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02 June 2023

With purifiers and lawsuits, Pakistanis fight back against smog

Photo: AFP


In the past five years, air pollution has worsened in Pakistan, as a mixture of low-grade diesel fumes, smoke from seasonal crop burn off, and colder winter temperatures coalesce into stagnant clouds of smog.

In 2015, 135,000 Pakistanis died due to poor air quality, according to a study published in the scientific journal The Lancet.

Pollution tends to be at its worst in the country’s eastern province of Punjab during winter, particularly in the 12-million strong city of Lahore near the border with India.

In November schools were closed for several days across the province with the level of PM2.5 - tiny particles that get into the bloodstream and vital organs - repeatedly exceeding 200 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The World Health Organisation's recommended safe daily maximum is a measurement of 25.

Pakistan is ranked one of the worst countries in the world for air quality and Lahore consistently ranked in the top 10 most smog-hit cities, according to the pollution monitoring site AirVisual.

Public awareness about the issue is growing due to increased activism on social media about the dangers of pollution and the dire challenges climate change is bringing to Pakistan.

With officials slow to act, ordinary Pakistanis have increasingly taken measures into their own hands.

In 2016, Abid Omar launched the website PakistanAirQuality (PAQ) dedicated to compiling data about air pollution in the country and publishing its findings.

According to PAQ, Lahore only experienced "10 hours" of good quality air based on WHO standards during the first eleven months of 2019.

Conversely, air quality in the city oscillated between "bad" and "hazardous" for a total of 223 days so far this year.

The smog "has made our lives miserable," laments a pedestrian in Lahore buying a mask.

Pressure on officials is building.

Ahmad Rafay Alam, one of the few environmental lawyers in Pakistan, filed a suit against the Punjab provincial government on behalf of his daughter and two other teenagers in November, saying officials having underreported the problem.

Outside of activism and lawsuits, others are trying to minimise their exposure to the harmful toxins in the air.

"Last year, it was just bizarre how everybody seemed not concerned," says Ayza Omar, director of interiorsource.pk, a site offering high-quality face masks and other anti-smog products.

"This year, it has been crazy. We were sold out within the first two months," she adds, saying they sold thousands of masks this year compared to dozens last year.

In an attempt to improve the situation in Lahore, a group of environmentalists are planning to unveil an eight-metre-high air purifier in attempt to remove harmful particles from the air.

Maryam Saeed, one of the designers, says of the device: "It will help to ease the problem, but it won't change the whole picture."