Continuing its annual year-ending trend of plummeting air quality numbers, Lahore—the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province and home to 12.5 million people—finished 2021 topping the list of the world’s most polluted cities. On the Air Quality Index (AQI), a 500-point scale used around the world to measure air pollution, parts of Lahore crossed a score of 450—well beyond the “hazardous” threshold of 300—multiple times in just the final 10 weeks of the year.
These apocalyptic numbers are caused by smog, mostly produced by outdated industrial and agricultural practices along with automobile emissions. The winter climate and cooler temperatures allow pollution particles to hang in the air for longer periods of time. Residents ended 2021 plagued by low visibility and worsened respiratory health. Of course, smog in Lahore is a constant problem, no matter what season it is.
While Punjab’s government has identified many of the causes of air pollution and has discussed actions needed to address it, much of the state’s rhetoric has appeared to focus on ridding itself of responsibility. In 2018, the federal climate change minister dubbed smog an “unconventional” weapon that India is using in warfare against Pakistan. Last December, provincial officials inexplicably said “grilled fish and barbecue” were the real causes of air pollution. Some even claimed that Lahore actually doesn’t have any smog. When the U.S. consulate’s own high smog level readings in Lahore became public and led to a public uproar, the provincial minister for environment protection called the numbers a “deliberate defamation of Pakistan.” The country’s chief meteorologist insisted that only the data provided by the government should be taken into account—in spite of the fact that a majority of the air quality monitors installed by the government itself in Punjab do not function properly.
But the smog is real. AQI data from Lahore’s own environmental protection department shows hazardous levels of air pollution last November and December. Residents are paying the price with their own health: In November, hospitals across Lahore witnessed a surge in patients with breathing issues, accounting for up to 40 percent of all emergency hospitalizations in some hospitals. One new study published last fall reported that 121,301 people in Lahore die every year due to illnesses linked to air pollution. That’s more than the number of Pakistanis killed by terrorism over the past two decades.
This is a health catastrophe that’s already hurting locals in worse ways than COVID-19. In the face of a confused community of air quality authorities working for the government, and top public officials simply shunning their responsibility to do anything, many locals have taken it upon themselves to fight the environmental battle—adopting a DIY mentality to become part citizen scientist, and part activist.
On Their Own
“Citizens have armed themselves with monitors and are sharing information to give Lahoris a sense of what the real-time air pollution is like so that they can take effective measures,” Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Lahore-based environmental lawyer and activist, told The Daily Beast. “When you look online and can see the AQIs at 400 or 300, you’ll put a mask on. It has encouraged people to take that first remedial step. People are now increasingly investing in air purifiers. I have several in my house as well. We make sure with small hand held monitors that the air quality inside is in double digits.”
Alam, who also has an AQI monitor at his place, said the increasing number of Lahore citizens looking to buy air purifiers has spurred some groups to start manufacturing and assembling them locally. The state’s peddling of environmental conspiracy theories has actually pushed many groups to start educating people independently on the real causes of smog, as well as instructing people on how to protect themselves and their families. Many people have joined ventures such as the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, which aims to independently and accurately spotlight the AQI numbers across the country.
Even certain industries that are actual contributors to smog have stepped up on their own to improve air quality. For example, crop burning is a major contributor to smog. Farmers burn crops to clear the fields off the remnants of the cultivated crop and prepare it to harvest the next. To protect their livelihoods and at the same time help fight the climate battle, many farmers have been adopting what are called “Happy Seeders.”
While rice farmers traditionally burn the stubble—the uncut remnants of the rice straw following the completion of the harvest—in October in order to clear the land in order to sow wheat, the Happy Seeder technology shred the rice stubble and use a drill to sow wheat, ensuring that the crop is harvested in time without causing any air pollution.
Happy Seeders remain out of reach to many farmers due to high costs. The government has been urged to provide subsidies to ensure that those agriculturalists or industrialists taking the environmentally friendly route are facilitated. But there’s been little movement so far to help make these technologies more affordable.
Local agricultural machine vendors are doing their best to make the technology accessible to local farmers.
“This year there has been an increased demand for Happy Seeders among the local farmers,” Danish Hameed, the CEO of Lahore-based Agro Power Store, told The Daily Beast. “Not every company has it because the technology is still new and isn’t used by everyone, but we are doing our best to make sure it becomes available to every farmer who wants to use Happy Seeders.”
Agro Power Store has been supplying Happy Seeders to farmers across central Punjab in recent months as the demand grows. According to Hameed, many agricultural machinery providers like him believe that the autumn of 2022 will see an uptick in Happy Seeder demand in and around Lahore.
The local brick kiln sector has also come up with its own innovations to combat smog. With AQI numbers rising in Pakistan, the Brick Kiln Owners of Pakistan (BKOP) swiftly moved to adopt the “zigzag” approaches to building kilns, in which bricks are arranged in zigzag patterns, instead of straight lines, along with insulation of kiln walls and floor. This reduces carbon levels in smoke and further reduces energy losses.
“Brick kilns contribute a small fraction to the smog, but we voluntarily took the initiative,” Mehar Abdul Haq, general secretary for the BKOP, told The Daily Beast. “We trained our people in zigzag technology, without any financial or technical support from the government. According to Haq, this approach reduces pollution produced by brick kilns by 85 to 90 percent. Pakistan’s climate change ministry also has said that zigzag technologies could reduce the amount of carbon emissions produced by brick kilns by 60 percent.
“Not only has the zigzag tech allowed us to reduce carbon levels, it has also made us more energy efficient,” Haq added. “Using around 30 percent less fuel also helps us protect the country’s energy resources for future generations.”
But whereas farmers and brick kiln owners have gladly stepped up to play their part in making the environment clean again, the government’s policies don’t reflect a similar understanding. Public officials are quick to take credit for voluntary efforts taken by brick kiln owners or the agricultural sector, but remain silent on the outdated automobile technologies and low fuel quality that bludgeons the air with pollutants.
“The biggest contributor to smog is the poor quality fuel that the government imports, and the poor quality vehicles,” Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, the author of Pakistan’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions and an advisor to the Planning Commission of Pakistan, told The Daily Beast. “The government is being dictated by the automobile lobby and is selling substandard fuel to generate revenue through heavy taxation.”
Pakistan is still adhering to the European Union’s Euro-2 fuel standards for vehicles, which was passed back in 1996. This standard allows for vehicles to emit more than double the amount of carbon dioxide allowed by newer vehicles under newer standards like Euro-5 (issued in 2009). Pakistan’s persistence with Euro-2 means the country is using fuel last deemed fit for vehicular use over 25 years ago.
COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020 gave Pakistan a climate wakeup call. For the first time in years, people saw clearer skies and breathed easier, thanks to a huge drop in vehicles on the road. Critics of the government’s climate policies maintain that the next (and perhaps most decisive) technological innovation needed to address the Lahore smog would have to come in cleaner vehicles. Climate activists have cited the smog reprieve in 2020 as a demonstration for why the government needs to reconsider its fuel policies and urge a rise in battery powered vehicles—harkening that those fresher days could be a mainstay for the country’s future.
To be sure, electric vehicles are on the rise in Pakistan—citizens are enthusiastic when their wallets allow for it. But the market will stay small unless there is a bigger investment by the government itself.
Sheikh believes that a share of the money spent on oil import could be spent on electric vehicles to virtually halve vehicular pollution. “Even the person using [those vehicles] will spend less money on the battery than he currently is on fuel,” he said. Previous research has shown that government subsidies are responsible for about 50 percent of the electric vehicle market.
So while Lahore’s residents have shown tremendous ingenuity and initiative in coming up with their own solutions to the air quality crisis, substantial change cannot come with government action. Lahoris have bought themselves some time and have raised new alarms that have helped to turn more heads and bring more attention to this issue. They have taken the lead in these and other efforts to go green. Now it will be incumbent on government representatives to follow suit and finish what Lahoris have started.