Pakistan’s struggle with air pollution

Poor air quality due to toxic air directly affects our immune system just like any other virus and this particular health problem takes off additional 2.5 years off our average life span.

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Over the last 20 years, air in Pakistan has become polluted beyond ordinary levels as climate change becomes a deadly fact. According to a recent World Air Quality Report, Pakistan is one of the top countries with the worst air quality. Simply put: more than 9% of our population or over 100,000 people will continue to die every year due to ‘toxic air’, in the form of highly concentrated toxic chemicals called PM-particulate matter – a new breed of an invisible enemy.

Pakistan, a signatory of the Paris agreement, is also the 6th most vulnerable nation to climate change

Pakistan, the most vulnerable to climate change

In the last 20 years, Pakistan has witnessed over 141 extreme events with an average
death toll of over 600 lives and an economic loss of over USD 3.9 million. Fueled with over population, urbanization, unemployment and climate change in the aftermath of COVID-19, Pakistan is in danger of impacting many of its under-served communities with health issues, as yearly health costs rise up to USD 12-13 billion. Unlike Russia, India and China, Pakistan’s contribution as a polluter is not as severe but the country is at high risk as a victim.

Read more: Air pollution makes COVID-19 more lethal

Air pollution in populated nations has become a serious health hazard. South Asia is a high impact region due to weak emission control strategies by powerful economies. Few years back, there were over 870000 deaths reported due to air pollution worldwide. Trend analysis today would safely indicate double that number, in the post-pandemic era.

Pakistan, a signatory of the Paris agreement, is also the 6th most vulnerable nation to climate change. Due to the green house effect leading to higher gas emissions, the earth is currently experiencing ‘global warming’ -a rise in average temperatures for up to 4% centigrade which impacts climate globally through severe weather patterns, causing flash flood, sea level rise or coastal flooding, melting of the ice-caps, water scarcity, desertification, excessive rains and poor crop yield to name a few. Not many are aware of the potential new threat of disease that is visibly evident in our atmosphere.

Read more: Air pollution kill more people than you can ever guess!

Poor air quality due to toxic air directly affects our immune system just like any other virus and this particular health problem takes off additional 2.5 years off our average life span. This clearly means higher mortality rates in adults as well as children. Ministry of Climate Change needs to proactively engage on a province-specific climate change policy, linking the needs of each province to the national climate change policy framework for implementation in line with the goal of the federal government for inclusive growth and the green economy.

Additionally, the need to embed the sustainable development goals with our economic policy must be done quickly to assist the academia and policy experts in understanding the seriousness of climate ‘adaptation’ goals. SDG-13 (Taking urgent action against climate change) has been proposed as a major dedicated goal through improving education, awareness-building of youth and mitigation strategies like building institutional capacity, impact reduction and clarity.

Over 3 million children die every year due to such environmental factors- a shocking number by any population standard.

This will eventually create ‘ adaptation’ as people will save water, store food and maintain a secure living and save the crops and land through human awareness.  By adaptation, I mean to suggest a set of procedures that will aim to reduce the vulnerability to human systems against actual or expected climate effects.

Pakistan Clean Air Program 

A clear understanding is now required on what we are dealing with here. Key findings highlighted by the government in the PCAP – Pakistan Clean Air Program report include where 4 key factors identified as major killers – including natural dust, burning of solid waste, industrial emissions and smoke from vehicles. On an average, over 71,000 tons of solid waste is generated form mega-cities of Pakistan on a daily basis but we do not have a proper system of disposing off the waste. This huge debris of pollution is then burnt, causing excessive fumes to enter the atmosphere in massive quantity- which is poisonous air.

Read more: Lahore’s Air Turns against Lahoris: People suffer by Air pollution & Smog

Major pollutants identified as critically risky for health include Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Lead (PB) and particulate matter called PM. Only O3 was found to be meeting quantity guidelines while the rest were found in higher quantities. NO2 and PM.2.5 were identified as highly dangerous. It has been found that people who live in high polluted areas in  mega cities have a 20% higher risk of getting lung cancer in their living years, especially people living in closed spaces in dirty slums or traffic infested areas.

Over 3 million children die every year due to such environmental factors- a shocking number by any population standard. WHO estimates that reductions in the annual average of PM-particulate matter concentrations could help reduce air pollution by 15%, where as Pakistan is currently 100% over it’s the acceptable threshold levels.

Read more: Can air pollution raise risk of death and heart diseases?

If we look at bare minimum numbers, estimations indicate over 40,000 premature adult deaths and 90,000 hospital admissions, over 5-6 million cases of lower respiratory illness in children, and over 800 million cases of respiratory diseases in our entire population. This is probably the highest health impact being borne by any country in South Asia that is not impacted by commercial warfare.

It is important to note here that the above data was pre-pandemic not post-pandemic and there may be an alarming rise in casualty numbers today as compared to earlier figures of the PCAP 2020 report. We must also keep in mind that reduction in air pollution levels may have occurred the in summer months by default, due to the closure of power plants and mills and people being home as opposed to working in factories. It is not something that could be credited to the health department as lifting the quarantine may now indicate a re-emergence during winter season.

Read more: Poor hit hardest by air pollution in Europe

Increased air pollution is a bigger threat. We fail to see that the combined world polluted smoke and the solid waste residues burning in the air are leading to a slow depletion of the ozone layer – a natural O3 gas that exists around the earth’s atmosphere at 10 kilometers above the earth’s surface, protecting us from the rays of sun and the radiation waves that cause eye diseases and skin cancers. This means breathing more toxic air over time.  If the ozone layer is depleted, millions of lives would be altered in a matter of days. We must also note that lung cancer cases are on the rise in most developing countries which there is no health insurance care for the majority.

In rural Sind, air pollution has a direct impact on crops with winter showing greater warming trends than summers.

On the waterfront, untreated water combined with air pollution doubles the risk of disease by crippling the remaining percentage of the population as toxic contaminated waste and untreated industrial pollution is being ‘systematically’ dumped in our rivers and oceans and affecting our drinking water supply. The same water precipitates into the air as water vapor that sometimes gives us acidic rain.

Green Climate Change Fund 

In 2010, the Green Climate Change Fund (GCF) was established by global governments to support programs, policies and financial mechanisms in coordination with the UNFCCC-United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce GHG’s (green house gases) by setting up country targets on national levels- indicating that nations omitting majority of GHG’s will need to reduce at a greater rate.

Read more: Iqbal’s ‘khudi’ and global environmental problems

The GCF fund was created to assist countries showing a responsive approach on climate change policy and action. According to Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, each partner country will maintain NDC’s (nationally determined contributions) to pursue domestic mitigation measures on the reduction of air pollution by controlling GHG’s to acceptable levels.

In Pakistan, the government is yet to announce a proper ‘mask disposal strategy’ as countless masks are being dumped into the oceans, adding fuel to the fire.

Pakistan also drafted the NCCP (National Climate Change Policy) in 2012. Furthermore, in line with the ‘Kyoto protocol’- an international independent binding agreement for all nations governments, it was agreed to set focused targets on GHG reduction by industrialized countries. How far we are on the Kyoto Protocol is not accurately known to the public at large.

Highly affected areas and the reforms needed in Pakistan 

If we study urbanization levels, the province of Sind is the most affected. Heat waves have increased as the air changes. Out of an estimated population of 48 million people in Sind, almost 49% live in urban cities, some in posh areas and others in slums. All of these people are at risk of air pollution through excessive burning of solid waste and traffic fumes, lack of green spaces and a concrete city structure that generates more heat every day.

According to ADB, rise in temperature from 0.5 to 2 degrees centigrade will reduce agricultural productivity by 8-10% by the year 2040. Warning signs are visible but the government has not been able to track down simple applicable solutions.

Read more: Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger calls PM Imran a ‘climate action hero’

Karachi, the capital city of Sind is now an economic disaster with tons of toxic waste being dumped in the city and unchecked waste being thrown directly into the ocean, endangering millions of lives. In rural Sind, air pollution has a direct impact on crops with winter showing greater warming trends than summers. This has adverse affects on the rural farmers who depend on crops and yield. The change in maximum and minimum temperatures also creates the difference the quality of air we breathe everyday.

Current times demand urgent action with air pollution being marked as the silent killer.

Globally, nuclear waste and weapons manufacturing has left us more toxic air, leaving us potentially at risk of dying much earlier than usual. In Pakistan, the average age of the population has decreased from 65 years in the 1980’s to around 55 years in recent times-marking “Health as the single biggest risk factor to the GDP of the nation”.

Read more: Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger calls PM Imran a ‘climate action hero’

Air quality is decreasing and this will impact the lifestyles of over 180 million people of Pakistan. The principle sources are poisonous vehicle emissions and industrial pollution–burning and dumping of plastic becoming a potent risk. Both federal and provincial governments must identify on this issue and take it up for discussion in the parliament. Previous governments ignored environmental safety protocols through bad governance and the hope now is with the new government.

Every day, hundreds of plastic bags are seen floating in our waters with the public not being fined or reprimanded for this neglect. In Pakistan, the government is yet to announce a proper ‘mask disposal strategy’ as countless masks are being dumped into the oceans, adding fuel to the fire.

We will win this fight for the health of our country- the wealth of our nation.

We are collectively liable for breach of ‘human safety conduct’ along with our governments. What we need today is ‘safe air’ for our children and elders and better capacity building on health awareness and self-care. Strict measures must be taken immediately by provinces facing extreme poverty high by launching improved pension plans and cash transfers to the poor vulnerable segments. In Sind, almost the entire province is poverty stricken and without disposable incomes.

Read more: Op-ed: Climate change cannot be denied

Without government intervention, long term impacts will not be as significant. Incorporating the gender aspects of climate change impacts must be documented to protect our women and children. More clarity is also required on agriculture practices and crop yields and other knowledge facts, using media as the information leader.

All government hospitals must be engaged and all related health medicines must be subsidized for the general public with zero error policy. Audits in medical centers, clinics and major hospitals are very important right now. A number of monitoring stations need to be created with public guidelines issued before the arrival of winter.

On the educational front, the ‘SNC’-Single National Curriculum must include environmental sciences as a major subject across all public and private schools to offer basic ground-level information on climate change, air pollution and self-care,  for our young learners.

Read more: Op-ed: Monsoon disasters just a trailer of climate change storm that lies ahead for Pakistan

Current times demand urgent action with air pollution being marked as the silent killer.  A jointly coordinated effort by the Health Ministry and Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) will test the wisdom and resilience of our policy makers. We need to ensure limits on key pollutants, monitor current standards in place and redefine action plans to come up with an “emission control strategy”.

This winter- be ready to battle the invisible enemy.

We will win this fight for the health of our country- the wealth of our nation.

Zeeshan Shah, Director at Children Nature Network Asia, writes on Global Affairs, Climate Change, Governance and Public Policy. Zeeshan is an Environmental Journalist & Change Maker, with over 20 years of expertise in Media, Education and Banking sectors. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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