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The combination of air pollution and political issues presents difficulties across borders in South Asia.
Science & Health

The combination of air pollution and political issues presents difficulties across borders in South Asia.

The aroma of burnt air can be detected in Lahore, a city located in the eastern region of Pakistan. Previously known for its beautiful gardens, it has now gained a negative reputation due to its poor air pollution.

The recent months have seen tens of thousands of individuals fall ill due to harmful smog. As a result, flights have been cancelled and artificial rain was used in December to combat the issue, marking a first for the country. However, none of these efforts appear to be effective.

Lahore is located within an airshed, which is a designated region where pollutants from various sources, such as industry and transportation, become trapped due to local climate and geographic features, making it difficult for them to dissipate. These airsheds also contribute to pollution that crosses borders. In specific wind conditions, up to 30% of pollution in New Delhi, the capital of India, can originate from Punjab province in Pakistan, where Lahore is situated. South Asia is home to six major airsheds, which include some of the most heavily polluted cities in the world.

There is a demand from experts for increased collaboration between countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India in order to effectively tackle air pollution as a collective effort instead of focusing on individual cities. However, this may be challenging due to tense political relationships in the region.

Relations between India and Pakistan have deteriorated, leading to a strained dynamic between the two countries. There is a deep-rooted hostility and distrust, with a history of three wars, military buildup, and the development of nuclear weapons. Strict travel regulations and unfriendly government systems prevent people from easily crossing the border for recreational, educational, or professional purposes, although certain exceptions are made for religious pilgrimages.

Abid Suleri, an analyst from the nonprofit Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan, stated that the technical and scientific community recognizes that air pollution does not require a visa to cross borders. He explained that both sides of the India-Pakistan border share the same culprits and problems, making it illogical for one province to implement measures while the neighboring province across the border does not follow the same practices.

According to Suleri, regional and global conferences provide chances for open conversations about air pollution, even if governments are not directly or openly collaborating. He suggests that nations should view air pollution as a year-round issue rather than a problem that only arises during cold weather.

According to him, a regional strategy is necessary for air quality management. However, due to upcoming elections in India and Pakistan in 2024, there has not been sufficient government-to-government collaboration.

In a matter of weeks, Pakistan will hold national parliamentary elections. Currently, the only candidate who has committed to significant funding for climate adaptability is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a former foreign minister and leader of a political party. This decision comes after devastating floods that claimed the lives of over 1,700 individuals.

According to Bhargav Krishna, a member of the Sustainable Futures Collaborative think tank in New Delhi, air pollution is not a top priority for voters in India. However, the effects of climate change may influence their voting decisions.

A tractor releases smoke as it moves along a road as smog envelops the area, in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 15, 2024.

A tractor emits smoke while traveling on a road, as the surrounding area is covered in smog in Lahore, Pakistan on January 15th, 2024.

Krishna mentioned that during regional elections, there are often promises made regarding air pollution. He pointed out that this was seen in all parties’ election manifestos during the 2020 New Delhi elections.

The World Bank suggests that a policy for managing air quality in a specific region would require countries to establish shared targets and actions that can be carried out by all, gather regularly to exchange their progress, and ideally establish unified air quality standards.

According to a worldwide organization, nearly 93% of individuals in Pakistan are exposed to extremely high levels of pollution. In India, this number rises to 96% of the population. These two countries alone have over 1.5 billion people who are exposed to significant levels of air pollution. It is estimated that approximately 220,000 deaths in Punjab, Pakistan can be linked to health issues caused by poor air quality.

A hazy, gray fog covers the homes, mosques, schools, streets, and farmland of Punjab. Every day, there are 6.7 million vehicles on the roads of Lahore. The city is plagued by construction, pollution, and waste. Visibility is poor at major intersections during the night. Smog obscures famous landmarks such as the Badshahi Mosque from the Mughal era.

Daraz, a shopping website, has observed an increase in searches for air purifiers and face masks in Punjab since October.

Dr. Khawar Abbas Chaudhry, a pulmonologist, expresses sadness over the decline of Lahore, a city he recalls as being “once-beautiful.” He is employed at a hospital that is part of the Evercare Group, supported by Bill Gates, which operates hospitals in various areas including India, Bangladesh, and East Africa.

According to Chaudhry, there has been a doubling in the number of patients suffering from respiratory illnesses this winter. He believes that this is due to the increase in air pollution.

Discussions about topics such as air pollution and the health effects of smog are taking place within Evercare’s forums among colleagues, including those from India. However, these conversations are limited to one institution.

Chaudhry emphasized the importance of involvement from countries, governments, and departments, as well as regular meetings. Ultimately, individuals must take action in order to exert pressure on influential figures on both sides of the border.

For more than ten years, Pratima Singh, a senior research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bengaluru, has studied air pollution in India.

She suggested that South Asian nations could follow the example of the European Union in working together to address issues of pollution. This could involve establishing new policies and exchanging data and successful approaches.

Following the implementation of India’s National Clean Air Programme in 2019, it became evident to officials that it was necessary for urban centers to have an awareness of the air quality in their neighboring regions. The scope of this concern continued to grow. “There was a growing recognition that effectively addressing the issue required managing airsheds,” stated Singh.

Syed Naseem Ur Rehman Shah, the head of Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, is pleased with the progress made in battling air pollution. The release of harmful pollutants from factories and brick kilns is now being regulated, farmers will soon have access to discounted equipment to eliminate the practice of burning crop residue, and efforts are being made to introduce electric three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and buses on the streets.

Despite improvements, Shah stated that it will require time for the situation to fully improve.

He traveled to India to engage in dialogue about climate change and mentioned that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation offers a platform for addressing air pollution among member countries. However, he recognizes that there is no official collaboration at the ministerial level with India.

The Smog Cell, a display in the monitoring room, indicated that Pakistan’s Air Quality Index was higher than China’s on that particular day. Shah mentioned that the province only surpasses the recommended levels set by the World Health Organization for PM2.5, which refers to tiny particles that can be breathed in. He also stated that all other aspects of the air quality were within acceptable limits.

Ata ul Haq Qasmi, a Pakistani poet and former ambassador, currently in Evercare for respiratory problems worsened by air pollution, finds little comfort in this assessment. He states, “If my friends aren’t in the hospital, they should be. The smog is so pervasive that even stepping outside can be dangerous.”