Toxic smog, a form of air pollution, is taking a heavy toll on the residents of Punjab, particularly Lahore and its surrounding districts. Hundreds of people can be seen lined up at the hospitals awaiting treatment for illnesses caused by smog.
Several cities including Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan, Sahiwal, Sargodha, and areas of Sindh have been affected by smog. However, Lahore has been most severely affected by poor air quality in December and was ranked the most polluted city in the world. On December 13, the air quality index level of Lahore remained hazardous with an AQI of 348, according to the air quality index (AQI) ranking by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.
Inhaling smog can lead to respiratory ailments and also cause or aggravate conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Moreover, it contributes to cardiovascular diseases as air pollutants impair blood vessel function.
According to a report by the Urban Unit of the Planning and Development Department of Punjab, 83 per cent of Lahore’s pollution stems from the transport sector.
The government imposed smart lockdowns in Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan, Sahiwal, and Sargodha to protect people from the harmful effects of smog. However, significant policy measures and coordinated efforts among various governmental departments are needed to combat this environmental hazard.
What causes smog?
The phenomenon first emerged in parts of northern Punjab some two decades ago. Experts say that Lahore’s air is polluted throughout the year but remains invisible. Pollution becomes evident in winter when it mixes with fog to form smog. Winter air pollution is worse because temperature inversion prevents warm air from rising and traps pollutants closer to the ground.
As per the National Climate Change Policy Report 2021, increasing air pollution from agriculture, transport, and industry results in smog inflicting huge loss to aviation, reduced mobility, and loss of lives in accidents due to poor visibility and health hazards. Smog is not only Pakistan’s issue but it is indeed a regional issue.
Who is most affected?
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), air pollution is one of the top five causes of death among the entire population of Pakistan and young children are the most severely affected, along with the elderly. “Children are physiologically more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their brains, lungs, and other organs are still developing,” it said, adding that children breathe twice as fast as adults, increasing exposure.
As soon as the smog set in, major public hospitals’ paediatric emergency rooms in Lahore were packed with sick children and their parents. “It has gotten a lot worse than the previous years and it is affecting the health of children,” Dr Maria Iftikhar, senior registrar at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital’s paediatric department told Dawn newspaper. Provincial Health Minister Dr Javed Akram said hospitals were on high alert. “Beds and ventilators have been set aside for extra emergency cases.”
The introduction of efficient, reliable, and affordable public transport is the need of the hour. In addition, the use of renewable energy vehicles and clean technologies is important to gradually reduce smog.
A report published by the University of Chicago has revealed that the average lifespan of residents in Lahore will decrease by seven years due to the effects of smog.
Is the government doing enough?
In order to deal with toxic smog, the government made mask-wearing outdoors mandatory, increased days off in schools, prohibited crop residue burning, took action against smoke-emitting vehicles and environmentally polluting factories, issued directives to brick kilns to adopt zig-zag technology, and even experimented with the extremely expensive option of artificial rain. But despite these efforts, smog continues to significantly impact the lives of residents.
Some experts argue that artificial rain is a potential solution to alleviate smog in Lahore. However, it is essential to recognise that this approach addresses the symptoms rather than the root cause of smog, offering only a temporary relief.
The Punjab government came up with a smog master plan and cracked down on brick kilns operating without zig-zag technology, banned crop burning, issued tickets to owners of smoke-emitting vehicles, and set up a commission to deal with illegal housing societies.
Pakistan relies heavily on private transportation which leads to significant vehicular emissions that contribute to air pollution, therefore, the government must take initiatives on a war footing to enhance public transport.
According to a report by the Urban Unit of the Planning and Development Department of Punjab, 83 per cent of Lahore’s pollution stems from the transport sector. The Urban Unit’s May 2023 report titled Sectoral Emission Inventory of Lahore states that primary sources of pollution in Lahore include transportation, industry, agriculture, open-waste burning, and inefficient fuel consumption in commercial and domestic sectors. According to the report, the burning of crop residues contributes 3.9 per cent, while waste burning accounts for 3.6 per cent.
The report acknowledges that vehicle figures may be an overestimate since a large number of vehicles operating in various cities of Punjab province are registered in Lahore. However, the real figures would still be alarming enough to call for serious measures.
So far, the government has not devised a solid plan to curtail vehicular emissions to acceptable levels, which are responsible for causing a major share of the air pollution in a city of 11 million people. Experts have proposed a regional clean air incentives market (RECLAIM) programme to clean air in Pakistan as the United States of America did in 1993.
In May 2023, Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change introduced the National Clean Air Policy which aims to reduce harmful emissions in the next decade by introducing interventions in transport, industry, agriculture, waste, and household sectors. The main objectives of the policy are converting wood stoves and biomass cooking into cleaner and more fuel-efficient cooking and heating methods, removing the worst-emitting vehicles and implementing Euro fuel standards in the transport sector, stopping open burning in the agricultural sector as well as open burning of waste, and properly regulating industry emissions.
The introduction of efficient, reliable, and affordable public transport is the need of the hour. In addition, the use of renewable energy vehicles and clean technologies is important to gradually reduce smog. The government is trying to come up with policies to combat air pollution but only introducing polices will not work as implementation of the policies in letter and spirit is essential to get clean air and save lives.