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Amidst denial, Pakistan's smog issues pose serious health risks to the city of Lahore

Screenshot from the IQ Air Visual website. November 5, 2019.

In the first week of November 2019, several South Asian cities struggled with air pollution and smog, according to a real-time air quality ranking report by IQ Air Visual. The smog is generally caused by smoke from brick kilns and factories, farmers burning crop stubble, vehicle exhaust, and waste burning.

On November 1, Delhi, India became the most polluted city in the world with an Air Quality Index (AQI) rate of 529. Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, didn't trail so far behind with an AQI of 300. The news updates of smog and air pollution from Lahore made the rounds on news websites and social media. #LahoreSmog became a trending topic on Pakistani Twitter for a week.

Translation: Allah na karay = God forbid, #SaansLenayDo = Let us breathe

The smog situation has been a recurring issue in the past decade and poses severe health threats to the population. It has become such an issue that it has been named the Indian Ocean brown cloud, or Asian brown cloud, which describes the layer of air pollution that recurrently covers parts of South Asia, especially in the northern Indian Ocean, India, and Pakistan.

The AQI Scale

The Air Quality Index runs from 0 to 500, where 0 is the lowest measure of air pollution and 500 is the highest level. Any reading between 0 and 50 is an indicator of good air quality while anything above 300 is deemed hazardous.

Screenshot from the Airnow.gov website

The Pakistani government uses the Met Department and SPARCO’s meter.

Concerns raised

Amnesty International, along with other international players, has declared a health emergency in Punjab province of Pakistan. It reported:

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air can result in severe health issues including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems, and shortened life expectancy – putting at risk people’s rights to life and to health, as well as the right to a healthy environment.

Abid Omar at TEDxLahore digs deep into the air pollution of Lahore, revealing that bad air quality is a problem almost all year round.

Denials and Social Media outcry

Studies show that the poor and the lower middle class bear the brunt of the smog's hazardous impacts as they have to work out in the fields and in the open. They also shoulder the most severe consequences, both economically and health-wise.

However, Malik Amin Aslam, the Pakistani Prime Minister’s advisor on the environment, rejected the AQI readings of the international monitors: “The air quality index (AQI) of Lahore was much better than that of New Delhi.”

Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Zartaj Gul even mentioned that the Azadi March led by Pakistan’s politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman was the top source of smog in Lahore and has negated the ratings of international organizations.

“The influx of cars and vehicles coming to the city is the major reason of smog in Lahore”, she said in an interview with media.

Social media users clapped back hard at the politicians and the State, accusing them of downplaying the impact of environmental degradation and climate emergency.

Social media activists, civil society members, and environmentalists have started campaigning against what they see as the Punjab government’s negligence with the campaign #SaansLenayDo (#Let us breathe). Some are also calling out corporations and demanding they cease their operations.

Concerns over the air quality in Lahore have had a snowball effect. Citizens from Karachi, Islamabad, and Peshawar have started questioning the air quality in their cities and are demanding action too.

While most people are tweeting and expressing concern over the grave situation, some are trying to find ways to mitigate the risks.

A petition, created by environmentalists, scientists, and medical professionals, is floating around on the internet demanding the government to take corrective action.

A group of children have filed a petition in Lahore High Court on November 5, 2019, demanding truth and pressing the government to share the severity of the situation.

Many Pakistanis are wondering when the Pakistani government will realize the magnitude of the degradation of air quality in Pakistani megacities and take steps to solve it.

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