Air pollution in Pakistan has become a “public health emergency”, according to environment experts who urged the government on Tuesday to take immediate measures to improve air quality by offering support and solutions. The conference highlighting the increasing risks posed by air pollutants was organised by WWF-Pakistan.
In Pakistan’s second-largest city of Lahore, where smog has become a ‘fifth season’, the average range of Air Quality Index (AQI) is between 150—500 whereas an AQI reading of more than 300 is deemed “hazardous,” meaning serious health effects from spending time outdoors.
“Lahore saw only three days of good air quality in 2018 (January 1 — November 25), followed by four days in Karachi and 24 in Islamabad, when the AQI was between 0-50 which is considered good,” Abid Omar, founder of the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), told Gulf News.
19000 brick kilns in Pakistan
Emphasising on the importance of data, he said, “Without data, we are unaware of severe impact of air pollution on human health.”
Bad air quality might result in serious health effects, worsening lung and heart diseases and causing respiratory effects, especially during the winter months from October to December when citizens should avoid exposure to dangerous air, he added.
Despite the alarming situation, there is little public awareness on how air pollution affects our health.
You don’t see it, you feel it
“I don’t send my daughter to school if the AQI is above 300,” said environment lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam who has installed air purifiers not only at his home but also at his children’s school. “People are concerned about quality of water or food bad but not air because we don’t see the pollutants, that is why air pollution is termed silent killer.”
Experts urge that the government needs to focus on the sources of air pollution such as diesel emissions, crop burning, coal combustion (brick kilns and coal power), vehicles and industrial emissions. “Air pollution caused by traffic, industries, crop burning and burning of solid waste are major contributors of smog. Urban air pollution in Pakistan is among the world’s most severe, significantly damaging human health, quality of life, economy and the environment” says Hammad Naqi Khan, director general of WWF-Pakistan.
Responding to the growing risks by toxic air, Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, said the “government has already taken concrete steps including banning brick kiln operations and shifting to environment-friendly zig-zag technology, curbing open crop stubble and waste burning, planting trees and monitoring local as well as cross border pollution movements.”
Government also plans to monitor vehicular pollution and encourage fuel efficient vehicles to reduce pollutant emissions.
Elaborating the current smog policy, Syeda Malika, director general, Environmental Protection Department, shared highlights from Punjab Clean Air Action Plan which includes shutting down industrial units, brick kilns or any unit found polluting the air. Solid waste and crop stubble burning is also banned.
Crop stubble burning and brick kilns are considered as the major source of air pollution. But shutting them down is not the solution, the workers insist. “We understand the environmental hazards and are willing to mend ways. But we need financial and technical support from government and experts so that we can shift to zig-zag technology, environment-friendly kilns,” president of Brick Kiln Owners’ Association Pakistan Shoaib Khan Niazi told Gulf News.
Pakistan has about 19,000 brick kilns, he added.
Sharing example of actions and framework followed by China, Abid Omar, who has lived in Beijing for few years, suggests Pakistan can reduce air pollution by focusing in industry, agriculture, urban waste, transportation and lastly by monitoring air quality nationwide and integrating air quality with climate change. “Other nations have faced the same problem which shows smog can provide the impetus for overall environmental change for a cleaner and greener Pakistan.”