Air pollution and geopolitics lead to cross-border challenges in South Asia

South Asia, home to many of the world’s worst-polluted cities with six airsheds, needs strong regional cooperation to effectively address the air pollution and related issues, rather than working in silos on a city-by-city basis; but it is a tall order when political relations in the region are fraught

Updated - January 22, 2024 09:37 am IST

Published - January 22, 2024 08:32 am IST - Lahore

A man exercises at a garden amid dense smog in Lahore in Pakistan.

A man exercises at a garden amid dense smog in Lahore in Pakistan. | Photo Credit: AFP

The air smells burnt in Lahore, a city in Pakistan’s east that used to be famous for its gardens but has become infamous for its terrible air quality.

Toxic smog has sickened tens of thousands of people in recent months. Flights have been cancelled. Artificial rain was deployed in December to battle smog, a national first. Nothing seems to be working.

Lahore is in an airshed, an area where pollutants from industry, transportation and other human activities get trapped because of local weather and topography so they cannot disperse easily. Airsheds also contribute to cross-border pollution. Under certain wind conditions, 30% of pollution in the Indian capital New Delhi can come from Pakistan’s Punjab province, where Lahore is the capital. There are six major airsheds in South Asia, home to many of the world’s worst polluted cities.

Experts are calling for greater cross-border cooperation among countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India to address air pollution together rather than working in silos on a city-by-city basis. But it is a tall order when political relations in the region are fraught.

Ties between India and Pakistan are broken. Their interactions are riddled with animosity and suspicion. Travel restrictions and hostile bureaucracies largely keep people from crossing the border for leisure, study and work, although the countries make exceptions for religious pilgrimages.

‘Same problems’

“There’s a recognition among the technical and scientific community that air pollution doesn’t need a visa to travel across borders,” said Pakistani analyst Abid Suleri, from the nonprofit Sustainable Development Policy Institute. The culprits and problems are the same on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, he said, so it makes no sense for one province to implement measures if a neighbouring province across the border is not adopting the same practices.

Regional and international forums offer opportunities for candid discussions about air pollution, even if governments are not working together directly or publicly, Mr. Suleri said, adding that countries should treat air pollution as a year-round problem, rather than a seasonal one arriving with cold weather.

“Airshed management needs a regional plan,” he said. “But 2024 is an election year in India and Pakistan, and government-to-government cooperation has not reached that level.”

Pakistan is weeks away from voting in national parliamentary elections. So far, only the former Foreign Minister and political party leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has pledged heavy investment in climate adaptability, following record-breaking floods that killed more than 1,700 people.

According to the World Bank, a regional airshed management policy would involve countries agreeing to set common air quality targets and measures that everyone can implement, meeting regularly to share their experiences and, if possible, setting common air quality standards.

The global body said almost 93% of Pakistanis are exposed to severe pollution levels. In India, it is 96% of the population. More than 1.5 billion people are exposed to high concentrations of air pollution in these two countries alone. It estimates that around 2,20,000 deaths a year in Pakistan’s Punjab can be attributed to causes related to bad air. Gray haze hangs pall-like over Punjab’s homes, mosques, schools, streets and farmland. There are 6.7 million vehicles on Lahore’s roads every day. Construction, emissions and waste are rife. There is scant visibility at major intersections after dark. Smog shrouds landmarks like the Mughal-era Badshahi Mosque.

The shopping website Daraz has reported a spike in searches for air purifiers and face masks since last October, especially in Punjab.

Pulmonologist Dr. Khawar Abbas Chaudhry laments the deterioration of Lahore, which he describes as a “once beautiful” city. The hospital where he works is part of the Bill Gates-backed Evercare Group that has hospitals in the region, including India and Bangladesh, and in East Africa.

Dr. Chaudhry says he has seen a 100% increase of patients sickened with respiratory illnesses this winter. He attributes this rise to air pollution.

The director of Pakistan’s Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, Syed Naseem Ur Rehman Shah, is proud of local achievements to fight air pollution. Emissions from industry and brick kilns are under control, farmers can soon buy subsidised machinery to end the menace of crop stubble burning, and there is a drive toward getting electric three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorbikes and buses on the roads, he said. Although things are getting better, Mr. Shah said it will take time.

He has gone to India to discuss climate change and said a regional body, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, provides opportunities for countries to talk about air pollution.

But he acknowledges the absence of formal cooperation at a ministerial level with India.

A screen in a monitoring room, called the Smog Cell, showed Pakistan’s Air Quality Index to be higher than China’s that day. Mr. Shah said the province only exceeds World Health Organization-recommended levels for PM2.5 — fine particulate matter that can be inhaled. Everything else about the air quality is within parameters, he said.

His assessment is of little consolation to Pakistani poet and former ambassador Ata ul Haq Qasmi, who is in Evercare for respiratory issues exacerbated by air pollution. “If my friends aren’t in hospital, they should be,” he said. “You only have to step outside for it (the smog) to grab you.”

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