Lahore has experienced smog for the past five years: in 2014, it ranked amongst the top 10 worst cities for smog according to a Deutsche Welle report.
This November, its intensity exposed the lack of effective planning by the city management and local administration.
Heavy smog brought a disastrous impact on daily life with traffic coming to a halt on motorways in the early office hours and after sunset due to dangerously low visibility. People complained of eye-irritation, coughing and asthma.
Lahore is a semi-industrial city comprising small and large-scale industrial units. Heavy traffic and on-going mega projects such as the Orange Line together produce significant pollution throughout the year.
In the surrounding cities of Kasur, Sheikhupura and Pindi Bhattian, around November, farmers burn their agricultural leftover sending a lot of smoke into the atmosphere. Crop residue can be disposed of in a sustainable way, but the cost is too high for the farming community.
The combined smoke from industries, traffic and crop-burning is normally washed away when it rains in winter, but this year, due to an early winter and no rain, this pollution and smoke has converted into smog causing low visibility and health issues for the residents.
According to Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, former director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, “Climate change has affected the climate cycle creating an extended dry cycle, which causes smog.”
However, Dr Adil Najam, Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University believes that climate change is not the only factor.
“This is much more a case of pollution. We have had a double whammy because pollution, especially from vehicles, has gone up while trees and vegetation have steadily gone down. What we are seeing is the combined effect of these two dynamics coupled with the weather pattern,” he points out.
What is smog made up of and how will it affect you?
Lahore experiences a photochemical smog which is a mixture of primary and secondary pollutants.
Primary pollutants are released into the atmosphere because of human activity while secondary pollutants are produced when primary pollutants react with each other or with the air in the presence of sunlight.
The primary air pollutants of smog are mainly composed of anthropogenic gases (gases resulting from human activity) including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter (extremely small particles combined with water droplets which can cause serious health problems when inhaled).
When these pollutants interact with damp air in cold weather a layer of thick smoke is formed near the earth’s surface. The thicker the smoke is, the higher the concentration of toxic gases and particles.
Pakistan has no real-time air quality monitoring system for on-site monitoring of its polluted cities.
However, some measurements taken during smoggy days show a concentration of pollutants much higher than those recommended by the National Environmental Quality Standards.
Exposure to smog for long hours can cause serious health issues — it can cause chest congestion, irritation in our respiratory system, reduce lung function and aggravate asthma. It also affects the immune system of animals to fight against harmful bacteria in the respiratory tract.
According to Dr Kashif Raza Khan, ophthalmologist at King Edward Medical University, exposure to smog can cause short-term eye-burning which can be treated by washing the eyes with water. Using a mask is recommended especially for motorcyclists.
What caused the current smog?
While the current smog over Lahore is being attributed primarily to crop burning, there are multiple sources of smog production.
A World Bank study revealed that from November 2005 to January 2006, several contributing factors were responsible for the high particulate matter in the air such as diesel emissions (28 per cent), biomass burning (15pc), coal combustion (13pc), secondary particulate matter (30pc), exhaust from two-stroke vehicles (8pc), and industrial sources (6pc).
The biggest culprits were diesel and emissions from motorcycles and rickshaws which accounted for 36pc of the high particulate matter.
Although a large component of the carbonaceous aerosols in Lahore originated from fossil fuel combustion, a significant fraction was derived from biomass burning.
What the government needs to do
Tackling pollution caused by vehicles will be the biggest headache for authorities. The number of vehicles in Pakistan has jumped from approximately two million to 10.6mn over the last 20 years, an average annual growth rate in excess of 8.5pc.
From 1991 to 2012, the number of motorcycles and scooters grew more than 450pc, and motor cars close to 650pc.
Industrial sites and factories such as brick kilns and steel mills located within city limits are also a contributing factor.
The government can turn to the courts for a solution
Pakistan’s judiciary has often dealt with environmental conservation, such as the establishment of Lahore Clean Air Commission by the Lahore High Court (LHC) which was assigned to prepare and submit a report to measure, control and improve vehicular air pollution in the city.
There are also reports of open-field burning of rice straw across the border in the Indian Punjab region which has aggravated smog in Lahore as reported by Nasa.
According to environmental lawyer, Ahmed Rafay Alam, Pakistan can hold India liable for the current smog but only if the government can prove its neighbouring country is responsible.
“If we can prove that crop burning in India has exacerbated smog on the Pakistani side, then under International Environmental Law, India can be made liable to prevent this from happening again. But without adequate testing equipment, we can’t be sure and no policy can be set.”
What Lahore can learn from other cities
For solutions to the current smog, the Lahore administration need not look further than it’s neighbouring country. In the past week and a half, New Delhi has faced poor air quality — the Air Quality Index value reached 999 on the index (a value above 300+ is considered ‘hazardous’) due to unchecked crop burning and the use of firecrackers during Diwali.
The local administration in New Delhi took immediate measures such as closures of schools to prevent children from being exposed to toxic air, the shutting down of the coal-fired Badarpur Thermal Power plant, banning of all construction and demolition work and a ban on burning trash at landfill sites.
For traffic control, an odd/even numbering system is being considered. Vacuum cleaning is also being done on highways to clean the air while artificial rain is also under consideration. The steps being taken by the New Delhi administration could be followed by Lahore’s.
Other long-term solutions include real-time air quality monitoring devices at various locations in the city, shifting heavily polluting industries outside the city, planting trees, sufficient public transport and sustainable management of agricultural waste residue can provide long-term solutions to smog.
If the authorities don’t take action soon, Lahore might go the way of London.
The Great Smog of 1952 — also known as The Big Smoke — when the city suffered from five days of smog which led to the deaths of 4,000 people (updated figures reveal the number of fatalities could have been as great as 12,000) and the hospitalisation of another 100,000.
The Great Smog eventually led to the enactment of the Clean Air Act 1956. If we fail to learn, the time is not far when the rivers will go dry, all trees will be chopped down and the air will be impossible to breathe. Only then we will realise, we can’t eat money!