Ground zero – Irfan Hussain

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I COULD see the curtain of haze miles away as we drove to Lahore from Islamabad recently. And before I remembered the air mask I had been presented, my throat had begun to itch.

I had been reading about the Lahore smog for weeks, but this was my first recent experience of it. Like much else in Pakistan, we wake up when a crisis is upon us. Editorials and articles are written bemoaning the state of affairs; politicians get on their soapboxes to blame others; and committees are formed to address the problem.

But as soon as the problem recedes, it is back to normal with all the players exhausted by their unaccustomed expenditure of energy. In the case of our annual smog crisis — and it is a crisis — we go through the usual drill before settling back and waiting for a miracle to deliver us of this plague.

In his excellent analysis published in the EOS section of the last weekend’s issue of Dawn, Ahmad Rafay Alam lays some persistent myths to rest. Much of the data here is drawn from his article (‘If you haven’t seen Lahore…’). Abid Omar also contributed to the discussion.

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Perhaps the only encouraging thing to emerge from the ongoing debate is the rise in consciousness among the young. Schoolchildren, deprived of their lessons again and again due to school closures caused by smog, are now aware that their health and education are at risk because of environmental factors.

We are inhaling some of the foulest air on the planet.

For years, the period between November and January is now semi-officially designated as the smog season. Pakistani politicians, trying to duck their responsibility, point the finger at Indian farmers and their practice of burning rice stubble. But this is a two-way street. Our farmers do exactly the same thing. The problem on both sides of the border is caused by shifting wind direction: in the winter, the ‘westerlies’ bring strong gusts from India to Pakistan, but this can change quickly.

While playing the blame game with India over agricultural pollution, we have closed our eyes to the other causes that contribute even greater amounts of particulate matter. Industry, transport and the power sector pump a whopping 80 per cent of the pollutants in our atmosphere.

Independent power projects, often coal-fired, are some of the worst offenders. Meanwhile, the fuel we import is probably the filthiest in the world. Instead of being at the Euro II standard, we continue to use dirty petroleum products that add to the pollution.

Despite all this harm inflicted on children, the elderly and pregnant women, we continue merrily along our polluting trajectory. Knowing what we do about the health impact of polluted air, we bury our head in the sand instead of tackling the issue with the determination it warrants.

For example, a day in Lahore during peak pollution is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes. Having kicked the habit many years ago, the last thing I need is a high dose of nicotine equivalent. Kids are especially vulnerable to this pernicious air. Their mental and physical development can be impaired, and foetuses can carry this tar when their mothers breathe in this poison.

The Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, or PAQI, has placed a number of air-monitoring devices that report on air quality in Punjab. Instead of welcoming this NGO’s efforts, officialdom asserts that the monitors are unreliable. In that case, the government should install its own.

Thus far, we have treated the problem as specific to Lahore and Punjab. But this impression is belied by the fact that we breathe polluted air across Pakistan. Accor­ding to PAQI data, the number of ‘unhealthy days’ in Lahore in 2018 was 187 against 152 in Karachi and 86 in Islamabad. But Karachi went through 166 ‘sensitive days’ against 88 for Lahore.

Karachi, of course, is often swept clean by its sea air, while the ‘inversion lid’ over Lahore can trap polluted air over the city for days. But make no mistake: we are all inhaling some of the foulest air on the planet.

The Thar coal-fired power project shows how far we are from the international consensus on global warming, and the fallout of the carbon we spew into the atmosphere. Our preoccupation with petty politics blinds us to the larger issues of our times. Until we hold our leaders to account, little will change.

Another issue to consider is the need to cooperate with our eastern neighbour to address these problems on both sides of the border. We do not need to resolve the Kashmir conflict to ensure clean air for Pakistani and Indian children.

So I fear that until the number of the dead and the seriously ill multiplies, little will be done by our politicians and bureaucrats. Once the haze lifts, and life returns to normal, it will be business as usual. Committees will no doubt be formed to make recommendations, but nothing will change until the next smog season.

irfan.husain@gmail.com