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Air Quality Woes: A Joint Struggle for India and Pakistan

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The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

Air Quality Woes: A Joint Struggle for India and Pakistan

Effectively addressing this challenge requires the governments of both India and Pakistan to prioritize year-round efforts aimed at reducing emissions.

Air Quality Woes: A Joint Struggle for India and Pakistan
Credit: Depositphotos

Life in major cities of India and Pakistan – Faisalabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, and more – is profoundly impacted by persistent air pollution. These cities routinely grapple with elevated levels of airborne contaminants, especially during specific periods of the year. The interplay of factors including industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, construction endeavors, and the recurring problem of crop residue burning during winter all contribute to the decline in air quality.

Once more, Lahore, Delhi, and Karachi face the unwelcome distinction of being among the world’s most polluted cities, even before the arrival of the winter season in 2023. Air quality is generally classified as healthy up to a value of 50, moderately tolerable up to 100, and perilous beyond 150. During the last weekend of October 2023, Lahore recorded air pollution levels ranging from 376 to 510, with New Delhi clocking in at 333.

These disconcerting statistics underscore the gravity of the air quality predicament, reinforcing the urgency of adopting effective measures to address this critical issue impacting millions of urban residents in the region.

The health repercussions of air pollution in cities are extensive and multifaceted. These bustling urban areas, besieged by elevated air pollution levels, confront a spectrum of health issues that affect people of all age groups. Major health concerns linked to substandard urban air quality encompass respiratory problems like the worsening of pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), amplified cardiovascular risks such as heart attacks and irregular heartbeats, increased susceptibility to lung ailments, decreased lung function, and hindered growth in children, potentially resulting in lifelong respiratory difficulties.

Common complaints also include allergies and respiratory discomfort, with weakened immune systems rendering individuals more vulnerable to infections and illnesses. The healthcare systems in both India and Pakistan are already under significant stress due to various factors, and the introduction of additional health challenges arising from poor air quality further strains healthcare infrastructure, making it even more challenging to address both existing and emerging health issues. Consequently, addressing air pollution becomes a paramount public health initiative, particularly considering the heightened vulnerability of children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions to its adverse effects.

Both India and Pakistan have ongoing sources of pollution, including industrial emissions, vehicular pollution, and construction activities. These sources release pollutants into the atmosphere year-round. However, during the winter season, specific weather conditions, such as temperature inversion and reduced wind speeds, exacerbate the issue. 

The phenomenon known as temperature inversion arises when a layer of cold air becomes trapped beneath a layer of warmer air. This inversion layer effectively acts as a lid, preventing the upward dispersion of pollutants and causing them to accumulate near the ground, ultimately leading to a deterioration in air quality. This is why pollution becomes particularly pronounced and visible during the winter months in these regions.

The onset of winter also brings crop residue burning, a widespread agricultural practice that significantly exacerbates air pollution in the Indo-Gangetic Plains. This practice primarily involves farmers burning excess crop residues, such as paddy straw, after the harvest season to swiftly clear fields for the next planting cycle. While it offers convenience to farmers, it has several adverse consequences, from environmental degradation to serious health concerns.

This crop-burning season typically lasts for two to four weeks in November. During this period, satellites frequently capture images of extensive smoke and heightened fire activity, primarily originating from stubble burning in northwestern India. This practice, deeply ingrained in traditional farming methods, contributes to the formation of hazardous smog and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air.

PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, small enough to be inhaled and capable of penetrating deep into the lungs, leading to a range of health problems. The increased concentration of PM2.5 particles in the atmosphere results in frequent episodes of haze, fog, and smog, significantly impacting the daily lives and livelihoods of people in the Indo-Gangetic Plains.

Additionally, the season is characterized by reduced wind speeds, hindering the typical dispersion and dilution of pollutants. Weaker winds during winter impede the natural dissipation of pollutants from various sources, including crop residue burning, industrial emissions, and vehicular pollution. Consequently, these pollutants linger in the air, accumulating and culminating in the formation of smog and haze.

The heightened demand for energy during the winter season represents another critical contributor to the issue. The cold climate necessitates increased energy consumption, primarily for heating purposes, resulting in more emissions from sources such as coal and biomass burning. These additional emissions further compound the predicament of air quality.

Lastly, the geographical layout of the Indo-Gangetic Plains is a significant factor in the region’s susceptibility to air pollution. The flat topography and high population density create conditions conducive to the accumulation of pollutants.

Collectively, these factors underscore the vital importance of the winter season in the Indo-Gangetic Plains when addressing and mitigating air pollution, with a specific emphasis on tackling the challenges associated with crop residue burning. It is imperative to undertake efforts aimed at reducing these practices and improving air quality during this season to safeguard both public health and the environment.

In response to the escalating air pollution crisis in the region, various stakeholders, including governments, environmental organizations, and local communities, have taken proactive steps to address this pressing issue. Effectively addressing this challenge requires the governments of both India and Pakistan to prioritize year-round efforts aimed at reducing emissions. Pollutants are released continuously from various sources, but their impact intensifies during the winter season due to specific weather conditions. Focusing on the promotion of public transportation, transitioning from traditional red bricks to environmentally friendly alternatives, encouraging the reuse of agricultural residues, and prioritizing clean energy production are essential steps that warrant increased attention and emphasis.

Nevertheless, despite commendable efforts, persistent challenges remain in enforcing policies and ensuring the broad adoption of modern farming practices. Obstacles such as farmers’ limited awareness, restricted access to machinery, and a strong attachment to traditional methods continue to impede progress.

To effectively overcome these challenges, both India and Pakistan must intensify their endeavors to bolster awareness campaigns and farmer education programs. These initiatives play a pivotal role in conveying the benefits of residue management practices while discouraging the harmful practice of crop burning. Moreover, enhancing access to modern machinery through programs like Custom Hiring Centers is of paramount importance to encourage broader adoption among farmers. Collaborating with agricultural organizations and non-governmental bodies will provide vital support in disseminating information and facilitating the adoption of sustainable practices on a wider scale.

In conclusion, through a concerted and inclusive approach led by responsible governments, India and Pakistan can significantly advance their efforts to reduce crop residue burning, enhance air quality, and promote sustainable agricultural practices. Recognizing that this issue extends beyond national boundaries, both countries must embrace a regional perspective to discover effective and enduring solutions. Collaborative endeavors offer the means to successfully mitigate the impact of smog and improve air quality in the Indo-Pakistani region, ultimately benefiting not only the environment but also the well-being of all their citizens. 

Keeping abreast of the latest policy developments and global environmental initiatives, engaging in constructive dialogues, and sharing knowledge with countries facing similar air pollution challenges are pivotal components of this collective effort. Together, India and Pakistan can pave the way for a healthier and more sustainable future in the Indo-Pakistani Plains.