With the winters here, smog has once again engulfed Punjab. The air quality has dipped beyond acceptable limits in all the province’s major cities. The densely populated city of Lahore has become poisonous for its residents due to the ‘hazardous’ air quality amid smog, making it the worst-ranked city in the world on the Air Quality Index. Meanwhile, the air quality of Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Gujrat, and Rawalpindi has been declared ‘unhealthy’ as per the Air Quality Index by IQ Air. Other provinces of Pakistan do not offer healthy air either; however, the issue of smog makes Punjab’s environment the worst.
Smog is nothing new for Punjab as it has been haunting the province’s people for the past several years. However, the intensity of the issue keeps increasing with each passing year. In the winter season, as the smoke and fog mix up, a dense layer of smog engulfs the big cities of the province, paralyzing routine life activities. This year, according to environmentalists, the issue will be further aggravated due to the recent floods, which left vast territories of Pakistan inundated. In areas where the flood water has not drained yet, smog will be intensified due to increased evaporation. Yet the government has taken no effective measures to tackle this recurring hazard threatening the lives of millions.
Emissions from vehicles, industries, and brick kilns are the leading causes of the low air quality in most cities of Pakistan. Dust arising from construction activity is also a significant contributor to air pollution. On top of all these, stubble burning by rice farmers in Punjab is also a major cause of smog. Meanwhile, deforestation reduces nature’s ability to tackle these emissions. The situation worsens in winter due to temperature inversion and fog, which, simply put, freezes the pollutants in the air, hindering their settlement or dispersion.
Smog has devastating ramifications for human life. It is hazardous for health as prolonged exposure to polluted air can cause strokes, heart diseases, eye diseases, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. Air pollution has become one of the most challenging health hazards globally, killing at least 7 million people annually, as per WHO. In Pakistan alone, 128,000 lives are lost annually to pollution-related health complexities, according to a 2019 estimate by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution. Smog also affects socio-economic activities as it disrupts communications and outdoor life. The routine commute of people to workplaces or educational institutions is affected by smog as the outdoor air becomes unbreathable and the visibility is reduced. Air traffic is also affected by smog as flights are canceled, delayed, and diverted due to reduced visibility. So far, even telecom signals are weakened due to the higher air density.
Despite the dire consequences, the government’s handling of the issue is unsatisfactory. In 2019, then-Prime Minister Imran Khan announced drastic measures to curb the degrading air quality across the major cities of Pakistan. He announced importing Euro 5 fuel, which emits significantly less carbon than regular petrol, by the end of 2020. He had also announced the import of machinery worth 30 billion rupees to replace the practice of stubble burning, which catalyzes smog. The government had planned to convince owners of brick kilns to adopt modern zigzag technology, which is relatively environment-friendly. Furthermore, 8,000 acres of land in Lahore had been identified for urban forestry. Although these measures would have significantly helped curb the issue of smog, their implementation remained unhurried, due to which smog could not be prevented even in 2022.
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The smog issue requires emergency handling, strict and quick implementation of drastic measures, and consistent environment-friendly policies. Every year, the government comes up with new plans to tackle smog, pointing to the absence of any long-term strategy or policy regarding the issue. Instead of a reactionary approach, which never solves an issue in the long term, the government must adopt proactive measures to protect the people of Punjab from the menace of smog. Long-term policies and strategies should be devised and strictly followed to tackle rising air pollution in the country.
Any person or industry found excessively contributing to air pollution should be punished and fined. However, a thorough awareness campaign should precede such coercive measures. The farmers involved in stubble burning need awareness and assistance to use alternative means of getting rid of the residue. Similarly, vehicles, industries, and brick kilns contributing excessively to air pollution must be shut down to protect the environment. While the crackdown against hazardous industrial and vehicular emissions by authorities in Lahore is a step in the right direction, it should not be a temporary action. The zero-tolerance policy against hazardous emissions should be strictly enforced consistently across Pakistan.
Scientific and technological solutions to the smog issue should also be pursued, as has been done by developed countries. For instance, Rotterdam had installed air purification towers capable of filtering 3.5 million cubic meters of air daily. The method proved quite effective; hence several countries, including China, installed such towers in industrial cities. This option must be explored for Lahore, the worst-hit city by smog.
Since environmental degradation is a transnational issue, it requires international cooperation to be effectively tackled. Former Minister for Climate Change Ms. Zartaj Gul alleged in 2019 that Lahore suffers smog due to stubble burning in Indian Punjab. Although her analysis was incorrect, her reasoning is not unfounded. No matter how drastic measures Pakistan takes to curb smog unless India does so too, Punjab, on both sides of the border, will keep suffering smog. Hence Pakistan, India, and the international community must cooperate to check air pollution and restore a healthy environment.
Long-term measures recommended by World Health Organization to tackle air pollution include; investing in energy-efficient power generation, provision of clean and affordable fuels for domestic purposes such as cooking and heating, development of greener cities and energy-efficient buildings, environment-friendly urban planning, building eco-friendly public transport systems and encouraging the use of a bicycle. Pakistan must fast-track the construction of mega hydropower projects, including the Diamer-Bhasha Dam and Dasu Hydropower Project, as hydropower is one of the cheapest and cleanest energy sources. Similarly, investing in eco-friendly public transport systems in megacities will also positively influence the environment.
Smog first emerged as a problem in the US and Europe in the 1950s and became a major problem in Japan in the 1970s. These countries have tackled the issue to a great extent with their effective scientific research and policy planning. Pakistan can learn from their success stories to effectively tackle the hazard. Meanwhile, people can protect themselves from the hazardous effects of smog by staying indoors, wearing a mask and glasses, and using domestic air purifiers. Drinking plenty of water and using inhalers is also recommended for people severely affected by smog. Lastly, it is the responsibility of each one of us to avoid any unnecessary activity that might harm the environment.