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Pakistan: How Lahore's smog is harming residents

B. Mari Islamabad
December 7, 2021

People living in Pakistan's second-largest city are devising novel ways to raise awareness and tackle the annual pollution crisis.

Commuters drive their vehicles amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore
Commuters drive their vehicles through heavy smog in LahoreImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

Momina Rajput took her 2-year-old daughter and left Pakistan's second-largest city Lahore in early November after experiencing continuous bouts of coughing and breathing difficulties.

"When the pulmonologist told me that I had acute asthma because of the smog and I could not live in Lahore during the smog season, I was devastated that I had to leave my life, my husband and home for my health," Rajput told DW.

Lahore recently claimed the ignominious title of "the most-polluted city in the world," according to IQAir, a global environmental think tank. 

Seasonal smog in the eastern city saw the pollutant-measuring Air Quality Index (AQI) record a level of 296 last week. In early November, the AQI rose above 500 — a level that causes respiratory difficulties even for otherwise healthy individuals, according to the Punjab Environmental Protection Department.

Lahore's smog crisis occurs annually. But environmental and health awareness among the city's residents is growing.

Many Lahore residents have shared their personal experiences of coping with the smog on social media. An Instagram account named Naveen has been covering and sharing smog stories from citizens as well as expert opinions. Community-led webpages have also sprung up to track AQI and share health tips.

Children play on a park in heavy smog
Even light exercise in heavy smog in Lahore can be harmful to healthImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

Growing awareness about smog and its dangers

According to the Center for Disease Control, air pollution increases the risk of many preexisting conditions, including diabetes, lung diseases, asthma, heart disease and cancer. On average, a Pakistani's life is reduced by two years due to the impact of pollution, while a Lahore resident's life is reduced by five years. 

Environmental lawyer Rafay Alam told DW that increased pressure from citizens on the government is due to growing awareness that pollution is "a human rights violation" because "people are dying from the air they breathe."

Laiba Siddiqi, a 20-year-old undergraduate student, told DW that she feels that citizen petitions have made issues surrounding air pollution "mainstream." She was one of several teenagers who petitioned to challenge the AQI measurement system adopted by the provincial body, accusing it of "underreporting the severity of air pollution" in 2019.

More and more young people are realizing that this issue will only get worse over time if nothing is done, she told DW. "We all breathe in the same air. Smog was brought to the forefront of discourse because it's an environmental issue impacting everyone, even the rich and privileged," said Siddiqi.

Is the Lahore local government to blame?

Alam says there are two misunderstandings behind the smog crisis in Lahore. The first is an issue of government responsibility. He explained that smog is not solely the problem of the Lahore government, but that it needs to be tackled by the Punjab provincial government.

The second misunderstanding is that smog is wrongly considered a seasonal issue. "Lahore produces the same number of emissions all year round but the difference is that in winter months, air does not rise so the pollutants become visible. To prevent smog, the causes of air pollution have to be addressed every day of the year by the government, " said Alam.

Siddiqi agreed that the government has still not taken accountability for monitoring air pollution, which is the first step for sustainable change.

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Could better air quality monitoring be the solution?

Abid Omar, however, thought that making smog levels the responsibility of the Punjab government would not bring about lasting change.

Omar founded the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative in 2016. The citizen-led initiative has installed 50 self and community-funded air quality monitors across the country. He believed that without reliable, quantifiable air monitoring, nothing would change.

"When I realized AQI was not really being measured in my city, I was curious to see what the air quality was. Measuring AQI is not just about recording emissions, but setting a data standard that is locally and globally transferrable and applicable," he said.

Omar was surprised when the levels of emissions he recorded were markedly different than available government data, a factor he attributes to the government's intermittent readings rather than sustained monitoring.

"We are setting our nation up for failure because the long-term health consequences are severe and intergenerational. By not acknowledging real data, we can bury our heads in the sand right now but we won't be able to escape in the future," added Omar.

Alam agrees: "If we don't have adequate information on air pollution and its consequences, then governmental will and remedial actions will be lacking. Air pollution is a political, environmental and health issue that needs to be spoken about in the language of hurt and harm now."

But this could come too late for Momina and her daughter. She told DW that she is considering making her seasonal move to escape Lahore's smog if the government does not step up to tackle the problem.

"What is the point of living in a place where you can't even breathe?" She asked.

Smog blankets a street in Lahore covering everything in gray
Smog levels pose a danger for all those in Lahore, not just people with existing health problemsImage: Rana Sajid Hussain/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Edited by: Kate Martyr