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The fight to save Lahore from toxic smog

Students wear masks as they go to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on November 14, 2019. (Photo by Arif ALI / AFP)

Students wear masks as they go to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on November 14, 2019. (Photo by Arif ALI / AFP)   | Photo Credit: AFP

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Three teenage girls have moved Lahore High Court demanding action to tackle air pollution

Earlier this month, three teenagers from Lahore — Leila Alam, Laiba Siddiqi and Mishael Hayat — filed a petition in the High Court against the Punjab government for under-reporting air pollution and requesting a new policy to tackle the issue.

Ms. Alam, a 13-year-old student in Grade 9, said she decided to file the petition because the government was not truthful on the severity of air pollution. “If the government refuses to acknowledge how unhealthy the air is, I don’t think the everyday citizen will really know how hazardous the air that they are breathing is or how much damage it can cause to their lungs, to their circulatory system,” she said.

In the World Air Quality report 2018, Pakistan was ranked second worst for air quality in the world, after Bangladesh (India is ranked third). Lahore, Pakistan’s second city with 11 million people, is badly hit. Earlier this month, the provincial government announced the closure of all schools in Punjab after the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 551. According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency classification, air quality in the city fell into the “hazardous” category thrice in seven days this month. Ms. Alam says despite the graveness of the situation, the Punjab government was under-reporting pollution. “The citizens don’t know how bad or hazardous the air they are breathing in is and that can cause serious problems.”

Asked what motivated her to move the High Court, Ms. Alam told The Hindu her aim was to speak on behalf of the children affected by bad air. “Children are much more at risk because their bodies are still developing. They are more likely to have stunted brain growth, and more likely to develop heart and lung diseases at an earlier age.”

Ms. Alam’s mother, Aysha Raja, a lawyer who runs a bookstore, backs her daughter’s fight. “I, myself, in my capacity as a Climate Action Pakistan member and a mother, have spoken at a few [programmes at schools on air pollution]. Globally, mothers have been at the forefront of clean air campaigns,” she said.

From Kabul to Dhaka

Ms. Alam’s father, an environmental lawyer, assisted the teens with their petition. Ahmad Rafay Alam said air pollution is a problem in all major cities in the region, from Kabul, Peshawar and all the way to Dhaka.

The Government of Punjab’s Agriculture Department conducted a study in 2018, which suggested that over the course of the year, about 80% of the air pollution in Punjab would come from the transport, energy and industrial sectors. “Every year, as the temperature drops in October, you have cold weather that condenses the air, which also creates a blanket of air pollution over large settlements, said Mr. Alam. Punjab should have monitoring stations in every district that provide accurate and real-time information of the major pollutants in the air so that the government can form policy accordingly, he added.

The report suggested that the transport fuel used in the State is of low quality. “The diesel used here is the dirtiest available in the world. The petroleum that we import isn’t up to the Euro 2 standard mandated by the federal government. Only one of the refineries in Pakistan can actually produce Euro 2 standard fuels. We have to concentrate on our energy sector and the types of furnace oils that they consume because they produce a lot of gas.” said Mr. Alam, who’s also a member of the Pakistan Climate Change Council.

So what has to be done? Mr. Alam said that the government has to review the coal-fired power plants, look at controlling crop burning which takes place for a few weeks twice a year, municipal waste burning and how people in cities warm themselves during winter.

“A lot of people end up burning wood and coal and in some cases plastic or waste to keep themselves warm in the winter,” he said.

“We are looking at a number of legislation that could improve the situation. Certainly, legislation or subsidiary legislation that could introduce considerations of air quality. There is some legislation that we can do to improve the ability of the transport department to regulate on the roads. Stop smoke-emitting cars and impound them. Proper enforcement against heaviest polluters. We have a robust set of ambient air standards and have the law, but the problem is enforcement,” he added.

Ms. Alam, his daughter, is hopeful that their petition will be able to sway the government. “The government has realised this to some extent. I do think filing this court case is a step in the right direction in spreading awareness about this issue,” she said.

(Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore.)

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 9:09:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-fight-to-save-lahore-from-toxic-smog/article30062833.ece

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