year due to climate-related illnesses and that environmental pollution was decreasing lifespans on an average between two to five years. Additionally, close to a tenth of the country’s GDP is being adversely affected by climate change.
Pakistan needs to take several urgent measures to address the worsening natural climate. Under the country’s constitution, provinces are responsible for all matters that affect them except for foreign, defense, economic and communications policies. While the federal government has a climate ministry, it is mostly focused on the country’s international obligations on the subject rather than providing policies and resources to manage the environment disaster swallowing up Pakistan.
Pakistan’s provinces must establish climate ministries of their own to tackle their largest environmental challenges and allocate adequate resources to address the problems. Pakistan’s 10 largest cities – boasting populations ranging from a minimum of one million to nearly 25 million – must radically reform their city master plans in a way that puts the wellness and health of their residents at their heart. This should be premised on environment and climate priorities driving city planning and management. Tax breaks and major business incentives must be offered to expand green projects and financing to achieve local green objectives.
The writing is on the wall. The human and economic costs of the unforgivable drift on Pakistan’s climate management is crossing the tipping point and must be urgently reversed. Going green is not a policy fad anymore but a matter of survival. Parliament, political parties, federal and provincial governments, and civil society must come together for a national green charter to greenlight sustainable, healthy development.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.