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Battling to breathe

Crop burning is believed to be a key factor contributing to the smog in Punjab’s air. Experts stress that banning the activity will be counter-productive. Instead, they suggest, the government should offer incentives to re-orient farmers’ choices. Photo Credit: Relevant Magazine
Public outcry over successive spells of smog have led to a policy, but experts urge that lack of data remains the weakest link in Punjab’s efforts to keep air quality at safe levels
by Nushmiya Sukhera

At the onset of winter in 2016, Lahore saw smog for the first time. Visually, the scene was similar to the usual fog the city experiences in winter season, and many thought that fog had arrived early. But soon, when residents of the city experienced physical symptoms, including breathing problems, itchy eyes, and persistent coughing, the word smog appeared in the media.

Smog, a term originally coined to refer to smoke and fog in London, is now used to refer to highly polluted conditions. Starting in October, the weather patterns begin to shift and with lower temperatures and low or no wind, it is much easier for pollutants to stay stagnant where they are emitted, causing smog.

During this time in 2016, then Chief Justice of Lahore High Court, Mansoor Ali Shah, took suo moto notice and summoned the Environment Protection Department (EPD) of Punjab province to explain exactly what was happening. He then directed the EPD to formulate a policy to improve the air quality. Right after the smog of 2016, the EPD began formulating a smog policy. When the second smog episode took place in 2017, and the EPD was summoned again, they handed in the full policy report that had been prepared, which was approved by the Government of Punjab (GoPb). But the court, unsatisfied, told the provincial government to come up with an emergency action plan, which was prepared the same afternoon, and was implemented as the Smog Health Emergency Action Plan of 2017.

Read more: Lahore’s Smog is Back but This Time There’s a Policy to Tackle it

At the beginning of 2018, Justice Shah decided to form a smog commission, one that would be able to weigh in on all variables and create a holistic proposal to counter the issue. So when the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto of air quality in 2018, they directed the same commission to file the report they had been working on. The report had 17 recommendations, and is the same report that is now being used by the government to address smog in the region.

Photo Credit: Pakistan Air Quality Initiative

However, the report has been referred to as a wishlist of sorts, with many recommendations addressing long-term solutions to improve air quality in general. As winter emerged in 2018, the government imposed a ban on brick kilns, crop residue burning, and heavy smoke emitting industries till December. But experts say addressing air pollution, which is a yearlong issue in the region, requires a much more mature policy implementation than the easiest route of imposing bans; and fears remain that once smog dies down for this year, so will the actions of the government, leading to more bans next year around the same time.

“There are about four to five factors leading to smog in Punjab,” said Naseem Ur Rehman, spokesperson for the Environment Protection Agency of the province. “Industries, brick kilns, stubble burning, dust pollution from construction activities, traffic blockage, and also load shedding which causes numerous generators to begin working, and we’re addressing them all.”

According to the State of Global Air 2018 report, China’s air pollution exposures, once thought of as the worst in the world, have stabilized and even begun to decline slightly. While Pakistan, along with Bangladesh and India, has experienced the steepest increase in air pollution levels since 2010. The report uses PM2.5 and tropospheric ozone as the two indicators to quantify exposures to ambient, or outdoor, air pollution. It states that while air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, governments usually measure only a subset of them as indicators. Out of these, PM2.5 is the most frequently measured, and is considered the most consistent predictor of various diseases due to high levels of pollution. PM2.5 is a mix of fine particles with aerodynamic diameters less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers, and is measured in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³).

Based on evidence of long-term exposure to PM2.5, the World Health Organization (WHO) has set the Air Quality Guideline for annual average PM2.5 at 10 µg/m³. For regions of the world where air pollution is the highest, with Pakistan being one of them, WHO suggests interim targets at 35 µg/m³, 25 µg/m³, and 15 µg/m³. The population weighted annual average for Pakistan is 76 µg/m³, much above the safe standard.

Trends in population-weighted annual average PM2.5 concentration in the 10 most populous countries plus the European Union, 2010-2016.

While air quality remains unhealthy, and even hazardous at times in Punjab, it is mostly in October, when smog has arrived or is about to arrive, that the conversation escalates in the country. This year, owing to greater pressures due to smog no longer being a new phenomenon in the region, the provincial government has claimed to take extreme tasks to control it, including originally imposing a ban on crop residue burning and brick kilns in Punjab from October till end December, which was later delayed for brick kilns week by week.

“We are helpless,” said Mian Umair Masood, Secretary General, Pakistan Kissan Ittehad. “The government has said they will lodge an FIR, arrest farmers, and also impose a fine.” But if a farmer does not burn the crop residue, the land cannot be prepared for the next crop, and without proper land prepping, the next yield will be extremely low, he explained. Crop burning is mainly done for rice where the crop is cut from the top and the farmer burns whatever material is left at the bottom, including roots and straws. Unless this crop residue is removed, the land is not soft enough for the next crop.

Read more: Is Breathing Killing Us?

One of the recommendations of the smog policy was that farmers would be trained and educated in modern techniques to deal with crop residue in an environmentally friendly way. But before the ban was imposed, no such step was taken. “Farmers in Pakistan are illiterate and still practice methods of their father and forefathers,” said Masood. “No government or any other department has trained, helped or educated them in newer techniques, so what are they supposed to do?”

Muhammad Shoaib Khan Niazi, president of Brick Kilns Owners’ Association of Pakistan (BKOAP), feels similarly distressed. Niazi says that they themselves had offered to close down the kilns during peak smog season due to the devastation being caused by it, but a blanket ban for three months is not sustainable. Brick kilns were supposed to stay closed from October 20th till end December but one day after the ban was in effect, the government decided to delay the ban till October 27th. “This mismanagement will kill us,” said Niazi. “We can’t even start the kilns now because these are not machineries that can instantly be turned on and off.”

The EPA has said that those brick kilns that don’t shift to zigzag technology, a new cleaner technology, will not be allowed to operate even after December. But Niazi says that even the government cannot afford that. He explained that they are willing to shift and are even trying to, but without any technical or financial help of any kind by the government, it has been extremely difficult. “Owners that are shifting to zigzag are doing so by looking at books and videos and often make mistakes,” said Niazi. “These mistakes are causing us losses and we don’t know what to do.”

He further added that the government needs to have a clearer plan of how to handle the issue of smog and tell us accordingly, instead of this last minute lifting and imposing of bans. “The brick kiln owners are ready to change their ways and adopt new technology,” he said. “But at least provide us with technical and financial help to do so.” When asked about the Rs 250 million fund created for brick kilns, Niazi laughed. “Must be created in papers, I guess, because no one has told or offered even a rupee to us.”

Crop fires are far more concentrated on the Indian side. Nonetheless, the farmland in the north and south of Lahore also shows high incidence.

Dr Saher Asad, who saw around five different instances of crop residue burning from the motorway while the ban was imposed, said that research suggests that these bans cannot prove effective. According to Dr Asad, who is an assistant professor of Economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the government is going for the wrong kinds of policies. She has recently begun a research project to understand district level changes in agriculture fires from 2013 to 2017 using viirs satellite data for November. While the project is still in process, she said there is an exponential increase in fires from 2013 in many districts in Punjab and the government will need well formulated policies to combat it.

“Farmers used to hire labor to get rid of crop residue but since wages have increased, burning remains their only option,” said Dr Asad. “So unless the government clearly aligns incentives with their policies, or educate and train these people, bans are not going to work.” She further added that research shows that when blanket bans are imposed without clearly aligned incentives, there will always be room for negotiation and a price the farmer or brick kiln owner can pay to the police or monitor, which will be less than the cost of adapting newer technologies.

Dr Sanval Nasim, an environmental economist, who has researched on the difference in emissions of traditional and zigzag brick kilns, said that qualitative surveys suggest that there is a total lack of technical support for zigzag technology in the country. “Experts from Nepal come and hold little conferences but that’s not enough because there are more than 10,000 brick kilns in the province alone,” said Dr. Nasim. “An important part of large scale adoption is whether or not they have access to good technical support, which the government needs to work on.”

However, according to Dr Nasim, for effective policy making the state needs to have very good measurement systems for air pollution, which it severely lacks. Both the reports, the smog policy formulated in 2017, and the one filed with the Lahore High Court in May 2018, mention a lack of data as one of the biggest challenges in formulating an effective and accurate policy. According to the 2018 report, “historic data on concentrations of pollutants in ambient air is sporadic and is available for only two sites – Township and Town Hall – in Lahore. The two stations were installed by Federal EPA under a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) assisted program in 2007. The data gathered through these monitoring stations is intermittent. The available data covers too narrow a scope for any conclusion to be based on it for the province as a whole, and it is also somewhat out of date. Air pollution control in a developing economy like that of Pakistan requires defining a set of priorities which cannot be arrived at on the basis of scant data available.”

Read more: No End in Sight to Lahore’s Smog

A year after this problem was identified and written in the smog policy, and then rewritten a few months later in the High Court report, the EPA still has the same number of air quality monitors as last year – totaling six. “Last year all of them were in Lahore, but this year one will be in Gujranwala, one in Multan, and one we are sending to Faisalabad,” said Rehman. “The one in Multan is yet to be sent, but the rest are in those cities now,” he said in mid-October. The report stated that 30 ambient air quality monitoring stations (AAQMS) are needed in Punjab, with their locations all over the province, including Lahore, Sheikhupura, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Multan, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Bahawalpur, DG Khan, Sargodha, along with five mobile monitors. However, while the government has not bought new monitors, Rehman said the EPA has engaged six certified laboratories with it so they are able to gather more data going forward.

Air quality (AQ) data has not been made publically available as yet, and there are a variety of reasons quoted for that, from Internet issues to malfunctioning of machinery. “Openness of data is increasingly becoming an important issue with respect to AQ,” said Pallavi Pant, a air pollution scientist based in the United States. “Openly available datasets, both for air quality and related parameters can facilitate data-driven policy-making and intervention analysis, drive large research studies on air pollution trends and health impacts.”

According to Pant, while the question of how many stations we need is increasingly being asked across South Asian cities, it is important to remember that there is no specific formula to derive this number. “Data serves only as a mean to the end, data can help us make better decisions and create better awareness.” She explains the goal should be to expand the network over time and collect a representative sample of ambient air quality.

Comparison of 2016 annual average PM2.5 concentration to the WHO Air Quality Guideline.

China has managed to not only stabilize but also slightly decline their pollution levels – and experts say the process began with data. Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, said that the most important thing the Chinese government did in this respect was source apportionment. Source apportionment is when you have adequate number of air quality meters measuring the pollutants in your air, you can analyze the data and determine the source of the pollution. “It allows you to allocate just how much of the air quality deterioration is caused by, for example, automobiles, diesel emissions, crop burning, or construction dust,” said Alam. “When the Chinese did it, they found out that in their cities, about two thirds of the pollution was coming from coal, and a good chunk of it was coming from transport.” Alam explains that unless you know exactly what is causing the major pollution, you can’t formulate specific policies for those sources, because the kind of policies needed to combat coal is completely different from the ones needed for transport.

“Lack of information always leads to suboptimal outcomes,” said Dr Nasim. Because there is no open data for citizens to check air quality all year round in Pakistan, it is only during winter months, when there is an obvious physical deterioration of air quality, that there is a pressure on government to take ad hoc and knee-jerk decisions to counter smog, he said.

According to Pak Air Quality Initiative, in 2017, Lahore had only two days of good air quality while the number of unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous were 101, 29 and 36, respectively. Ambient air pollution in Pakistan causes 135,000 deaths per year, and a decreased life expectancy by 60 months. The state, for starters, needs to work on having enough air quality stations and make accurate data publically available all year round. This will enable citizens to take appropriate precautions, and help the government realize that severe pollution is not just a October/November issue, but a yearlong reality requiring long-term policies and their effective implementation.

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