Lahore, the famed city of gardens, has been choking under a veil of hazardous haze for the past few days and at its source lies an unsustainable growth model based on an endless expansion of roads and traffic, rising concrete jungles, open burning of waste and crop residues, unregulated industrialisation, merciless slashing of trees and the excavation of the whole city in the name of mega development.
The balance of nature has been disturbed through a rapid and ill-planned urban spread and, not surprisingly, nature is now striking back. The most precious casualty is the clean air we breathe for sustenance and which has been taken for granted. The first warnings ominously flashed last November, when the particulate matter readings shot to almost 20 to 25 times the permissible levels.
The air in Lahore on 2nd November became almost unbreathable as a toxic cocktail hit the lungs. In what would have warranted a declaration of an environmental emergency in most urban cities, passed as business as usual in Lahore. Not surprisingly, after another year of neglect, the unbreathable air is back with a vengeance and with a haze that is now lasting longer, infiltrating deeper and with a wider spread across the province. It is reinforcing the fact that nature is most unforgiving if pushed beyond its thresholds.
As if living in denial, the government is neither measuring or monitoring this hazardous risk in the city nor, to date, has a cohesive policy and prevention plan in place. For a city of over 11 million residents and spread over 600 square miles, there is minimal air pollution monitoring and reporting being done. There are, reportedly, only four functional meters present while some ambient air quality stations (JICA funded) remain dysfunctional and rotting away for lack of proper maintenance. This criminal negligence now threatens life in the city.
The solutions to this problem are not rocket science. The Nature Conservancy in its seminal study “Planting clean air” concluded that trees are the single best infrastructure investments that cities can make, and the only cost-effective solution addressing both deteriorating air quality and rising urban temperatures. Unfortunately, Lahore’s tree cover remains at a paltry 5% as compared to the global average of around 20% for livable green cities and even this low figure remains under constant threat from merciless land developers.
Protecting and expanding green spaces, instituting vehicular traffic control, controlling pollution of industries, managing construction dust and restricting crop burning are all logical measures that need to be taken but they can only happen if a committed political will supports them. That, however, remains the gaping weakness in the response to date. The Punjab Environment Council, constituted in 2012 has only met twice in almost five years.
A World Bank study, back in 1996, warned that air pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the country causing almost 50% of the environmental damage which, at that time, was estimated at almost Rs1 billion/day. Since that report came out we have, unfortunately, slid further downward in the abyss of environmental degradation.
A promising exception has been the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Earlier plagued by rapid deforestation and a reigning timber mafia, the province has bucked the trend through a commitment for green growth. With an environmental budget in 2016 almost seven times its own provincial allocation in 2013 and more than the combined environmental budget of the federal government plus all other provinces and with a “billion trees” now delivered on the ground, the province is leading the pack in combating climate change as well as fighting and filtering air pollution. It is a trend which is not only necessary but indispensable.
This hovering haze is neither the first, and definitely not the last, episode of alarming air pollution in Lahore. It is essential that the government gets its act together to deal with this problem and accords it the financial priority it deserves.
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