THE toxic smog that has covered parts of Pakistan for weeks has exposed official torpor over rampant pollution that has killed thousands more people than have died in years of militancy.
The polluted air that has lingered in Islamabad in recent days was finally dispelled by rain last week, bringing the surrounding Margalla Hills into view once again.
In Lahore, where the situation was most critical, the level of PM2.5 – microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs – had dropped to 159 last Wednesday (15) from more than 1,000 during the pollution spike, according to PakistanAirQuality, a citizen-driven monitoring initiative.
But what looks good for Pakistan is still very bad: 159 is six times higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) safe limit.
“[The] Question is, can a change from #Hazardous to Very #Unhealthy be called an improvement?” tweeted PakistanAirQuality.
Pakistan is ranked third – behind China and India – for the number of deaths caused by pollution, with 125,000 people killed annually, according to one measure by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research institute founded by the Gates Foundation.
The figure is well beyond the estimated 60,000 people who have died in the militancy-wracked country’s years-long battle against extremism.
“I don’t want to downplay the risk of militant extremism, but we must understand that our citizens are more vulnerable to diseases in the air than to armed terrorists on the ground,” wrote opposition senator Sherry Rehman in the Express Tribune newspaper last week.
“We must act. And we must act now.”
Yet the Pakistani government provides almost no reliable data on pollution, making it difficult to say with any certainty why the smog has become so pervasive, particularly in the last two years, much less tackle its causes.
Obvious suspects include unchecked industrial emissions, millions of poorly maintained vehicles, and a complete lack of waste management, with tonnes of rubbish often burned in the streets.
These factors are aggravated by the annual post-harvest burning of crop stubble, blamed for fuelling the recent pollution crisis across South Asia.
As the smog peaked in recent weeks, roughly 1,000 new patients were treated each day for respiratory issues in Punjab’s nine public hospitals, health ministry officials have said.
“It is a matter of emergency, but the officials concerned did nothing except taking tea in their offices,” said Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, chief justice of the Lahore high court.
He spoke last Monday (13) during an emergency hearing in which an opposition party accused the provincial government in Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, of failing to control the smog.
Officials delayed school start times and shut down some of the worst polluting companies, and said they also ordered a temporary halt to crop burning.