Sunny, warm skies have given way to a grey pall from Islamabad to Lahore, and beyond, over the past couple of weeks. People can taste the acrid air during their morning commutes. Those amongst us with asthma or other illnesses can sense their situation worsening. This is life with smog. This is life with pollution. And at least for now, this is the new normal for the Pakistani cities and the public.
The term ‘smog’ was coined in 19th century England combining the words smoke and fog. However, today the term refers to a mixture of numerous hazardous gases and particulate pollutants emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activities. The smog affecting us is an amalgam of trans-boundary pollution emanating from India, primarily due to stubble burning, as well as similar practices by our own farmers. Add to that incessant pollution emanating from factories, brick kilns and vehicles and we begin to get a sense of the scale of the problem.
The government of Punjab has come out with a policy to combat the effects of the smog. The police are out in force, we are told, shutting down pollution emitting vehicles. And industrial units are being shut down in large numbers. But this seems to be a case of too little too late. And moreover, did we already not have a plethora of environmental legalities in place?
Pakistan has had a National Environmental Protection Act since 1997, which was later adapted by the provinces following devolution. Moreover, the National Environmental Quality Standard (NEQS) which places a limit on the amounts pollutants, was devised in 1999. But despite this history of relevant legislation, environment has long been neglected in the country. The natural streams and waterways have become conduits for our municipal and industrial sewage. Our waste management system is in disarray which means the communities openly burn their waste as a disposal strategy.
Are adhoc polices such as the one on smog the way forward? Or perhaps we can accept this as a price for development and growth and do away with the niceties of paying lip service to environment. The well to do amongst us can continue to live in their sealed air conditioned homes, commute in similarly air-conditioned cars and drink bottled water. The rest of us can continue to deal with the situation the best we can and hope that we too can taste the fruits of development.
The universities have an integral role to play in moving forward. It is here that students pursuing their Masters and PhDs can undertake projects that help fill environmental information gap facing us
The first thing we need to do is to start monitoring our air and water quality. In the early 2000s, Japanese International Cooperation Agency, provided Pakistan with equipment worth millions of rupees to monitor the air quality. Today, that equipment lies in a state of disarray, a victim of total apathy on our part. Let us try and use what we already have at our disposal in order to get a sense of the scale of the problem. What are pollution levels in urban areas versus rural areas? How about near schools and hospitals? This information is essential in terms of devising strategies to mitigate our environmental problems.
Next, the provincial governments need to enhance the capacity of their Environmental Protection Departments not only in terms of technical capabilities but also in terms of human resources. Yet, implementation of the relevant legislation cannot happen without political will at the very top of our decision making apparatus. The political leadership will have to convince the industrial bosses that environmental measures will not only enhance the environmental quality of our communities but will also benefit them in the long run. As was the case with child labour, any lax measures vis-à-vis environment will ultimately affect the sustainability of these businesses.
The universities have an integral role to play in moving forward. It is here that students pursuing their Masters and PhDs can undertake projects that help fill environmental information gap facing us.
Finally, there is a need for the public to know what we are up against. Regular information needs to be given to the people in terms of the levels of pollution in the air and what it means for them.
As it stands, there are no warnings that are given to the public in terms of the intensity and scale of air pollution. We need to know how the current state of pollution is impacting our health. The Great Smog of 1952, which was estimated to have killed at least 4,000 Londoners, eventually led to a huge effort to clean up the city’s air. And while we hope that no such loss of life occurs here due to the toxics in our air, we would nevertheless need to account for and attribute loss of life to the smog if evidence presents itself.
With numerous coal power plants and industrial estates already on the agenda in the country and industrial estates in plans as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), we may be witnessing the arrival of the new normal. Advances in science and technology mean that we can traverse alternative pathways to growth without making the mistakes made by other, so called developed nations. There is still time for to us to decide what that new normal will entail.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.