Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hard to breathe in Pakistan

In 2015, an estimated 135,000 Pakistanis died due to air pollution, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet found. Perhaps more crucially, the study found that air pollution cost Pakistanis more than 42.3 million disability-adjusted life years - averaged out over Pakistan's cities, where air pollution is concentrated, that amounts to more than a year off every single urban citizen's life. 

Come October, changing weather patterns, high levels of environmental pollution and seasonal crop burning combine to make the air in Lahore some of the most toxic in the world, with the city's air quality index (AQI) reading regularly topping 500 (the upper limit on most meters), according to AirVisual, an international air quality monitoring service. The AQI is a measure formulated by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure how healthy or polluted air is, and takes into account levels of five major air pollutants. Any reading higher than 100 is considered "unhealthy", with readings higher than 300 considered "hazardous", according to international standards. Pakistan's classification system for AQI considers levels up to 200 to be "satisfactory". The AQI during the four months between October and January rarely dips below "hazardous" levels. According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) report commissioned by the Punjab government, roughly 43 percent of the province's air pollution is attributable to vehicle emissions. A further 24 percent is from industrial emissions, 20 percent from the burning of crops in the winter season, and 12 percent from the country's mainly coal- and furnace oil-fired power plants. Pakistan uses Euro-II standards for the quality of fuels used in vehicles, which allows for higher levels of pollutants. For example, the sulphur content in Euro-II grade diesel fuel is roughly 50 times higher than current global standards.
This year, for the first time ever, the provincial government shut down schools for three days due to hazardous air quality, asking citizens to remain indoors as much as possible. For many in Pakistan, where the average per capita income is less than $1,600 a year, staying indoors, however, is simply not an option.

"My whole family can eat only because I am running this pushcart," says Jalal Hazrat Syed, a 24-year-old migrant to Lahore who sells household electrical equipment off a wooden cart in the old city. "If I shut it down, what will they do? It's easier for those who work in offices. If I don't work for a day, we don't eat that day."
This year, the government and activists have been encouraging citizens to wear filter face masks to protect themselves while outdoors in the smog, as well as to install air purifiers at home to filter the air. The main danger from the smog is high levels of particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM2.5. Such particles can be absorbed directly into the blood and organs after being breathed in, and have been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and other diseases. Pakistan's standard for "safe" levels of PM2.5 in the air is 35 microns per cubic metre. At the peak of smog season, the level was regularly more than 15 times that amount.
For many in Pakistan, however, buying air purifiers for their homes or workspaces is out of the question, given their high cost.
"We would see the smog descend in the evenings, mostly," said Faiz-ul-Islam, 30, a tea seller in the city's congested Shah Alami market. "It is unlikely, given I earn 15,000 rupees a month [$96], that I would be able to buy an air purifier." Islam says he has no choice but to go to work, no matter what the air quality, because he needs to earn a living. "I cannot survive for a single day without going outside and working," he says. "If we are forced to stay home, I will be forced into debt, and it will take months to work it off."
Most air purifiers in Pakistani stores are imported, with prices starting at about 30,000 rupees ($194), or roughly double the monthly minimum wage. Prices for face masks certified to filter out PM2.5 particles are more affordable, however, with most masks retailing for roughly 200 rupees (about $1.30).

In September, thousands of young people marched in 26 cities across the country to register their protest against unsustainable climate policies, joining a global movement dubbed the Global Climate Strike.

Nida Afzal, a student at Lahore's Punjab University, was among those marching.

" I am living under a system that is oppressing me and doesn't allow me to speak the truth, then I should leave that system, right?" she says. "That seems to be anarchist, but it is really not anarchist. It is about communicating your opinion to power.

Students are now [engaging in this activism] because they know their rights," she says. "[Authorities] don't argue with us the same way, because they know ... that we really shut them up. That's the pride of this movement. How Greta  speaks, you know?" Afzal says the time for governments to act is fast running out, and that for her, "it is do or die now"."We have known about climate breakdown for 30 years, and we have been warned by scientists. We have now taken that stand, that we have to do something, because if we don't work together, we die together." Afzal works with the UK-based eXtinction Rebellion (XR), a climate activism group that conducts civil disobedience protests where activists court arrest in order to force authorities to take notice of climate change.In Pakistan, however, Afzal says it is more difficult to conduct those kinds of protests. "They couldn't happen here, because people are scared. Over there, people are educated and very privileged. Their protests are flooded with middle-class white people, who are privileged," she says. She believes privileged Pakistanis will have to use their social power to agitate for change. "The people will have to come forward and say, us educated people. A labourer cannot come forward to put his life and his wages in danger to say that they don't accept corporations. We should not expect that, either. We need to work with them and work for their rights, but we should not expect them to be revolutionaries."

"Young people are easier to convince. It is more probable that a young person is more aware of this issue than someone in their mid-30s," says Raza Goraya, 25, a lawyer who co-founded the Clean Air Campaign in Lahore. Goraya warns, however, that opposition to sustainable policies appears to be based in a paradigm that pits development against environmentally friendly policies. "It is ingrained that pollution is necessary. That development with sustainability being brought into the equation is not possible, not on a fast pace."

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