Dense fog is coming back again over Lahore

The latest WHO report on pollution in the world’s major cities places New Delhi at top of the list

Shahid Javed Burki October 29, 2018
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

Pakistan’s environmental problem has many dimensions. All of them need to be the focus of public policy. The government has to move on several fronts at the same time. Not addressing the situation Pakistan confronts at this time will have consequences that would be hard to reverse. What should the new government do to reverse the trend that has been in set in place for decades? Priority should be given to increasing people’s awareness of what is occurring all around them. I will begin with the problem of urban fog.

In November now for several years a number of environmental factors come together and result in settling a dense fog over Lahore and some of the major cities in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The latest World Health Organisation report on pollution in the world’s major cities places New Delhi at top of the list. Three South Asian megacities make it to the list; the other two are Dhaka and Mumbai. The level of particulate pollution considered the most harmful to human health has spiked to more than 30 times the limit prescribed by the WHO, reaching 292 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre of air in New Delhi. According to a Government of India study, stubble burning contributed up to 26 per cent of the most harmful particulate matter in the capital city’s winter pollution from 2013 to 2014; another study found that it contributed as much as 50 per cent on certain days during the stubble-burning season. Such particular matters referred to as PM2.5 are 30 times as thin as a human hair and can penetrate deep within the lungs.

A story filed by The Washington Post’s Joanna Slater from the village of Madan Peri in the Indian Punjab describes the situation similar to the one that affects Lahore in Pakistan. “One by one, in the coming days, farmers in this compact village in northern India will set fire to the straw in their freshly harvested rice fields. Then it will drift southeast toward New Delhi, thickening the smog that has turned India’s capital into the world’s most polluted major city in the world.” The story was put on its front page by the newspaper and drew a lot of attention from those in the United States who were planning to travel to the Indian capital for business reasons or for tourism. “Just weeks remain before the 29 million people living in greater Delhi are plunged into their annual battle with extreme air pollution,” continued Slater. These conditions also occur in Pakistan but with one difference. The authorities in India are taking steps to deal with the situation. In Pakistan at least up until now, those in power have ignored the situation.

In New Delhi, the government shuttered the last coal-fired power plant in Delhi and recently banned the use of certain industrial fuels within the city. On days when pollution increases, other measures will kick in such as a halt to all construction activities and a ban on trucks entering Delhi. The Punjab state’s government is also addressing the problem of stubble burning. The central government is helping the activist state administration. It has earmarked finance to help farmers buy machinery that turns rice straw into mulch. It is also helping in a large-scale awareness programme with songs on social media, television advertisements and village-by-village meetings urging farmers not to burn. The government’s campaign seems to be having an impact. According to the state government, there were 81,000 fires after rice harvest in 2016, then the figure dropped to 44,000 in 2017. There is also a law on the books that allows the farmers using fires to clear their fields to be fined ranging from $35 to $140 but the provision has been used sparingly.

In Pakistan, the problem is compounded by the pervasive use of soft-coal burning brick kilns and the use of diesel by the motor-rickshaws that are the major source of transport in major cities such as Lahore. There are no studies to indicate the contribution of these factors to pollution. That information is required to design appropriate public policy.

That positive results that can come reasonably quickly from government action was demonstrated by Imran Khan when his party governed the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There the Peshawar-based administration launched what was called the “billion tree tsunami.” The plan was to plant millions of trees on government- owned as well as private land, set of nurseries all over the province, and local communities were empowered to take care of the newly-planted saplings. As The Washington Post’s Pamela Constable wrote in a review of the initiative, “hundreds of thousands of trees were planted across the region, timber smuggling was virtually wiped out and cottage industry of backyard nurseries flourished.” Impressed by the results achieved by the PTI administration that governed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for five years after the elections of 2013, Imran Khan launched a “10 billion Tree Tsunami”. Officials say that they hope the programme will foster environmental awareness in their impoverished, drought-plagued country, where both greed and necessity have left forests stripped as according to the World Bank they now cover only two per cent of all land.

More actions are needed and these will need to come from the federal government. It is now well known that South Asia will be the most-affected region in the world and as the globe continues to warm. To reverse the trend that has begun to produce unprecedented weather events around the globe, there is an urgent need for the world to act together. For Pakistan to play its part, it should begin to move away from burning of fossil fuels to generate electric power and invest in hydropower as well as solar and wind energy.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2018.

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