When a thick haze began to envelope Lahore in early November, residents braced themselves for the return of the city’s annual smog season. Flights were cancelled and roads made treacherous by poor visibility, and Aisha Amir Ahmed watched with alarm as the numbers on her air quality app began climbing and her family grew ill. Her husband’s asthma and respiratory allergies were worsening, and by the time the smog peaked in November, their 11-year-old son had developed a chest infection. Ahmed, a school teacher, encouraged her students to obtain face masks and modified her lesson plans to include air pollution, even as respiratory ailments stopped some of her students from attending. “November was sheer hell for us,” she said. “I had been looking” at the climbing numbers “for a while and worrying, ‘What is it going to take for people to take action?”’
Situated on the plains of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province by population, Lahore is a cultural and industrial hub surrounded by fertile cropland. Every winter, black plumes of smoke billow across the plains as millions of farmers incinerate their fields to clear the way for planting. Lahore’s industrial belt contains everything from brick kilns to pharmaceutical plants, which belch out toxic pollutants, while millions of low fuel-efficiency cars ply the congested roads. When ground temperatures cool in the winter months, layers of warm air settle above the city, creating a thermal inversion. Air circulation is limited by a lack of rising warm air, effectively trapping the city in a stagnant layer of air into which pollutants are continuously pumped. The effects of this dynamic reach their worst in October or November, when smog is layered so thick it inhibits visibility.
Even outside of Lahore’s wintertime smog season, the city’s 11 million inhabitants inhale high levels of PM 2.5 — particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less that can enter the respiratory tract and lodge itself in the lung’s tiny air sacs, where it prevents gases from being exchanged. From there, the pollutants enter the bloodstream or remain trapped in the alveoli of the lungs, triggering emphysema, lung disease, stroke, heart disease, cancer, and even death.
Statistics vary, and global rankings are hard to compare, given widely different measurement protocols, but by almost any measure, Pakistan has some of the worst air quality in the world. On average, Pakistanis are exposed to PM 2.5 levels more than 6.5 times the level determined safe by the World Health Organization. As a result, Pakistanis lose 2.5 years on their life expectancy, and in 2012 approximately 60,000 Pakistanis died from air pollution, one of the highest death counts in the world. While all of the country’s major cities grapple with deteriorating air quality, in recent years Lahore’s pollution levels have exceeded those of Pakistan’s commercial capital, Karachi, and the official capital, Islamabad, rivaling the notoriously poor air of New Delhi and Beijing on its worst days.
Yet for citizens in Lahore, getting government agencies to respond to the crisis has proven an onerous battle. Last year, when the government failed to publicize its own pollution data, citizens set up independent monitors throughout the city to provide the information the government was failing to disclose. Meanwhile, lawyers demanded the government release reliable data and declare public health emergencies during the smog’s worst periods.
The gravity of Lahore’s pollution crisis has not gone completely unacknowledged by the government. In October, a new smog policy was unveiled that included such measures as increased reliance on low-sulphur fuels, improving vehicular emissions, monitoring burning of waste, and creating woodlands. The plan also called for issuing public health advisories during days with particularly high smog levels.
Even so, the agencies responsible have generally minimized the crisis. A month after Lahore’s emergency plan was announced, when the smog seasonwas at its peak in November, I met with Saif Anjum, secretary of the Environment Protection Department (EPD). In an office hidden away in the unlit halls of the EPD, Anjum was quick to point out that his department kicks into overdrive at this time of year, arresting farmers for burning crops, sealing countless factories, and washing roads of dust from construction projects. Anjum also hauled out a tranche of papers and told me the PM 2.5 levels – which he said exceeded 189 micrograms per cubic meter on the worst day (a number more than seven times the daily safe limit of 25 set by the WHO) – were not alarming. “These [numbers] do not really warrant a health emergency,” he said.
At the time, the government had not publicly released any data, leaving most citizens in the dark about the level of risk. Although the government had presented its plan in October, implementation was weak to nonexistent. At the nadir of Lahore’s smog crisis in November, a group of lawyers petitioned the Lahore High Court, demanding that government departments outline their specific actions to combat smog. In court, the EPD was forced to show its air quality data, but the figures the department provided were incomplete, with missing PM 2.5 values across November. On one particularly polluted November day, the court was told, the PM 2.5 levels exceeded 350micrograms per cubic meter.
The court ordered the EPD to publish real-time air quality data on their website. Notably, the court also learned that although the EPD and health department had been meeting daily, the environment department had not shared air quality readings with the health department. Lawyers asked for a health emergency to be declared when PM 2.5 levels reached 300 micrograms per cubic meter, which would shorten work days, shut down schools and limit children’s outdoor activity. Despite this, no emergency has been declared.
Anjum told me he was convinced that a public health emergency would not work. “Of course health is very important,” he said. “At the same time, social and economic activity is also important – and rather more important.”
“We really don’t know at what level we should impose a health emergency,’’ he added. “Most probably our schools would remain shut for at least eight months.”
Other government officials disagree. “Economic development will be a far cry if we are not going to address these environmental issues,” said Zia ul Islam, the national ozone unit program manager for the Ministry of Climate Change. While economic development is a paramount concern to the federal and provincial governments, environmental stewardship — including air quality — has shifted to the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment, and remains a matter of local politics.
Despite ul Islam’s warning, trading health for development is exactly what some experts say Lahore has done. Last year, as the city experienced its second consecutive year of intense winter smog, the country registered its highest economic growth in a decade. “The industrial model of development, which emphasizes short-term growth at the expense of human health and ecological sustainability, is a part of the problem,” says Tabitha Spence, a researcher at the Lahore School of Economics.
“Rapidly growing cities like Lahore are literally choking on this growth,” she adds.
Like the EPD, Lahore’s health officials have vacillated on the gravity of the issue. The Primary & Secondary Healthcare Department is one of the departments responsible for alerting the public about any health crisis from the city’s air quality. Dr. Asim Altaf, a wiry man in a black suit, informed me that his team had set up mandatory smog counters in public hospitals across the city. “There was no significant change in the data compared to previous years,” Altaf, the health department’s additional secretary, told me. Surprisingly, his team recorded a decrease in hospitalizations from smog-related illnesses.
A Pakistani vendor rides on his bicycle on a street amid heavy smog in Lahore on November 9, 2017. Flights were cancelled, school times pushed back and hospitals flooded as air pollution inundated the city a day earlier.
Visual: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty
Other health experts cast doubt on the idea that hospital intake numbers tell the full story. “The actual number of patients in November went down,’’ acknowledged Dr. Kamran Cheema, a pulmonologist in Lahore. “People stopped coming out, people stopped traveling, but the patients we saw were sicker.” Dr. Cheema added that patients with existing conditions, particularly asthma, were worse off. “We saw those patients get very sick, very fast,” he said. “Patients come to us once the symptoms have gone beyond the limit of their tolerance.”
Similarly, Dr. Hafiz Shahid Latif, head of environmental health at Lahore’s Institute of Public Health, reported a visible rise in the number and severity of respiratory ailments. “In my neighborhood, there are two general physicians’ clinics, and I witnessed a clear increase in patients reporting with cough, with flu-like feelings, with eye irritation,” he said. “Every third patient was coming in with similar complaints.”
Dr. Noreen Zafar, the provincial coordinator for Punjab’s National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health, also observed an increase in her private Lahore clinic: “There was more cough, bronchitis, and prolonged flu.” She was particularly alarmed about the symptoms from pregnant women and newborn infants, who constitute a high-risk group.
“The Lahore EPD was kind of missing in action,” said Ahmed. “Their actions didn’t seem to reflect anything regarding the welfare of citizens. Part of the government’s job is communicating with the citizenry, and they were not doing that.”
In November, the Environment Protection Minister, Zakia Shah Nawaz Khan, addressed a crowd of concerned Lahoris. “If you really look around us, what is it that has purity in it?” she questioned. Water and air had both become qualitatively worse. She explained that pollution’s primary culprits — tree-cutting, vehicular emissions, unregulated factories — were everywhere, and the responsibility was collective. “We’ve done it, and now we have to undo it.”
Yet the underlying source of toxic pollutants is the same the world over: the unrestrained pursuit of economic growth, embodied in factories, vehicular emissions, and construction megaprojects. “Undoing it,” as the minister exhorted Lahoris to do, would likely require a radical reboot of Pakistan’s current economic program. But the country is doubling down on large-scale growth and construction in the next decade with the help of neighboring China, which is financing $62 billion worth of road, energy and infrastructure projects, including coal plants that will certainly increase pollution.
At the health department office, Dr. Altaf told me his team was prepared to deal with emergencies. “We have sufficient medicine, we have trained doctors, we have a system of awareness,” he said. Likewise, Anjum of the EPD said his office has accepted about $200 million from the World Bank to bolster the department and address air pollution, while also seeking the help of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, the WHO, and even NASA.
Meanwhile, however, the impact of Lahore’s air pollution is inevitably borne by the current generation. “People living in areas with higher levels of PM 2.5 exposure will die earlier than those living in cleaner areas,” says Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
“These particles actually stop a child’s lungs from growing to its full capacity. What our children are facing today will catch up with them years from now,” says Lahore-based lawyer Sarah Belal.
The long-term exposure to pollution will have deleterious effects; Pakistan’s patchwork data already holds lessons about what happens when air quality degradation goes unaddressed. More than a decade ago, pollution caused over 1.5 million emergency room visits and more than 80,000 hospital admissions in Pakistan. A 2002 study indicated that approximately 80 percent of traffic police in Pakistan suffered from chronic ear, nose, or throat problems, while 40 percent had lung-related diseases like asthma or bronchitis. In 2012, pollution in Pakistan led to more than 20,000 deaths from coronary heart disease, over 16,000 from stroke, and more than 13,000 from acute lower respiratory infections. This was along with more than 5,000 deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and over 2,300 from lung cancer, according to a WHO report. In a single year, air pollution had killed 59,241 Pakistanis — a startlingly high number that made Pakistan the fifth-deadliest country in the world for air pollution.
It’s clear a public health reckoning is impending. Meanwhile Ahmed and her students are looking ahead with concern. Ordinary Pakistanis do not have the luxury of waiting for a public health emergency to be declared, Ahmed told me. “It’s frightening, it’s upsetting, I’m very angry about it.”
“Air quality is an equalizer,” she said. “There’s no one who escapes that issue.”
Sabrina Toppa is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan who has reported for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, TIME, Washington Post, and NBC News, among other outlets. Find her on Twitter @SabrinaToppa.
“November was sheer hell for us … What is it going to take for people to take action?”
“Of course health is very important. At the same time, social and economic activity is also important – and rather more important.”
“Rapidly growing cities like Lahore are literally choking on this growth.”
Environmental issues in Pakistan include deforestation, air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, climate change, pesticide misuse, soil erosion, natural disasters and desertification. These are serious environmental problems that Pakistan is facing, and they are getting worse as the country's economy expands and the population grows. Unfortunately, not much is being done to tackle these issues, because the goals of economic growth and tackling terrorism within the country supersede the goals of environmental preservation. Although NGOs and government departments have taken initiatives to stop environmental degradation, Pakistans environmental issues still remain.
Economic consequences of environmental degradation
The majority of Pakistan’s industrial sectors, for example fishing and agriculture, which count for more than one fourth of the output and two fifths of employment in Pakistan, are highly dependent on the country's natural resources. Hence in order to sustain economic growth there is a high demand on already scarce natural resources. However it is ironic that what the country depends on for its growth is also what threatens the future welfare and success of the country. According to the World Bank, 70% of Pakistan’s population live in rural areas and are already stricken by high poverty levels. These people depend on natural resources to provide income and tend to overuse these resources. This leads to further degradation of the environment and subsequently increases poverty. This has led to what the World Bank refers to as a "vicious downward spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation." 
The World Bank report in 2013 stated that Pakistan's top environmental issues include air pollution, inadequate supply of uncontaminated drinking water, noise pollution and the health deterioration of urban and rural populations due to pollution. These environmental concerns not only harm Pakistani citizens but also pose a serious threat to the country's economy. The report also stated that the increase in industrialization, urbanization and motorization will inevitably worsen this problem.
Trash thrown in an empty plot in Karachi, Pakistan
Main article: Water supply and sanitation in Pakistan
Pakistan faces a major scarcity when it comes to water resources, especially finding clean water. There is only one major river, the Indus River, which supplies water throughout the agricultural plains in Punjab and in Sindh, while the rest of the country has very little access to other fresh water. The scarcity of water not only threatens Pakistan's economy but also poses a serious threat to the lives of millions of Pakistanis.
The issue of water pollution further worsens this problem for Pakistan. The sources for water pollution include the overuse of chemical fertilizers, the dumping of industrial wastes into lakes and rivers, untreated sewage being dumped into the ocean, and contaminated pipelines being used to transport water. The contamination of fresh drinking water makes it harder for people to find clean water supplies and increases the prevalence of waterborne diseases. Consequently, most of the reported health problems in Pakistan are either a direct or indirect result of polluted water. 45% of infant deaths are due to diarrhea and 60% to overall waterborne diseases.
The megacities of Pakistan, such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, face the issue of noise pollution. The main source of this pollution is the traffic noise caused by buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws and water tankers. A study showed that on one of Karachi's main roads, the average noise level was around 90 dB and was capable of reaching about 110 dB. This is much higher than the ISO's noise level standard of 70 dB, which is not meant to be harmful to the human ear. However, the study also concluded that in Pakistan, "the traffic noise levels limit as laid down by National Environment Quality standards, Environmental Protection Agency is 85 dB".
This high level of noise pollution can cause auditory and non-auditory health issues. Auditory issues include the loss of auditory sensory cells; non-auditory health issues include sleep disturbance, noise and cardiovascular disease, endocrine response to noise and psychiatric disorder. Unfortunately there are very few, vague laws and policies in regards to noise levels. There is no accountability, and while the federal and provincial environmental protection agencies receive dozens of complaints on noise pollution from the public, these agencies are unable to take action due to legal constraints and the absence of national noise level standards.
Air pollution is a growing environmental problem in Karachi, especially in the large metropolises. According to a World Bank report, "Karachi's urban air pollution is among the most severe in the world and it engenders significant damages to human health and the economy"The inefficient use of energy, an increase in the number of vehicles used daily, an increase in unregulated industrial emissions and the burning of garbage and plastic have contributed the most to air pollution in urban areas. According to a recent study, Karachi's Environment Protection Department claims that the average level of pollution in big cities is approximately four times higher than the World Health Organisation's limits. These emissions have detrimental effects, including "respiratory diseases, reduced visibility, loss of vegetation and an effect on the growth of plants."
One of the greatest contributors to air pollution is industrial activity. The inadequate air emission treatments and lack of regulatory control over industrial activity has contributed to the deterioration of ambient air quality in major cities. In addition, the common practice of burning massive amounts of solid waste, including plastic and rubber, on street corners by the public, releases toxic gases, which are extremely harmful for residents in the area.
Main article: climate change in Pakistan
Climate change has affected the people and the environment of Pakistan in different ways. Although Pakistan is a relatively small emitter of greenhouse gas as compared to other countries, the country will, however, be greatly affected by the negative impacts of climate change. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey of 2014-15, the "increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events coupled with erratic monsoon rains causing frequent and intense floods and droughts" are the most prominent problems Pakistan will face due to climate change. The survey concluded that the change in weather patterns has destroyed infrastructures, has taken many lives and has had devastating impacts on the agriculture sector, which has in turn has affected Pakistan’s economy.
According to the BBC Climate Asia report, the majority of the Pakistani people surveyed claimed that climate change has heavily impacted their lives in the form of floods and droughts, and most importantly has affected the availability of resources such as energy and water. 53% of Pakistanis felt that their lives had become worse off than they were five years ago. Although the effects of climate change are evident, the survey found that the majority of the people were unaware of the meaning of climate change, and "ascribed changes in climate and extreme weather events to the will of God."
Main article: List of natural disasters in Pakistan
Due to Pakistan's diverse land and climatic conditions, it is prone to different forms of natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, droughts, cyclones and hurricanes. A disaster management report claims that the provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Balochistan and AJK are vulnerable seismic regions and hence highly susceptible to earthquakes, while Sindh and Punjab constantly suffer from floods because they are low-lying areas.
Some of the worst natural disasters that Pakistan has faced include the 1935 Quetta earthquake when around 60000 people were killed, the 1950 floods when an estimated 2900 people died and 900000 people were left homeless, the 1974 Hunza earthquake where around 5300 people were killed, the 2005 Kashmir quake that killed at least 73000 and affected more than 1.5 million people, and the Pakistan floods of 2010 where 20 million people were affected.
Main article: Conservation in Pakistan
The government has expressed concern about environmental threats to economic growth and social development and since the early 1990s has addressed environmental concerns with new legislation and institutions such as the Pakistan Environment Protection Council. However, foreign lenders provide most environmental protection funds, and only 0.04 percent of the government's development budget goes to environmental protection. Thus, the government's ability to enforce environmental regulations is limited, and private industries often lack the funds to meet environmental standards established by international trade organizations.
National Conservation Strategy
The National Conservation Strategy Report has three explicit objectives: conservation of natural resources, promotion of sustainable development, and improvement of efficiency in the use and management of resources. It sees itself as a "call for action" addressed to central and provincial governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local communities, and individuals.
The primary agricultural nonpoint source pollutants are nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus), sediment, animal wastes, pesticides, and salts. Agricultural nonpoint sources enter surface water through direct surface runoff or through seepage to ground water that discharges to a surface water outlet. Various farming activities result in the erosion of soil particles. The sediment produced by erosion can damage fish habitat and wetlands, and often transports excess agricultural chemicals resulting in contaminated runoff. This runoff in turn affects changes to aquatic habitat such as temperature increases and decreased oxygen. The most common sources of excess nutrients in surface water from nonpoint sources are chemical fertilizers and manure from animal facilities. Such nutrients cause eutrophication in surface water. Pesticides used for pest control in agricultural operations can also contaminate surface as well as ground-water resources. Return flows, runoff, and leach ate from irrigated lands may transport sediment, nutrients, salts, and other materials. Finally, improper grazing practices in riparian areas, as well as upland areas, can also cause water quality degradation. The development of Pakistan is viewed as a multigenerational enterprise.
In seeking to transform attitudes and practices, the National Conservation Strategy recognizes that two key changes in values are needed: the restoration of the conservation ethic derived from Islamic moral values, called Qantas, and the revival of community spirit and responsibility, Aquila-UL-bad.
The National Conservation Strategy Report recommends fourteen program areas for priority implementation: maintaining soils in croplands, increasing efficiency of irrigation, protecting watersheds, supporting forestry and plantations, restoring rangelands and improving livestock, protecting water bodies and sustaining fisheries, conserving biodiversity, increasing energy efficiency, developing and deploying renewable resources, preventing or decreasing pollution, managing urban wastes, supporting institutions to manage common resources, integrating population and environmental programs, and preserving the cultural heritage. It identifies sixty-eight specific programs in these areas, each with a long-term goal and expected outputs and physical investments required within ten years. Special attention has been paid to the potential roles of environmental NGOs, women's organizations, and international NGOs in working with the government in its conservation efforts. Recommendations from the National Conservation Strategy Report are incorporated in the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1993–98).
In a recent study conducted by Global CLEAN campaign, it was found that the average temperature in Pakistan had risen by .2 degrees in only two years, This is a dramatic change and puts emphasis on climate change campaigns.
- Arable land - 27%
- Permanent crops - 1%
- Permanent pastures - 6%
- Forests and woodland - 5%
- Other - 61% (1993 est.)
- Irrigated land - 171,100 km² (1993 est.)
Main article: Protected areas of Pakistan
Pakistan has 14 national parks, 72 wildlife sanctuaries, 66 game reserves, 9 marine and littoral protected areas, 19 protected wetlands and a number of other protected grasslands, shrublands, woodlands and natural monuments.
Pakistan is a party to several international agreements related to environment and climate. The most prominent among them are:
|Treaties and agreements|
|Specific regions and seas||Law of the Sea, Ship Pollution (MARPOL 73/78)|
|Atmosphere and climate||Climate Change, Ozone Layer Protection, Nuclear Test Ban|
|Biodiversity, environment, and forests||Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Wetlands, Marine Life Conservation|
|Rivers||Indus Waters Treaty|
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