Smog in Karachi, Pakistan (source: https://www.dawn.com/news/1445562).

Smog: the major reasons for smog in Pakistan

An introduction to smog

Every winter, a thick blanket of cloud descends upon the citizens of Pakistan. Usually misconstrued as fog, families and friends come out and gather to enjoy the cold and misty air. But, it is not fog. It is not harmless. Fog is visible water droplets suspended in the air near the earth’s surface. Even though it reduces visibility, fog is completely harmless.

What Pakistan actually experiences during this time is smog. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog that forms a cloud of harmful pollutants near the ground. Smog is harmful. It not only hampers natural visibility but also has serious adverse effects on human health. It has its own distinct smoky stench and yellow or black in colour.

When temperature increases with height, the pollutants are trapped near the surface which creates noxious smoke on the ground.

The US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia (UBC) published the State of Global Air report which explained that air pollution is the fifth leading cause of early deaths globally. Surprisingly, it is accountable for more deaths than alcohol, malaria, malnutrition or road accidents [1].

In Pakistan, approximately 135,000 people lose their lives every year to air pollution. It also reduces life expectancy by 60 months [2].

This particular type of deadly air pollution — smog — intensifies the poor air quality so close to the ground that it increases the risk of severe health issues such as lung and heart diseases as well as respiratory failures. Pakistan’s healthcare institutions can not cope with the sudden influx of people in emergency wards [2]. Every year, Pakistan loses over 5.88 per cent of its GDP or $47.8 billion to smog alone [3].

The World Health Organization (WHO) rules and regulations state that a safe level of P.M 2.5 (i.e. fine harmful particulate matter) concentration should be an average of 10 g/m3 or less every year. Air quality in Pakistan exceeds these safe limits in all its major cities.

In 2017, a young activist, Abid Omar, launched the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI) to monitor air quality in real-time to increase social awareness. PAQI ranks air quality from 0 to 500 (good to hazardous). According to the 2018 statistics, Lahore stands as one of the cities with the worst air quality in the country at a 183 PAQI index value, making it the unhealthiest air to breathe for all individuals. Faisalabad ranks second in terms of unhealthiest air quality after Lahore, at an index value of 177. Both Lahore and Faisalabad have exceeded the safety limits of air quality [3].

Even though Karachi has the Arabian Sea, its air quality still remains poor. It stands at a 120 index value. It might be safer than Lahore and Faisalabad, but it is more detrimental for sensitive groups. Fortunately for the twin cities, i.e., Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the PAQI index has not exceeded the safety limits. Both cities have a moderate air quality index values of 98 and 95 respectively [3].

Causes of smog

So, the question begs: why is there so much smog in Pakistan? Where does it come from?

The smog comes from five major areas:

1. Poor fuel quality

2. Growth in the number of vehicles on the road

3. Brick kiln and steel mills using sulfur-intensive furnace oil

4. Burning agricultural residue (e.g. rice stubble) and municipal waste (e.g. garbage)

5. Deforestation and large-scale tree losses [4]

Pakistan’s provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Protection Department (EPD) have very little control over the air pollution that comes from the transport, power generation and industry sectors. Even though the environment divisions check the vehicle and industrial emissions, it is not sufficient. On the other hand, the petroleum divisions have the ability to control air pollution by preventing emissions in the first place [5].

Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced as a result of incomplete combustion in fossil-fuel engines i.e. when carbon has not been fully oxidized. Incomplete combustion uses fuel inefficiently which is a serious health hazard. The five major areas above emit high amounts of CO into the air and according to a 2014 World Bank study, there is a very strong correlation between P.M 2.5 and CO emissions [5].

Poor fuel quality and growth in the number of vehicles

Abid explains that the transportation sector causes much of Pakistan’s smog because of low-quality diesel (2-D) which releases high amounts of sulfur and carbon dioxide in the air. He also said that there are many diesel-run vehicles e.g. trucks for transportation of goods and buses for travel imperative to Pakistan’s economy [8].

Brick kiln and steel mills

Brick kilns and steel mills are operating without any proper accountability in place. In Punjab, there are 8000 functional brick kilns and around Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there are at least a couple hundred.

Brick kilns, a traditional practice to make bricks, utilises coal from wood and then combines with burning plastics to add energy to the fire. Even though cement factories produce pollution too, it is much less than brick kilns. One cement factory could potentially replace 8000 brick kilns. The lack of checks and balances in factories in Punjab is a huge problem. These factories use furnace oils, leave waste untreated and produce tyres, plastics, rubbers etc. Furnace oil, used to produce power in thermal power plants, utilises a high concentration of sulfur of up to 3 per cent. In the outskirts of Lahore, there are at least 8 thermal power plants which use furnace oil instead of environmentally-friendly natural gas [5].

Renowned environmental lawyer and activist, Ahmad Rafay Alam pleaded, “Pakistan uses the most polluted fuel in the world — tackling this problem will require a tremendous change in [many] sectors of Pakistan” [4].

Burning agricultural residue/ municipal waste and deforestation

Contrary to popular belief, India is not responsible for air pollution that flows across the border. The Pakistani government and Federal Ministers blame India for the high amounts of smog via extensive crop burning practices. Even though fires have been detected on Indian Punjab, it would be unfair to say that similar burning was not observed on Pakistani Punjab. Every May, at the end of the Rabi crop season, NASA sensors have shown significant detections of crop burning within Pakistan as well [5].

Crop burning contributes to pollutants in the form of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, ozone, smoke or particulates. Director of Climate Change and Alternate Energy and Water Resource Division of NARC, Dr Muhammad Munir Ahmed, said that burning crop residue affects not only the soil fertility but also the crop quality. Farmers need to adopt scientific methods with economic benefits to dispose off the residue. According to the University of California, smog can cause plants to lose 10 to 40 per cent growth. Globally, smog can cause agriculture to lose $2 to 6 billion per year [6].

Even though many factors such as temperature, wind and rainfall affect the level of air quality in any city, it needs to be accepted that Lahore itself, anthropogenically produces enough emissions to keep the city polluted most of the year. The monsoon months are perhaps the only times when the rain prevents harmful pollutants from gathering in the air.

Actions taken in response to smog

In response to the major sources of smog in Pakistan, the local government is taking the following actions:

1. Fine pollution-causing vehicles

2. Limit emissions from plants and factories

3. Close brick kilns and steel mills that do not use fuel-efficient technology

4. Penalize farmers burning crop residue

5. Order an increase in planting trees in urban areas

6. Spread environmental awareness in educational institutes [4]

The EPD has fined the traditional practice of farmers burning rice stubble. As an alternate, it wants to promote zero tillage farming (even though it might be a little expensive for farmers) [4].

The EPD also served closure notices to brick kilns if they did not convert to an environmentally-friendly technology soon i.e. zig-zag technology. Brick kilns are energy-intensive and have serious health and environmental hazards.

According to the engineer Khadim Hussain Bhatti, Secretary PEC, zig-zag technology would lead to a 30 per cent reduction in fuel which would help save millions of dollars on coal imports. He also stated that it would lead to an 85 per cent reduction in carbon emissions that would prevent further environmental deterioration [7].

The government can deploy air purifiers and distribute face masks to try and filter out the toxins, but this would only work for basic air pollutants. The more harmful fine P.M 2.5 would not be filtered out. Some research also suggests that air purifiers have side effects too: it produces large amounts of ground-level ozone to counter the odour of smoke and this can worsen respiratory diseases [2].

Improving Pakistan’s air quality requires social and political collective action from the government. It is their responsibility to make sure that people stay safe and healthy. The state needs to take action on all the major sources of smog and air pollution. Besides a few efforts from individuals such as opting for public transport (which is hardly a concept in Pakistan) or avoiding dirty diesel fuel, the major efforts lie in the hands of the government. And if the government is not taking stricter action, the individuals need to reach out and raise their voices to enable and implement better policies and controls.

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Works Cited

[1] “Pakistan among Top 5 Countries with Highest Mortality Rate Due to Pollution.” Pakistan Today, www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2019/04/03/children-in-south-asia-hardest-hit-by-air-pollution-says-study/.

[2] “Pakistan’s Smog: Filtering the Myths from the Facts: Samaa Digital.” Samaa TV, 8 Dec. 2018, www.samaa.tv/news/2018/12/pakistans-smog-filtering-the-myths-from-the-facts/.

[3] Shabbir, Ambreen. “Smog Season Starts in Pakistan for the 5th Consecutive Year.” ProPakistani, ProPakistani, 22 Oct. 2018, propakistani.pk/2018/10/22/smog-season-starts-in-pakistan-for-the-5th-consecutive-year/.

[4] Khan, Rina Saeed. “As Lahore Chokes on Winter Smog, Pakistan Moves to Cut Air Pollution.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 7 Jan. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-smog-lahore/as-lahore-chokes-on-winter-smog-pakistan-moves-to-cut-air-pollution-idUSKCN1P10XS.

[5] Butt, Dawar Hameed. “No, India Is Not Responsible for Punjab’s Smog. Here’s What’s Really Happening.” DAWN.COM, 21 Aug. 2019, www.dawn.com/news/1463398.

[6] Ahmed, Amin. “FAO-Led Mapping of Smog in Punjab.” DAWN.COM, 22 May 2017, www.dawn.com/news/1334572.

[7] APP. “Brick Kiln Innovation: Zig-Zag Technology Can Cut Pollution.” The Express Tribune, 13 Sept. 2013, tribune.com.pk/story/1801822/1-brick-kiln-innovation-zig-zag-technology-can-cut-pollution/

[8] Akmal, Adeela. “Every Breath You Take . . . Is Toxic.” The News International: Latest News Breaking, Pakistan News, June 2019, www.thenews.com.pk/magazine/you/482617-every-breath-you-takeis-toxic.

Freelance writer