Amnesty International, a London-based human rights organization, urged the government in Islamabad to do more to adequately address the problem of hazardous air in Punjab province, which posed risks to people’s lives.
Levels of air quality have been rated near unhealthy and very unhealthy for most of the year in Punjab, the non-government organization said in a press release. Recently, Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry said India’s failure to control pollution caused by field fires and abysmal conditions is the main cause of pollution in Lahore.
The Ministry of Climate Change informed the cabinet that pollution in Lahore is caused by cross-border field fires and abysmal environmental conditions in India. “Level of pollution at Wagha is double than Lahore city, the Indian government is failing in every aspect,” the federal minister said.
The Amnesty pointed out that during the smog season – from October to January – air quality reached hazardous levels, as recorded by multiple, independent sources including the air quality monitors installed by the US Consulate in Lahore and the crowd-sourced data collated by the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lahore reached 484 at 10 am, the Amnesty said. The threshold for hazardous levels of air quality was 300, where people are advised to avoid all physical activity outdoors. “The high level of smog is neither a new problem nor one that came without warning,” the organization said.
South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International Rimmel Mohydin said that the government of Pakistan needs to do much more to adequately address such a severe public health crisis – one that endangers people’s health and even their lives. Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air can result in severe health issues including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, and heart problems and shortened life expectancy – putting at risk people’s rights to life and to health, as well as the right to a healthy environment.
The ‘smog season’ is where poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions, and crop burning worsen the quality of the already unhealthy air, from October to December. According to the 2015 findings of The Lancet journal, a whopping 22 percent of annual deaths in Pakistan are caused by pollution, and the majority of those are due to air pollution.
Low-income workers, such as laborers, construction workers and farmhands, and marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable as the nature of their workforces them to be exposed to hazardous air throughout the day, the Amnesty said. The fact that healthcare is not easily affordable to all means that only those who can afford it will be able to access health care and other preventative measures to mitigate the effects of breathing in hazardous air.
Low visibility can also result in accidents and loss of life. Warmer temperatures, a direct result of climate change, create an environment for smog formation and can lead the air to stagnate – preventing dirty air from leaving an area, it said. “Air pollution and climate crisis are intricately linked. It exacerbates existing inequalities and paves the way for human rights violations. If authorities continue to stall making concerted efforts to address the smog crisis, it will continue to devastate human life,” Rimmel Mohydin said.
In May 2018, the court-appointed Smog Commission made a number of recommendations, including the immediate adoption and implementation of the Punjab Clean Air Action Plan, establishing Smog Response Desks at district levels, adoption of appropriate technologies that reduce emissions of harmful pollutants from brick kilns. Those have only been partially implemented, if at all. Real-time data from the Environment Protection Department on air quality remains unavailable to the public and no efforts are being made to switch to higher quality fuel.
A fundamental shift needs to take place across Pakistan’s industrial, agricultural and transportation practices, to make sure they are consistent with people’s human rights. “There is something very wrong when the air becomes so toxic that you cannot breathe without hurting yourself. The government can no longer afford to waste time while people are choking to death,” Rimmel Mohydin said.