by Hamza Rao
Over the few days now, as winter eventually descends, Lahore and other areas of northern Punjab have been encircled by a thick layer of fog affecting the daily life.
Sunshine has become imperceptible as haze spreads over the sky. Motorways have been reportedly blocked and flights may soon have to be delayed or cancelled. Special measures are being taken to prevent accidents and other possible mishaps. On the other hand, the ‘misty’ weather is being enjoyed by some who assume it to be a natural phenomenon and a climatic expression.
However, the thick layer understood to be winter’s fog is a noxious smog carrying serious health hazards.
Smog is basically derived from the merging of two words; smoke and fog which means that smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, created by increasing vehicular and industrial emissions.
Smog can be responsible for any ailment from minor pains to deadly pulmonary diseases such as lung cancer. Smog is well known for causing irritation in the eye. It may also result in inflammation in the tissues of lungs; giving rise to pain in the chest. Other issues or illnesses such as cold and pneumonia are also related to smog.
The atmospheric pollutants or gases that form smog are released in the air when fuels are burnt. When sunlight and its heat react with these gases and fine particles in the atmosphere, smog is formed.
In a recently released report, World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that 92 percent of the world population lives in places where air quality levels exceed danger level, posing serious health hazards.
As many as six million deaths in a year are caused by exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution. The most dangerous pollutant is particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, or PM 2.5.
Experts say that the situation is worse in Lahore where pollution level is much higher than any estimate due to excessive emissions from moving and stationary sources, continuing demolition and construction activity and fast disappearance of trees for development purposes.
Environmental Protection Agency lacks equipment to gauge level of pollution. As such there is no data to determine the ambient air quality. Ground level ozone and fine particles are released in the air due to complex photochemical reactions between volatile organic compounds (VOC), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Places where there is more moisture, i.e near irrigation canals, rice paddies and rivers, even experience thicker fog. The smog only gets cleared when it rains, washing away the lower layers of the atmosphere where all the harmful gases and other pollutants are trapped near the ground.
Only recently Delhi was declared Asia’s most polluted city after a similar blanket of haze covered its skies. Unfortunately, Lahore too is listed among the world’s 10 most polluted cities.
Dr Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, national climate change expert and former Director General of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department believes that the main source of the pollutants in our lower atmosphere is Eastern Punjab where all the coal based industries are centered (across the border in India). “Of course, we have added our share of the pollutants as well from factory and car emissions,” he added.
Despite serious health hazards and grave consequences of the smog, masses remain insensitive to the matter. Due to poor health awareness, majority of people seem to have accepted the health disaster as an inevitable natural phenomenon.
Increase in air pollutants, the DG said, can be attributed to an uptick in motor vehicle pollution in the city, an accumulation of dust from ongoing construction projects, and changes in climate.
But it is the hot weather which has mainly contributed to the rise of smog in Punjab and other parts of the country, Dr Ghulam Rasool told Daily Pakistan on Wednesday.
When asked about a solution, the Met DG said the only natural way this smog could clear of is heavy rains or strong winds. “Even as light rain is expected in next 48 hours in upper parts of the country, including Gujranwala, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Malakand and Hazara region, which would provide a temporary relief in the region. But it is unlikely to make any impact in lower parts including Lahore, Sahiwal and Faisalabad,” he added.
Countries that were warned of similar health disasters showed improvement after taking creative measures.
The 23-foot-tall Smog Free Tower can clean 30,000 cubic metres (1,060,000 square feet) of fine smog per hour and uses no more electricity than a water boiler, according to Dutch architect Roosegaarde, who designed the tower.
It can collect pollutants, process them and then condenses it into cubes measuring around four centimetres (1.6 inches).
The tower then compresses the carbon particles, which are then turned into diamond cubes to adorn Smog Free Rings, Cubes and Cufflinks.
By buying one ring, consumers are effectively donating 1,000 cubic meters of clean air to the city. The money from the jewelry will be funneled back into developing and building more towers.
In USA, Air Quality index has been made to help explain air pollution levels to the general public. Eight hour average ozone concentrations of 85 to 104 ppbv are described as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups”, 105 ppbv to 124 ppbv as “unhealthy” and 125 ppb to 404 ppb as “very unhealthy.”
India is taking measures to control the growing air pollution including the use of sprinklers and mist fountains, smoke tappers in crematoriums, and waste management to minimise emission of methane gas caused by burning at landfill sites.
Plantation of more trees can mitigate the spell of these chemical gases. Countries, including UAE, that planted more trees observed significant change in temperature and air pollution. UAE, a country that largely consists of hot deserts has seen a huge increase in rains, with cities having unusual rains in summers.
Pakistan can take a leaf out of these countries’ books and make a significant change in the deteriorating health issues.
Environmental and Social activist Muhammad Salman Khan who recently attended the 6th Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaption Forum held in Colombo, Sri Lanka says some of the issues that Pakistan faces when it comes to financing climate adaptation is the lack of political ownership.
“Because which it is difficult at times to convince the political leadership of the country to direct investment into climate projects which aren’t more visible compare to other development projects,” he added.
Salman said lack of proper research is another issue faced in financing climate projects because of scarcity of reliable data, implementation of adaptation projects often faces difficulty. “With the recent research work carried out in KPK many projects are being implemented there that can be replicated in other provinces too.”
He went onto say that for first time this year climate budgeting after gender budgeting was introduced into the policy framework of Pakistan by the Ministry of Finance, adding that because of the lack of co-ordination between different ministries and sectors, policy guidelines must be developed to integrate different sectors, provincial and federal ministries to work on climate adaptation and other environmental issues in Pakistan.