A recent visit to Lahore brought me face-to-face with the city’s smog situation. It seems like a winter day on what is essentially autumn. More than that, it is not just the absence of proper sunlight that strikes you but the fact that the city seems to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke and dust. In some ways, it is an environmental nightmare that is unfolding before our very eyes.
Late October/early November is usually not the time for fog to descend on the city, let alone cloak it in such a way that the sunrays find it hard to penetrate. There must be a reason for this change in weather conditions. Global warming is one thing and this is an issue that stares us in the face.
Ironically, my trip to Lahore was to address a group of health reporters on the topic of health and nutrition. Before us, two experts – Dr Fouzia Waqar and Ali Khizar told us how our country’s population is being affected by malnutrition which leads to stunting and a generation of Pakistanis who are affected by this. It was a stark reminder of how successive governments have ignored health and nutrition.
The discussion turned to pollution and how Pakistanis are now consuming agriculture produce which is irrigated by sewage water (a comparatively recent trend in Punjab but one that has been in Karachi for decades) and are slowly being poisoned by arsenic-laced water. Our government has consistently ignored the consequence of its actions on the environment. And now perhaps we are seeing a payback time.
In the seminar at Lahore, I took the opportunity to ask reporters present what may be the reason for such weather in Lahore and its surrounding cities. Many pointed, and rightly so, to pollution. The return of non-CNG vehicles as a result of restrictions on sale of CNG to cars and heavy vehicles may have contributed to the pollution but the main culprit, like other of this size, is unchecked industrialisation. Locating pollution emitting factories close to the provincial capital may have played a big role in the situation it finds itself in today.
Other reporters talked about the burning of agriculture waste across the border, while some suggested that the massive cutting of trees by the Shehbaz Sharif government for its grandiose infrastructure projects may have played its part. Possibly it is a combination of all these factors.
The main question now, of course, is what to do. Residents have complained of a rise in respiratory diseases and ailments. Doctors are having a field day. Pharmaceutical companies are registering a more than anticipated rise in certain medications.
On the other hand, motorcycle riders say that they feel a burning sensation in their eyes after riding a few kilometres. Residents say they are having breathing problems. The Punjab government itself has issued a checklist to schools on how to deal with the situation.
Is this enough? It seems we are using short-term measures for what is essentially a long-term problem. In the words of senior health reporter Mukhtar Alam, it has taken us a number of years and lots of ‘hard work’ in the form of abusing the environment to get to where we are today in Lahore. It will take many more years to return to some sense of normalcy.
To begin with, a massive public awareness campaign needs to be launched on how to deal with this situation. Despite the prevalence of smog in the city, few road users could be seen wearing protective gears like paper or cloth masks to minimise the harm inhaling the toxic fumes.
Children are particularly at risk and their well-being should be ensured through preventive measures. At the same time, more attention needs to be paid to the environment. Cutting of trees must be made a criminal offence and a province-wide drive of planting more trees should start.
These are the lungs that Lahore desperately needs to start breathing again properly.
Pollution emitting vehicles and factories must be banned. The lives of millions cannot be put at risk for the wealth of a few. The million tree tsunami that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has initiated in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province may well be something that Punjab emulates. And this is only the beginning. We need to make Lahore an environment-friendly city. We just need the will to do so. Delhi did it in 10 years. What is stopping us?
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2017.
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