Recently, there was an important step in the fight for better air quality in Pakistan as a network of air quality monitors became online in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The air quality situation in Pakistan has been deteriorating every year. According to the IQAir 2022 World Air Quality Report, Peshawar is the second most polluted city in Pakistan, and fifth globally, with an average PM2.5 concentration of 101.4 µg/m³.
Third most-polluted country
Pakistan is ranked as the third-most polluted country in the world, with an average PM2.5 concentration of 60.3 µg/m³. For context, the World Health Organization’s corresponding standard is 5 µg/m³.
A recent study by the University of Chicago found that Pakistanis can add 3.9 years to their life expectancy by meeting WHO’s air quality standards, whereas citizens of Peshawar could gain up to 5.2 years.
The current lack of relevant data and monitoring is a major problem for Peshawar and the rest of the country and poses a big hurdle in the fight against pollution. These monitors, if used effectively, can help move the needle on air quality by providing real-time and reliable data on air pollution.
This data is a critical first step in the fight against air pollution, allowing policy makers and civil society to get an understanding of the causes and impacts of air pollution, and enabling researchers to evaluate the impact of interventions designed to curb air pollution.
However, perversely, in smog season these monitors can often themselves become controversial — an easy messenger to shoot when the message is difficult to digest.
It is important to understand how these low-cost monitors work and how they are different from reference grade monitors so we can keep these critical messengers up and running and supporting our efforts to improve air quality, even when the message is bitter.
Governments typically use reference-grade monitors for regulatory purposes. However, apart from one such monitor at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, there is no other reference grade monitor in KP, as, unfortunately, such monitors do not come cheap. An average reference-grade monitor could cost around US$ 20,000, not including regular (and high) maintenance costs.
Moreover, they need trained personnel with the technical expertise to run and maintain the monitors. While the Government of KP procures and installs such monitors, the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance (PCAA), a civil society association fighting for clean air, has come forward to fill this gap by joining hands with the Bank of Khyber, the provincial Environment Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to establish an air quality monitoring network in KP.
Several low-cost air quality monitors have been set up throughout Peshawar and divisional headquarters of KP.
Previously, the PCAA had already crowdfunded a few low-cost monitors with the support of the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative and Linked Things, effectively covering the entire city. The data from the monitors is now available on the PCAA website and is live on the IQAir platform.
These low-cost air quality monitors use optical reflection technology to estimate the prevalence of air contaminants and particles. Unlike reference grade monitors that physically separate particles and weigh their masses, low-cost monitors are smaller, need less energy and provide quicker results.
They also cost significantly less to purchase and maintain than reference grade monitors, making them a more accessible option for developing countries.
Despite their cost-effectiveness, the accuracy of low-cost monitors is around 85-90% that of reference grade monitors, and their data is allowed to be publicly disseminated in most countries.
While the monitors are not normally used for regulatory purposes, the data collected from these monitors has myriad uses.
For example, it can be used to identify pollution hotspots, providing valuable information to the public on air quality, enabling them to make informed decisions about their health and outdoor activities. It also opens up opportunities for research, for example on the health impacts of air pollution and on the effectiveness of pollution control measures.
If used effectively, this partnership can provide a solid basis for effective regulation, helping the media and civil society create awareness and support for reforms and interventions by the Government that will make our cities more liveable, (and breathable).
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