Growing up in Lahore — Pakistan’s cultural capital — fall used to be the perfect time for Mariam to enjoy outdoor activities after months of scorching summer heat. Now, she cannot imagine the same for her young daughters as Lahore’s air, ranked the most polluted globally, becomes unusually toxic in cooler months.
“You can just smell, sometimes you can taste it, and feel it as well,” said the mother of two describing what it is like to breathe the polluted air.
With an AQI reading of 345 early in the day, Lahore ranked second worst city in the world for air pollution on Tuesday, according to the Air Quality Index or AQI run by IQAir, a Swiss air purifier manufacturer.
An AQI above 151 is unhealthy, while above 301 the air is hazardous for breathing.
IQAir’s index ranked Lahore the most polluted city of 2022.
The city, along with several other in Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab,is under a month-long smog emergency since early November.
Smog – a combination of smoke and fog – is a specific phenomenon that occurs when certain pollution particles mix with cold, moist air and hang close to the ground, reducing visibility.
In a bid to reduce traffic congestion and exposure to toxic air, the top court in Punjab on Monday ordered the closure of government-run educational institutions on Saturdays until the end of January 2024. The court also asked the provincial government to come up with a work-from-home plan for the private sector.
A year-long emergency
For a few weeks in fall, smoke in Punjab’s air increases as Pakistani and Indian farmers on both sides of the divided state burn agricultural residue to prepare fields for planting the next crop. Environmentalists, however, say the government is in denial about the extent of Pakistan’s pollution problem, which is primarily driven by low quality, high-Sulphur fuel.
“Air pollution has always been an issue in Pakistani cities, going back the better part of 15 odd years,” Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Lahore-based environmental lawyer told VOA. “We have a year-long regional air pollution emergency and we tend to think of it as a Lahore smog issue.”
According to the Air Quality Life Index developed by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, 98.3 of Pakistanis breathe air that is below the country’s own national air quality standard.
In 2017 the provincial Environmental Protection Department came up with an 11-point policy, on court orders, focusing on controlling emissions from vehicles and factories.
The court was, however, dissatisfied and constituted a smog commission for detailed analysis and recommendations on improving air quality.
Speaking to VOA, Naseem-ur-Rehman Shah, secretary of the provincial Environment Commission claimed that 80% of factories were now monitoring their emissions while 70-percent of brick kilns had moved to an environmentally friendly design
Still, data paints a terrifying picture.
“Every figure is telling you that the air pollution in Lahore is about, on the lower end, like 30, 40 times higher than the WHO safe limits,” said Abid Omar, founder of Air Quality Pakistan Initiative, a network of volunteers who monitor air quality using IQAir monitors.
Omar is based in Karachi which routinely competes with Lahore and Delhi for the worst air quality in the world.
For the city of nearly 15 million people, Punjab’s environmental agency gathers data from only five air quality monitors in Lahore.
Omar’s Pakistan Air Quality Initiative has 50 monitors feeding into IQAir’s Air Quality Index.
Shah’s department does not use PAQI’s data over standardization concerns but it is planning to add several monitors of its own.
In 2019, the provincial environmental regulator was forced to revise its air quality standards after it emerged officials were underreporting pollution by using low standards.
Alam represented the complainants in taking the regulator to court.
Knee jerk reaction
With air quality declining dramatically this month, the provincial and city administration have ramped up crackdown on smoke-emitting factories, brick kilns, and vehicles.
Citing city administration, local media reported that more than 16,000 vehicles were ticketed and over $100,000 dollars in fines imposed since the beginning of the emergency.
Omar calls such administrative measures a knee jerk reaction lacking long-term impact.
“Because it’s very random and ad hoc implementation, it’s not going to be an effective policy,” Omar said.
Shah called such criticism unfair. “We are working to eliminate sources of pollution,” he said.
“What we need to do is improve the quality of our refineries, which don’t produce high quality fuels … you have to transition to renewable energies, which is expensive and time consuming,” said Alam, pointing to studies that show fuel and energy sector are among the primary polluters in the country.
In May this year, Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change introduced the National Clean Air Policy. It aims to reduce harmful emissions in the next 10 years by introducing interventions in transport, industry, agriculture, waste and household sectors.
Such an overhaul will take time, money, and political will.
For Mariam, who runs three air purifiers in her home, the only option at the moment is to keep her daughters indoors as much as possible.
“It actually feels like … you’re being deprived of something very basic … not being able to breathe in fresh air.”
According to the Air Quality Life Index at the University of Chicago, Pakistanis are losing 3.9 years of life expectancy because of breathing toxic air. In Lahore and the rest of Punjab, residents are on track to lose between 3.7 to 4.6 years of life expectancy.