When the first lethal smog hit Lahore in 2017, people mistook it for just another hazy week that would soon clear out, and life would continue as usual. Back then it reminded me of old Victorian novels like Charles Dickens’, which always had a thick smog as part of the general description. The juxtaposition wasn’t quite far off; both the UK and Pakistan went through periods of rapid economic growth. Little attention was paid to the environmental policy as industrialization was deemed paramount. Neither governments anticipated the catastrophic effects of air pollutants. Mitigative action started rather late in the day. The Great London Smog of 1952 resulted in an estimated 4,000 deaths and 12,000 casualties– many of which resulted in premature deaths.
In Pakistan, the situation was far worse, with the WHO reporting an estimated 60,000 smog-related deaths and casualties. The London Smog triggered an emergency response from the British government that resulted in the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956. On the other hand, we are still waiting for coherent environmental legislation in Pakistan.
The London Smog was caused mainly by flue gases and the burning of low-quality coal during a period where electric heating was not yet universal. The comparison shows a similar pattern in countries focusing on economic growth when they have not yet reached their projected development potentials. In Lahore, a significant chunk of pollutant gases came from crop burning post-harvest, brick kilns, and the industrial sector as well as transport vehicles.
The Pakistani government’s focus was on building cost-effective public transport infrastructure in the city and reduce transport emissions. The Orange Train project alone led to twenty-two thousand trees being cut down, worsening the air pollution situation. The government attempted half-hearted attempts like shutting down brick kilns during peak winter months. Crop burning was banned, but no follow up system was put in place to monitor it. Recommendations were made to put better air quality monitoring systems in place, but nothing substantial was done to reduce emissions.
At that time, I had just changed schools to a newer, more upmarket locality in the center of one of Lahore’s most significant commercial areas. Even though urban planners had designed more full roads with a Beverly Hills-esque green belt, I still had to resort to using inhalers during winters. The palm trees were poorly planted and hardly served any purpose, except provide some relief from the urban ugliness.
Fast-forward to 2019, the Ministry of Climate Change was now seen as a more competent authority since it was headed by a politician who understood the overarching impact of pollution. Instead, our minister spent her press conferences praising the Prime Minister, unaware that increased rainfall was damaging agricultural output. Climate change hardly figured in her press conferences or even ministry’s work. The Climate Change Ministry is currently focusing on tree plantation drives instead of addressing the problem at a grassroots level.
Perhaps we have a lot to learn from the Great British Smog. The UK government started incentivizing people to switch to low-sulfur fuels. The British government imposed fines on those pollution control regulations; banned black smoke emissions, and introduced measures to assess the impact of regulations on pollution. Climate Change Levies encouraged people to switch to renewable fuel sources. Yet it is understandable that in a country where a large segment of the population relies on wood fires for cooking and heating, carrying out such policies isn’t feasible.
However, individual efforts are still being made to improve the condition of atmospheric pollution. NGOs are trying to raise awareness about these issues to pressurize the government to take action. Since almost all the governments in Pakistan haven’t been able to complete their tenures and economic development had to be prioritized to improve the living standards in developing countries like ours, it is not unexpected that climate action was not on top of their agenda. Public-Private Partnerships and the establishment of online communication networks to help people report environmental hazards could help officials in more effective mitigation. Nonetheless, history will keep repeating itself until we come up with long term viable solutions to reduce our pollution footprints.