Pakistan’s Annual Smog Season Sparks Allergies, Respiratory Issues, and Government Restrictions
In Lahore, Pakistan, the commencement of the final two months of the year heralds the arrival of familiar challenges for Eman Khosa, a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Toxic air, allergies, a sore throat, and a reluctance to venture outdoors became part of her routine during this period.
Eman, a ninth-grade student, shared, “Every year, the beginning of winter is the same. Smog comes around this time, the government implements some measures, and once the smog season ends, we return to normal.”
Her mother, Suraya Saleem Khosa, a visual artist, noted that while last year’s weather conditions mitigated the severity of smog, this year’s situation is “far more intense.” She attributed this to high Air Quality Index (AQI) readings, lack of wind, and poorly planned government road projects contributing to pollution.
Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, with a population of nearly 15 million, has once again made headlines due to its hazardous air quality. The worsening conditions have led to hundreds of reported illnesses, ranging from allergies to respiratory issues.
AirVisual, an international air quality monitoring service, ranked Lahore as the city with the world’s worst air quality for three consecutive days. The AQI scores for Tuesday through Thursday were 406, 372, and 422, respectively. After rainfall on Friday, the AQI dropped to 108, later rising to 152. In comparison, London had a reading of 25, Istanbul had 61, and Mexico City had 88 on Friday.
According to AirVisual, this week, Lahore’s air witnessed a concentration of tiny particulate matter approaching 450, which is 30 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum average daily exposure and is deemed hazardous.
An Air Quality Index (AQI) exceeding 100 is considered “unhealthy,” while levels surpassing 300 are categorized as “hazardous.” Pakistan’s own classification system is slightly more lenient, deeming an AQI over 200 as “unhealthy” and readings beyond 400 as “hazardous.”
Regardless of the severity, whether “hazardous” or “unhealthy,” the Punjab government declared a public holiday on Friday, extending the province’s existing Thursday off to create a four-day break. Public spaces, restaurants, and markets were closed, and a government-enforced “lockdown” urged people to stay indoors, aiming to improve the environmental situation.
Dr. Javed Akram, the interim health minister for Punjab, explained that the additional holiday was a one-off measure to reduce city traffic, potentially alleviating pollution. However, he attributed the pollution issue to farmers in Pakistan and India burning crop stubble after rice harvesting. He acknowledged the challenge, emphasizing the limited impact the Punjab government could have, especially when wind direction favored the influx of pollutants from India.
Mohammad Farooq Alam, deputy director of the Punjab government’s Environmental Protection Agency, highlighted that crop stubble burning in India exceeds that in Pakistan by at least five times. While the provincial government has taken steps such as imposing fines on local farmers and exploring alternative means to dispose of agricultural waste, Alam admitted that vehicular pollution remains a significant contributor to environmental degradation.
He also noted that atmospheric conditions from October to late November in the region have trapped pollutants closer to the ground, intensifying the smog.
Sara Hayat, a lawyer specializing in climate change law, policy, and advocacy in Pakistan, expressed agreement with the government’s decision to implement a lockdown. However, she emphasized the challenge of enforcement due to insufficient awareness created by institutional policies. According to the Lahore-based lawyer, this lockdown is a short-term solution without prior warning, and its effectiveness hinges on the implementation of long-term policies.
For the citizens of Lahore, the lockdown compounds the disruption to their daily lives, adding to the challenges of breathing toxic air. Moazzam Maqsood, a business owner in Gawalmandi, a densely populated area of Lahore, lamented the government’s market closures, causing significant financial losses to his printing business.
At home with her 14-year-old daughter, Khosa, who is fortunate to own an air purifier, described the physical relief it provides but acknowledged the mental toll of the smog season. Stocking up on face masks and ensuring closed windows offer some protection, but the overall impact is draining and depressing, making autumn in Lahore less anticipated.
Eman, having experienced two years of the COVID-19 pandemic with online schooling, emphasized the importance of physical attendance at school. The smog season disrupts her routine, affecting exam preparation and limiting outdoor activities. Eman noted the health impact on her classmates, with allergies and asthma becoming more prevalent, leaving little opportunity for outdoor engagements.