Lahore’s sick lungs

WHEN environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam started the cycling group Critical Mass Lahore 14 years ago in the city, his plan was to promote “sustainable urban transport” as well as the idea that “women have a right to be in public spaces”. Both ideas caught on and have found resonance in Karachi and Islamabad, but Alam himself gave up cycling because of the traffic, which had become too dangerous to navigate.

HRCP director Farah Zia says cycling brings not only “immense pleasure” to her but also a sense of “freedom”. Sadly, like Alam, the sea of vehicles keeps her from pedalling to work every day, so she restricts herself to cycling around her neighbourhood.

Alam resumed cycling during the 2021 Covid-19 lockdown. He recalled that “once in a lifetime” event when the “air was cleaner, the sky bluer” and the roads rid of motorbikes and cars. But life was back full throttle in 2022 and has picked up even more speed since then.

No lessons were learnt from the lockdown, it seems, and the 2022 World Air Quality Report, published earlier this month, is evidence of this. IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company which published the report, ranked Lahore as the most polluted city in the world. It had ranked 15th in 2021. Peshawar, at fifth position, did not fare any better, and came fourth in the Central and South Asia region.

Two recent reports underscore the urgency of collective action to curb emissions.

What is making Lahore’s air sick?

To understand this, we need to first acquaint ourselves with the very tiny but extremely hazardous particulate matter (PM), found in the air in solid or droplet form. These can be 10 micrometres, 2.5 micrometers or even less in diameter. By way of comparison, PM2.5 is one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, which is between 70 to 90 micrometres.

The smaller particles are so tiny that several thousand can fit in the full stop at the end of this sentence. These miscreants (including sulphates, nitrates, black carbon and ammonium) travel deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstream, causing serious lung and heart diseases. In fact, scientists say, air pollution has reduced the average life expectancy across Pakistan by up to 2.7 years.

The WHO global air quality guidelines to help governments and civil society reduce human exposure to air pollution and its adverse effects have recommended an annual PM2.5 guideline level of 5 µg/m³ and a daily PM2.5 guideline level of 15 µg/m³.

The report by IQAir has listed the top five polluted (ie air pollution) countries in 2022 based on the WHO guidelines. Pollution in Chad at 89.7 μg/m³ was over 17 times higher than the WHO guideline, followed by Iraq with 80.1 μg/m³ (16 times higher). Pakistan came third with pollution levels of 70.9 μg/m³, 14 times higher than the guideline. Bahrain and Bangladesh came fourth and fifth with 66.6 μg/m³ and 65.8 μg/m³ respectively (more than 13 times higher).

PM2.5 concentrations in Lahore dropped from a high of 133.2 µg/m³ in 2017 to a low of 79.2 µg/m³ in 2020. Since then, however, concentrations have continued to climb, reaching 97.4 μg/m³ in 2022.

The data collected from 7,323 cities across 131 countries, regions, and territories was based on over 30,000 regulatory air quality monitoring stations and low-cost air quality sensors operated variously by governmental bodies, research institutions, non-profit NGOs, universities and educational facilities, private companies and citizen scientists across the globe.

Interestingly, more than half of the world’s air quality data was generated by grassroots community efforts. “Air quality monitoring by communities creates transparency and urgency; it leads to collaborative actions that improves air quality,” stated Frank Hammes, Global CEO, IQAir.

Another study released this month in Lancet found that 99 per cent of the global population was exposed to PM2.5. Assessing the daily and annual PM2.5 concentrations across the globe from 2000 to 2019 using a computer model and incorporating traditional air quality observations from ground stations as well as meteorological data, the study finds the hotspots to be in eastern Asia, southern Asia and northern Africa.

The results are grim and underscore the urgency with which policymakers, public health officials and academia must come together to find ways to curb emissions from the usual culprits — power plants, factories, the farming sector, transport and waste burning.

Following close on the heels of the two damning global air quality reports, the Ministry of Climate Change got its National Clean Air Policy, 2023, approved by the federal cabinet earlier this month. The timing could not have been more perfect. Although in 2021, Pakistan had announced a Pakistan Clean Air Plan to perform national and local air pollution assessments, and its implementation continued in 2022, having a policy in place shows the government is committed to curbing air pollution.

The policy has identified one priority intervention each in five sectors: implementation of Euro-5 and Euro-6 fuel quality standards in the transport sector; enforcement of emission standards in industry; a ban on burning crop residue in agriculture; preventing the burning of municipal waste; and promoting the use of low-emission cooking technologies in households.

If fully implemented, these interventions can reduce PM2.5 emissions by 38pc by 2030. And that is the key for which provinces must be on board. “Vigilant adherence and tangible reductions to concentrations of air pollutants will be the metric that gauges its success and impact on the lives of the inhabitants,” said IQAir CEO Glory Dolphin Hammes about achieving success.

There is much that can be done to give cities their lungs back. Having an Ultra Low Emission Zone, like there is in central London, where polluting vehicles must pay a daily charge to drive, is an idea; as are the ‘15-minute cities’, where all basic services and amenities that people need for daily life are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes. As Alam said: “If more of us cycled in Lahore, we might not have such bad air, after all!” For those who cannot do without a motorised vehicle, electric bikes could be an alternative.

The writer, a Karachi-based independent journalist.

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