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State of Air Pollution in Pakistan
Brief Analysis by Hassaan Ghazali

Nowadays, nothing cuts through the ice quite like discussing the weather which of late has become noticeably more and more severe. If the experiences of extreme temperatures in Italy and England are anything to learn from, then Pakistan, if not South Asia, is more than likely to soon join the list of affectees. While climate change itself is a widely discussed issue with disastrous implications, prevention of air pollution becomes a responsibility shared by each and every government and citizen of the world.

With the growing complexities of social, commercial and industrial activity, Pakistan develops rapidly but with this development come negative externalities in the form of environmental pollution, which we all face, but few choose to resolve. The price of life as we know it is increasing day by day and we are doing little to solve the issues at hand. Our isolation from the consequences of our actions is more the result of an aggregate fooling itself into thinking either that its actions would have negligible impact on the surroundings, or that this impact would affect others who do not quite figure in the scheme of things. It remains to be seen if our naiveté and not our blindness would be our undoing for the air we breathe knows no boundaries.

In the context of the declining influence and corruption of institutions in Pakistan, law becomes the single most important instrument for environmental change and control. However, the environment is less a ‘field’ (which evokes the steady tilling of a well-marked patch of productive land) and more a spaghetti junction of crosscutting disciplines, methodologies and issues. Conserving the environment therefore, calls for a multi-pronged participatory strategy, as we all are at once, part of the problem and part of the solution.

We can start understanding the grassroots issues at hand by considering the rickshaws that contrary to public understanding are not running on CNG, but on petrol and LPG.

Recently the local government in Lahore announced its decision to crack down on tampered rickshaw silencers in an effort to curb noise pollution. Perhaps this is the first in a series of directives targeting more complicated problems of a sector that has so far been greatly ignored. Up until now, all rickshaw drivers were able to remove components of the silencer, which gave them greater acceleration but sent noise levels skyrocketing so the action undoubtedly counts as a good first step in checking the menace.

Try turning the attention of the traffic police officer to the rickshaw emissions next time you see one at the red light—also, try to notice the handkerchief he wears to "protect" himself while breathing. This is not for vanity’s sake as there is now enough scientific research on prolonged exposure to vehicular pollution to cause an amendment in the old bumper sticker to read, "All cops are impotent pigs". Indeed, what we once studied to be an archetypal mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and other gases has evolved into a more deadly combination of sulphur fumes, suspended particulate matter and an alphabet soup-esque collection of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, vinyl chloride, dichloromethane and trichloroethylene. This knowledge alone makes one want to have a word with the chemistry teacher back at Aitchison College. Legislatively speaking, National Environmental Quality Standards that have been set by the Federal Government cover only noise, smoke and carbon monoxide—a framework that assumes an overly simplistic model of chemical reactions and overlooks key toxins such as lead compounds, nitrogenous compounds and hydrocarbons.

Suffice is to say that regulation of commercial transport vehicles requires high priority in any environmental management plan but certain issues regarding Lahore’s institutional capacity require consideration. Despite extensive provisions of the Motor Vehicle legislation, out of an estimated 40,000 rickshaws in Lahore only 12,000 are registered vehicles. The 70% remaining have never fallen under the purview of the motor vehicle examiners who are charged with certifying the condition of vehicles in Lahore. The government’s reliance on non-scientific visual inspections makes one wonder why these failing institutions were established and never strengthened in the first place.

Lahore also has a thriving adulterated fuel market that supplies rickshaws with cheap fuel and lubricant, the unregulated use of which greatly increases tailpipe emissions. Interestingly enough, clusters of this trade operate right in the vicinity of our provincial Environment Protection Department which has so far not found it necessary to have them removed.

It becomes increasingly apparent that although conversion to or induction of CNG technology in public transport would help mitigate vehicular air pollution in the short to medium term, the infrastructure for this is presently non-existent and expensive to develop. Nor is there any research to show whether the conversions lead to any measurable environmental benefits at all. Informal workshops all over Lahore have the capability to convert vehicles to CNG but their performance still needs to be evaluated.

The experience of cleaner fuels in India can be replicated where there is political will and funding from government agencies. This, however, is not the case in Lahore and development of the CNG sector for now seems to depend almost entirely on domestic vehicle owners seeking cheaper commuting.

Measurable medium-term benefits can be expected within the next 5 years by forcing fuel companies to reduce fuel additives such as sulfur and lead and for vehicle manufacturers to install emission control devices. Phased lowering of sulfur and lead can enable the use of emission control technologies such as catalytic converters which are overlooked tools for air quality management in Pakistan. Catalytic converters are perhaps the most feasible devices that can be installed in vehicles to reduce vehicular emissions but remain a thing of the future since their metallic reactants would be rendered useless by the level of additives present in fuel today. The question really is, would the oil companies find it financially feasible to bring down these levels? So far, they are marketing only unleaded petrol while diesel is an animal yet to be tamed.

An enabling environment demands that incentives be structured into the fiscal framework of technology transfer and procurement to help phase in cleaner engines calibrated according to international standards. Currently there are no realizable benefits for transport companies and importers to do so except for the recent decrease in duties for second hand vehicles and complete body units.

Poorly maintained vehicles amidst an aging fleet account for approximately 90% of vehicular emissions and it would be wise to deem mandatory inspection and maintenance of gross polluting vehicles as being vital to pollution prevention programs. This authority falls within the collective domain of the motor vehicles examiners, the transport authority and the traffic police although the success of these programs will depend on the capacity that these institutions have. Devising such a scheme not only requires financial commitment and transparency but also requires participation and awareness amongst the public in its deployment—a difficult task when citizens view such programs as extortionist measures carried out by the state.

The notion of maintaining good air quality has been the center of attention of concerned stakeholders around the globe and nowhere was this more evident than in Manila at the Better Air Quality Workshop 2003 where over 600 people converged to discuss, share and learn from their experiences in prevention of air pollution. The lessons learnt made possible an evaluation of our presently dismal position to combat air pollution and gave vision in terms of the direction in which developing countries ought to be heading.

The quality of life our future generations will have depends on the responsibilities we take upon ourselves, and the soundness of the decisions we choose to make today. So while the world moves on with its environmental initiatives, we face the choice of having to actively protect ourselves and others from the effects of pollution or to carry on living in oblivion where ignorance truly is bliss.

Go to the BAQ 2004 website
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Ghazali, Hassaan

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