Features | Environment | South Asia

Lahore’s Annual Smogfest

Every winter pollution spikes in Pakistan’s second largest city, yet politicians have done little to prevent the recurring crisis.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Lahore’s Annual Smogfest

Heavy smog blankets the historical Badshahi Mosque, in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

For a brief period on October 29, Lahore was ranked the most polluted city in the world on the global Air Quality Index (AQI), a ranking also echoed by the World Economic Forum. By day’s end, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province had returned to the second slot on the list behind New Delhi, where Lahore spent much of late October and the first half of November.

On November 17, Lahore’s ranking “improved” on the AQI as it moved to the third slot, with the city’s air quality now deemed “unhealthy” from the previous “hazardous.” The 157 registered on the AQI at the time was a significant plummet from the over 500 that Lahore registered at the start of the month.

The hazardous levels of smog resulted in the closure of schools in Lahore and other cities in central Punjab on two separate occasions this month. The Punjab school education department has banned all outdoor activities till December 20.

An AQI ranking ranging between 150 and 200 is deemed “unhealthy.” Between 300 and 500, the AQI becomes “hazardous.” Values above 500 are “beyond the AQI,” which is what Lahore managed to touch over the first weeks of November. Lahore’s rise on the AQI, eventually going off the charts, was visible in the growing density of smog that engulfed the city, as visibility plummeted and suffocation soared.

Smog forms owing to the mixture of water vapor, dust, and pollutants, which are released thanks to the burning of fuels and the resulting chemical reactions with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other volatile organic compounds.

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Experts highlight that the gases are released into the air from gasoline and diesel vehicles, industrial plants, and the burning of fields, with the low wind speeds during the start of winter causing smoke and fog to stagnate and concentrate in certain areas. As a result, smog has become an annually recurring phenomenon in Lahore in the latter half of this decade.

And yet, successive governments have failed to tackle a crisis that continues to exacerbate. Critics say the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s downplaying of the crisis is especially concerning.

Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul dubbed the reports of smog “fake news,” accusing an opposition protest rally of causing the surge in air pollution. Officials have also put the blame of smog on “Indian farmers.”

When Punjab’s chief minister announced the closure of schools on November 6, through his Twitter account, the Amnesty International retorted strongly, calling the inaction over the environmental crisis a “violation of human rights.”

Observers maintain that not only has the government failed to take sufficient action to curb smog, it has actually contributed in the aggravation of the crisis for its own gains. The Punjab government was accused of “politicking on public health” after taking back its decision to close down brick kilns in the region, which are cited as a major contributor to the annual smog.

Experts say that the government’s touted claims of not wanting to render anyone jobless ring hollow given its failures to create alternatives for those working in sectors contributing to pollution and lack of interest in incorporating environment friendly technology.

What made things worse for the locals was the Punjab government’s clash with the Young Doctors Association (YDA), which overlapped with the rise in smog. The doctors went on strike across public hospitals to protest the Punjab Medical Teaching Institutions Act (MTI) 2019, which YDA called a “privatization” of government hospitals.

The Diplomat visited prominent public hospitals in Lahore during the first week of November, including General Hospital, Mayo Hospital, Services Hospital, and Ganga Ram Hospital. At these institutions, despite the expected rise in respiratory diseases, there was a significant decrease in patients in the pulmonology departments.

“The patients aren’t coming because there are no doctors to attend them. The only patients we have in the department are those that had been already admitted here before the strike began,” Dr. Hassan from Mayo Hospital told The Diplomat, requesting that his surname be kept anonymous.

Separately, doctors and staff members revealed that some patients were being treated, especially those who needed urgent treatment, but that was kept off the books given the ongoing strike.

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The smog crisis also overlapped with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being admitted to Services Hospital. The hospital staff revealed that much of the hospital’s attention was diverted toward the treatment of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supreme leader, with the Head of Pulmonology department Prof. Dr. Kamran Khalid Cheema being a part of the Special Medical Board formed for Sharif’s treatment as well.

The former premier was eventually shifted to Sharif Medical City Hospital on November 5, and left the country for London on November 19 for treatment. Following the Lahore High Court (LHC) order, the doctors also ended their strike on November 7, allowing public hospital wards to work back toward normalcy across Punjab.

But with the government holding the masses’ health hostage amidst its political struggles and exhibiting persistent disregard for the policymaking needed to overcome the smog crisis in the near future, experts continue to ring the alarm bells.

“Tackling this issue requires a concerted effort, with policy change and implementation of measures that ensure decrease in emissions from vehicles and industries. Dirty coal plants, traffic emissions are completely unregulated because vehicles are not required to ensure proper maintenance,” chartered environmentalist and climate change activist Saima Baig told The Diplomat.

“Policy change and legislation are the means to do this and there is no interest in the country to do so. The PTI government’s sole contribution to climate action is planting trees. While this is a good idea, climate change is not just due to a lack of trees,” she added.

Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Ali Tauqeer Sheikh underlines that the government has failed to take into account how the agricultural practices have changed in Punjab.

“Other than rabi and kharif, now there is a third season of growth in the provinces of Punjab in both India and Pakistan, which isn’t factored [into government planning]. It requires the field to be freed as soon as possible, which leads to crop burning. Similarly, the area under cultivation for thirsty crops is constantly growing in Punjab, which causes groundwater depreciation, resulting in solid particles settling in air,” he told The Diplomat.

“Also, Pakistan does not have a refinery that can give fuel worth Euro Standard 2, 3, or 4. The consumers are sold low grade fuel and charged prices for high grade. This has aggravated the emission level in urban transport, especially those vehicles with two-stroke engines, like rickshaws,” he added.

Sheikh believes that the government has created a binary of poverty versus pollution, resulting in a lack of action against contributors to smog owing to the economic impact it might have.

“The government needs to pursue technological solutions, not administrative solutions. Knee-jerk reactions on brick kilns, for instance, would bring the economy to a standstill. They need to be shifted to zigzag technology, for which commercial banks should be encouraged to provide loans,” Sheikh said.

“Similarly, solar rickshaws can be tested. The government should also invite private companies into transportation sector, like [bus hailing startup] Airlift. Industries and markets should be created in Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Wazirabad to provide low cost industry solution for farmers,” he added.

Dr. Ghulam Rasul, the former director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, maintains that South Asian states should collaborate given that they are fighting the same battle.

“In Beijing they have adopted, on one hand, strict vehicle fitness rules; on the other hand, one day odd number vehicles [are allowed] on roads and other day even. We can also follow it as the winter fog policy,” he told The Diplomat.

“Unfortunately, India is not cooperating with Pakistan to minimize the recurrence of smog, which has become the health hazard on both sides. Two Punjabs and One Atmosphere concept should be realized and simultaneous actions can be result oriented,” he added.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based correspondent.