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One thing which still remains binding between Pakistan and India and reminds us of each other is the weather and the atmospheric environment and its consequences on both sides of the border. Each year, with the start of winter season the air pollution engulfs the cities of Delhi and Lahore.

This year it was severe. Delhi choked at an air quality index level of 320 while Lahore experienced the day’s worst air quality in the world at 432, according to Swiss group, IQAir.

India’s capital had shut down schools and traffic for an extended period, whereas, Lahore declared a four-day holiday with everything shut - except essential services and grocery outlets, as the two cities say pollution levels rose to an alarming level causing tens of thousands of people to fall ill.

Lahore, Faisalabad and Gujranwala, the most populous and polluted cities of Punjab, are facing the worsening issue of smog which returns every winter with a greater intensity. Major contributing factors are immense traffic pollution, crop burning, industrialization, environmentally unfriendly power generation plants and deforestation in favor of mushrooming housing societies.

These have led to major health issues including lungs, eyes, skin and heart problems. Although the government has taken some measures to mitigate these dangerous effects of smog, they have proven to be of little or no significance.

Major government efforts are desperately needed while invoking public awareness on the health hazards will play the most significant role in combating this challenge. The consequences of air pollution are far more severe than many comprehend and are aware of.

According to research, Pakistan is the world’s fourth most polluted country. Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) shortens the average Pakistani resident’s life expectancy by 3.9 years, relative to what it would be if the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 5 µg/m3 was met.

Some areas of Pakistan fare much worse than average, with air pollution shortening lives by almost 7 years in the country’s most polluted regions like Lahore, Sheikhupura, Kasur and Peshawar.

All of Pakistan’s 238 million people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline; 98.3 percent of the population live in areas that exceed the country’s own national air quality standard of 15 µg/m3.

Measured in terms of life expectancy, particulate pollution is the second greatest threat to human health in Pakistan (behind cardiovascular diseases), taking 3.9 years off the life of an average Pakistani. In contrast, child and maternal malnutrition, and maternal and neonatal disorders reduce average life expectancy by 2.7 years.

Particulate pollution has increased over time. From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 49.9 percent, further reducing life expectancy by 1.5 years.

In the most polluted areas of the country—Punjab, Islamabad Capital Territory and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—165.5 million residents or 69.5 percent of Pakistan’s population are on track to lose between 3.7 to 4.6 years of life expectancy on average relative to the WHO guideline and between 2.7 to 3.6 years relative to the national standard if the current pollution levels persist.

The government of Punjab has so far taken some helpful steps to counter the toxic effects of this air pollution. Public transport projects such as Metro Bus, Orange Line Train and Speedo Bus have been launched in an effort to reduce traffic pollution. Crop burning has also been banned while heavy fines are being imposed on offenders.

However, these efforts are too little and have not been sufficient to stop or even slow down the rapid rise in smog and air pollution. A lot more relevant measures need to be taken to attain the safer air quality goals such as reduced fossil fuels dependence and moving towards renewable energy, controlled urbanization, stricter emission standards for vehicles, improvement of fuel quality and shifting of the industry away from the cities and reforestation.

Atmosphere has no boundaries. In early 80s, parta of Europe experienced some fall in air-quality which prompted them to take effective tariff management measures. But, with cooperation among regional countries and under a common strategy to overcome the environmental issue, they took short-term and long-term measures and soon enough provided their citizens with clean air. This is the strength of regional cooperation and public awareness.

While keeping aside the prevailing animosity between India and Pakistan, there is good reason for the two neighbours to work together on a common issue of air pollution in the best interest of the citizens of both - may the cooperation be limited to Delhi and Lahore.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

Farhat Ali

The writer is a former President, Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry

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