Clean air is a human right denied to Pakistanis

Clean air is a human right denied to Pakistanis

Short Url

In August 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a historic resolution declaring that everyone on the planet had the right to a healthy environment, including clean air, water, and a stable climate. “We have made air, the element that keeps us alive- the number one threat to our health.” This was said by Martina Otto, Head of Secretariat, Climate and Clean Air Coalition. 

99% of people around the world breathe air that exceeds World Health Organization’s (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs). Countries and regions differ widely in their burden of air pollution. Populations living in low- and middle-income countries are most affected by this threat. In Pakistan, average PM2.5 concentration in 2021 was 156, which is 13.4 times the WHO annual AQG value (35ug/m3). Transport, industry, crop residue and waste burning as well as household reliance on unclean fuels and technologies for cooking significantly contribute to air pollution exposure and health outcomes in the population-- hence the health system pays for the price of illnesses resulting from air pollution. 

Fog in the past few years and in the winter months in the eastern city of Lahore has become synonymous with smog, wrapping the entire city in its noxious grey clutches. The average AQI in Lahore has mostly hovered around the unhealthy range of 157 to 176, with some parts of the city even reporting higher levels in the range of 450 mark. There are days when the AQI scale has even been above 600, which is deemed hazardous according to the WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQG). 

According to a tentative estimate by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution related illnesses. 

Mehreen Mujtaba

In January 2021, a research article published in The Journal of Cleaner Production documented that the poor air quality and smog in Lahore is largely attributed to rapid and unchecked urbanization, industrialization and increasing fossil fuel consumption. The study also identified smog as a potential source of health hazard with serious economic outcomes. The study highlighted that carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, vehicle exhaust and the burning of fossil fuel interact with sunlight and produce toxic photochemicals, leading to the formation of bad ozone (O3), which is regarded as the worst smog causing pollutant. The impact of smog on various sections of the population in the city was documented in a recent study in Lahore which revealed that people with different occupations either in outdoor or indoor environments, are equally affected by smog, especially in the winter season. Among them, middle-aged people and those with a history of a respiratory disease are specifically affected by smog. 

Pakistan ranks third in the world in terms of mortality attributed to air pollution. Depending on the data compiled from various modelling scenarios and type of pollutants, NASA released a report declaring Lahore the most polluted city in Pakistan due to higher levels of petrochemicals in the air. The results from the report confirm that the entire population of Pakistan has been exposed to high levels of PM2.5 concentrations for a very long time. The mean annual value of 54.7 ug/cu.m from 2003 to 2020 exceeds Pakistan’s National Environmental Quality Standards of < 15ug/cu.m annual mean.

The scale of the problem is massive and its dire health and economic consequences are already being felt by the populations living in all the major cities of the country, but especially in Lahore. Long term exposure to PM2.5 is reducing the average Pakistani’s life by more than two years, as demonstrated by a study conducted by the University of Chicago. According to a tentative estimate by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution related illnesses. 

Smog is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors, mainly temperature inversion traps pollution in the air, which combined with seasonal crop burning, on the India-Pakistan border, as well as other sources of year-round pollution and fog, cause a spike in pollution, particularly in the winter months. The major issue with the smog in Lahore is the petrochemicals in the smog.

The big question is what needs to be done. By addressing the causes which lead to this predicament every year, we can find a way forward. First and foremost is putting a complete ban on the archaic practice of crop residue burning and having talks with our neighboring country regarding the impacts on population health on both sides of the border. 

Secondly, provincial Environmental Protection Agencies need to regulate the emissions from the industrial zones and must issue clear directives for installation of air quality monitoring equipment in industrial premises, which are regularly visited and monitored by EPA. 

Banning smoke emitting vehicles, incentivizing electric vehicles and providing a robust mass transit system can all help alleviate the problem. 

For Lahore to repeatedly top the list of cities with air quality measuring above hazardous levels is disquieting. Government and institutional apathy in response to the situation is criminal. We can cry hoarse demanding climate justice due to the GHG emissions of the west being responsible for climate related disasters faced by the 220 million people of Pakistan, but we have to be honest with ourselves and try to look at our own shortcomings and make a joint effort at the country level to make our cities breathable for our future generations. Faulty policies, government shortfalls and institutional apathy in addressing this dire situation is criminal. 

- Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view