We are all sharing ‘one’ air

The writer says South Asian nations need to come together and form a united front to prevent the effects of air pollution from affecting the next generation.


December 23, 2022

ISLAMABAD – IMAGINE Pakistan — well not just Pakistan, but the whole of South Asia — in the next 20 years. There will be a huge unhealthy population, and many people will die prematurely. It is the polluted air that we are inhaling that will be our undoing. We are all in it together and there is no getting away from it.

A new World Bank report titled Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia gives a grim prognosis, calling attention to the public health crisis brewing in the region, and caused by poor air quality in nine out of 10 South Asian cities, estimating two million premature deaths annually.

It makes me worry for Elaheh, my granddaughter, nearly two, who has a perpetually runny nose and a cough, and her six-month-old brother Ahmed. The fact is their tiny lungs have to work double-time to sieve the poison they are inhaling. Healthcare experts say children under five years, the elderly, and people who are already suffering from diseases like diabetes or have heart or respiratory conditions are most vulnerable.

Pakistan’s climate minister Sherry Rehman had recently warned: “What goes on in Pakistan won’t stay in Pakistan”, alluding to the climate devastation caused by the recent floods.

A new World Bank report calls attention to the public health crisis caused by poor air quality in nine out of 10 South Asian cities.

This warning fits perfectly when talking about air pollution. Today, South Asia finds itself wrapped in a pall of toxic air — from as far as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, to Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Even Bhutan is not spared.

To understand the misconduct of air, it is important to understand the real culprit, the inhalable particulate matter (PM) in it, that needs to be controlled. With a diameter of 2.5 micrometres, it is much finer than the finest human hair (which is about 70 micrometres in diameter) and can only be detected through an electron microscope. It travels miles upon miles, not respecting geopolitical boundaries.

For example, due to the wind direction, “30 per cent of the air pollution in the Indian state of Punjab comes from Punjab province in Pakistan and, on average, 30pc of the air pollution in the largest cities of Bangladesh (Dhaka, Chittagong, and Khulna) originates in India,” states the report.

And thus, bickering over which city or which country spews the most poison is quite futile and cleaning up the air within each country or each city is just not enough.

“The current city-by-city approach is suboptimal because pollution particles travel long distances and most of the pollution within a city comes from outside,” Muthukumara Mani, a lead economist of the World Bank told Dawn, adding that any local measures alone are bound to fail in curbing pollution.

Since they share six air sheds (a geographical area cutting across national and international boundaries within which the polluted air remains trapped) and the same air quality, Jostein Nygard, a senior environmental specialist with the World Bank and one of the authors of the report, explained to Dawn that: “Each country, state and province cannot substantively improve its air quality on its own to reach its own national air quality standards; they can only reach these standards by ensuring positive spillovers from the neighbouring countries, states and provinces.”

Currently, emissions inventories are incomplete. Through better monitoring beyond big cities, Nygard suggested scientists from South Asia set up scientific institutions that can analyse the air sheds, and once more reliable data is in hand, it can provide quantitative policy advice which can then be shared with the public.

The scientist hoped for a joint roadmap and “sharing and applying scientific air quality management experiences, strengthening mechanisms and institutions that facilitate regional AQM and even joint AQM planning and operations in selected air sheds (like in the Indo-Gangetic plains) where they can agree upon common abatement measures”.

Here in provinces like Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, there are already air quality standards for ambient air, industrial gaseous emissions and motor vehicle exhaust. Sadly, these remain on paper only.

Punjab is a step ahead and had come up with a smog policy in 2017, along with an action plan. Yet much remains to be done. This year the Punjab government declared smog a calamity. Schools were directed to close for three days and private offices for two. Even shops and restaurants have been ordered to close by 10pm on weekdays, although an extra hour’s relief has been provided over the weekends. Terming it “clutching at straws”, environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam finds these measures appealing but with “no way of knowing how effective these are without air monitors”.

In Karachi, there are just two dozen or so air monitors, that too set up by private organisations. “The Sindh Environmental Protection Agency refuses to accept the readings from those monitors but has not bothered to put up its own,” said urban expert Muhammad Toheed of the Karachi Urban Lab, adding that a city as big as Karachi needs “at least 100” for scientists to be able to analyse its air quality.

The report also suggests interventions that go beyond reducing emissions from power plants, large factories and transportation to tackling emissions from agriculture (due to ammonia emitted by manure and fertiliser), solid waste, stoves and brick kilns, sources peculiar to South Asia.

Despite terming the study a “seminal work” which sets the right direction for air pollution policy, Abid Omar, an air quality expert, finds it has “de-emphasised” the elephant in the room — the transportation sector. And this despite the data indisputably showing it was a majority contributor. Omar said it also has the most reduction potential by 7 ug/m3. “The report also did not offer near-term solutions such as improving substandard fuel or enhancing towards public transportation”.

But if there is one thing that emerges crystal clear from this report it is that South Asia needs to cooperate on one front at least — air quality. If we want to prevent our next generation from inhaling poison, South Asian nations need to come together and form a united front.

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