Lifting the mask off South Asia’s pollution stupor
Pakistan’s largest two cities – Karachi and Lahore – were conferred the dubious distinction of being among the top three worst polluted cities in the world in this month’s live global Air Quality Index (AQI) rankings. Other mega cities in the region – New Delhi, Dhaka and Kolkata included – fare little better these days. Even the cricket World Cup that India is hosting has felt the pinch of pollution.
Islamabad’s lush Margalla Hills are hard to make out these days with the haze blotting out their beauty. A minimally good AQI score for a city should be 50. Last week, the eastern city of Lahore crossed a whopping 400 on the AQI meter. The city is literally breathing poison. A health emergency has been imposed – schools and offices are being closed for two to three days a week and wearing face masks is mandatory albeit not many comply. Hospitals are over-run with patients struggling with respiratory afflictions.
But none of this is new. Every fall season the great plains of Pakistan and India – centered on the Punjab region – fall under the pall of wintry transition between harvesting and sowing, burning stubble spread over millions of hectares of agricultural land that needs to be cleared for the next cycle of crops. This leads to life threatening smog that billows out over hundreds of square kilometers smothering tens of millions of people making it difficult to attend offices and schools due to respiratory and other diseases. Motorways and highways have to be closed for hours every day to prevent deadly accidents.
And yet year after year, governments across both sides are failing to manage the situation. Punjab – on both sides of the India-Pakistan border – being the agricultural heartland and breadbasket of South Asia with its millions of farmers, is hard to regulate into compliance. Industrial complexes in the region in most major cities trap heat and moisture into a forbidding mix. You can almost slice the air with a knife. This year high courts in both Pakistan and India have become angry and enforced punitive orders to manage the situation. But little changes, beyond patiently waiting out weeks upon weeks of slow misery.
Is Pakistan ready with appropriate and adequate capacities to absorb and put to work any climate management financing it is likely to receive? Doubtful.
Pollution is as much a management challenge as it is an increasingly climate-induced burden that is changing weather patterns and imposing a health as well as economic cost on facing it. Pakistan, one of the world’s 10 most climate stressed countries already, has made some headway in recent years in improving national awareness about the need to tackle this on priority.
Considering that massive resources are required to put into place functional institutions and sustainable solutions that will tackle the enormity of climate crisis in any meaningful way – money Pakistan doesn’t have thanks to its politically-crippled economy – Islamabad has been plugging itself into global initiatives to qualify for climate financing and even contributing to global debates to forge global consensus. But is Pakistan ready with appropriate and adequate capacities to absorb and put to work any climate management financing it is likely to receive? Doubtful.
There are some policy steps for structural reforms that Pakistan can certainly take that can help it move beyond cosmetic steps – such as merely shuffling deputy commissioners in some cities to go scare some farmers and industrialists – to properly address challenges like winter smog, the monsoon flood, debilitating summer heatwaves and recurring droughts. The answer is to be policy-driven, institutionally centered and community-inclusive.
Pakistan has a federal climate change ministry – few countries in the region do – with a mandate to address climate-related crises, but it is not technically equipped to enforce a governance mandate within sprawling provincial jurisdictions. And yet the provinces have no capacity to resolve the issue of climate and natural resource management challenges.
The solution requires three minimal steps – establishing climate crisis ministries in the provinces, establishing trilateral engagement within provinces among ministries of climate, health and finance for integrated and efficient solutions, and making distinct climate management finance allocations in provincial budgets.
These policy steps need to be supplemented by the federal climate ministry to abandon half-baked implementation strategies in provinces where it has no jurisdiction and instead limit itself to serving as a bridge between international best practices and the provincial strategies for informed decision making, leaving the implementation to take necessary and adequate actions to tackle pollution sustainably to the provinces.
In the meanwhile, we in the region must keep those masks on and keep asking political parties ahead of looming elections in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka what they will do to tackle the climate crisis if we vote them into power.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.