The air that encircles us and our cities has become the cause of harm for people and the places where we live. Smog has now built a long-term relationship with Lahore. The city topped the Air Quality Index (AQI), in November and December 2021. (According to air quality tracker IQAir, the AQI crossed five hundred, local media also reported).

The situation with air quality is getting far worse and there is no end in sight.  For one thing, environmental issues are not getting the right amount of attention from the government. Smog and air quality are one of the biggest challenges. In central Punjab, especially in the city of Lahore environmentalists and doctors are calling it "The Silent Killer". Yet, little is being done to improve conditions that continue to prove harmful to those living in that region.

The Punjab Government and EPD (Environmental Protection Department) of Punjab have made various policies to control and mitigate the air pollution. These steps include an e-vehicle policy, tree plantation drive, using better quality fuel, moving brick kilns out of the city, and using zig-zag technology. The recent developments include the installation of 100 locally procured air quality monitors in collaboration with “Innovation Lab” (A Pakistani-based international startup). This will help map the city’s hotspot with the worst air quality. Despite all these step’s, situation on the ground does not seem too good. The AQ reading shown below is a warning sign for an upcoming storm. The smog season is not here but the air quality is far from good.

As a wildlife and environmental filmmaker, I visited Lahore, right before the smog season, in mid-September right after the end of monsoons. We interviewed various classes of society including few experts, regarding the air quality of Lahore and the smog crisis, which is now well known globally. We cannot deny the facts and data sheets.

We also looked at Lahore's air quality data today. This revealed nothing different from what we heard.

We started by interviewing Brick Kiln workers in the outskirts of Lahore. Many kilns are now falling in the city premises after urban expansion. 

Muhammad Abbas: A brick kiln labourer explained that the brick kilns are not to be blamed for Smog. He added, “We are working for decades now as labourers, and nothing ever happened to us.”

Usually, the brick kilns are closed twice a year. Once in the monsoon season and once for regular breaks. Now they close three times a year. The Government also forces them to close during Smog season. Abbas added that the laborers are not being compensated for forced closures by the Government.

Another laborer told a similar story.

Sultan Ali: "The brick kilns already are closed three times a year, and now there is a shortage of coal due to floods and road closures. The problems we face like inflation, our basic commodities getting out of reach.”

He revealed that the contractors also charge them for the closures. “The business is not going good. We work for few days and then we have no work for many days,” he said.

He further explained, “We only burn coal here. While I am a laborer since my childhood, I never had any lung or breathing issues. When I was a kid, we only had brick kilns here on the outskirts and the houses were built later. Now the city has expanded.”

He added, “Smog is a rumor, and our brick kilns have nothing to do with it.

We interviewed a woman who uses air purifiers for her health. Her family started using an air purifier after the Lahore smog smashed records on AQI. 

Mariam Ganddapur: “I started using an air purifier two years ago. A doctor referred me. I had minor health issues related to the lungs. Dust particles are common in the air, especially in Lahore. I use a big-size air purifier and it should be used by every household in Pakistan, especially households with kids.

She added that she feels the difference when she steps outside her house. 

“During the smog season, it is hard to breathe, and you are inhaling particles that you cannot see. These particles are injurious to the lungs. During the smog season, we prefer to stay inside. The Air purifier filter needs cleaning more often during smog season.”

She added, “When we go abroad, we always say the air is so clean. We do not have that Air Quality in Lahore anymore. Air Purifiers are not permanent solutions. But these are the options we have now. We need to look for bigger solutions in Pakistan. Climate crises need more attention. We need to look for reforms in the transport sector. Pakistan needs to act fast, and we need permanent solutions,” Mariam said.

One of the experts we interviewed was a pulmonologist and had more insight into the problem’

Dr Irfan Malik: “Smog is a Silent Killer" and 9 million Pakistanis died before their time. Deaths from environmental pollution account for 24% of all deaths globally. 

“Many people live a major part of life with the smog, and they come to us with complications when it is too late.”

Dr Irfan added, “In Lahore, we have five seasons Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Smog, and people now actually prepare for smog season. Smog is not only causing lung-related disorders but also causing cancers. Skin cancer, eyes related diseases, and metabolic disorders. Many people don't know that.

“Smog is causing Heart attacks and diabetic issues as well. it is causing birth defects, especially for pregnant women who are more prone to smog and Air Quality issues,” the doctor added.

Dr Irfan sees many causes for the problems, including too many cars and motorbikes on the road, unregulated industries, brick kilns, and crop burning adding the problem. “Smog is affecting our crops, too.  Ultra Violet light does not reach crops and plants.  This spikes the growth of insects and harmful bacteria,” he said. 

People with more exposure are prone to the diseases, Dr Irfan said. He added, “In the past 10 years, we have seen children with no history of asthma come with lung disorders. Asthma was once a seasonal disease. Now we are seeing patients with asthma throughout the year and most of them are kids.”

Talking about Solutions, Dr Irfan said: “We need to understand our role. Implementation is the job of the government, but people should also act on their own. A simple mask can help save many lives.”

He added, “We need more trees and not just planting trees but taking care of them for at least two years. We need a mass transportation system and fewer bikes on roads. Lahore has now 8 million bikes on the roads which are alarming. “

The transport sector has seen changes in past years with the orange line metro train service and BRT lines operating in the city. Yet, this has not eased the pressure on the roads. The number of bikes and cars has increased double folds. 1,044,837 vehicles were registered in Pakistan, in the first 10 months of 2021. The highest number of vehicles were registered in Lahore which is 277,489. This includes bikes, cars, tractors, and trucks.

We interviewed a rickshaw driver, and he was not much aware of health issues relating to smog.

Shehzad: "I have been driving a rickshaw for 10 years. We drive a rickshaw on gas (LPG/CNG) while the emission is high for petrol and diesel. Why we are not allowed to drive in some parts of the city we do not understand. The pickup trucks have higher emissions.,” he said.

He added, “I have never worn a mask. I am 35 years old, but I am healthy and drive outdoors. I do not think smog is hazard for health.” He stressed again that he felt diesel-powered vehicles are more responsible for air quality issues. 

Not all is going wrong. We have seen the worst smog seasons in previous years, and there has been some development in mitigating the problem. There have been some Pakistan-based startups that are producing solutions for better monitoring of air quality. They find out the hotspots and map the Lahore air quality in real-time. The Innovation Lab is procuring locally manufactured air quality monitoring devices using IOT-based products.

We interviewed Mr Zulfiqar Ahmed from the Innovation Lab.

Zulfiqar Ahmed: “We make innovation-based solutions for environmental-related projects. When we studied the Lahore air pollution, we found only two sources. Vehicles and industries on both local and large scale. Our idea is to develop locally manufactured sensors that are cost-effective. We plan to make a network of sensors to identify the hotspots within Lahore city. This will enable the EPD (Environmental Protection Department) and the Government of Punjab to identify the areas with more air pollution and find out the causes and remedies.

The problem is bigger than what we think and generally, it ignored by the lower class. As reported by an international Newspaper, “In 2020, India had 46 of the world’s 100 most polluted cities, followed by China (42), Pakistan (6), Bangladesh (4), Indonesia (1), and Thailand (1), according to air quality tracker IQAir. All these cities had a PM2.5 air-quality rating of more than 50." The problem is regional as well, but the sources are local. The first step should be the awareness of the masses. Then there should be all the action plans. We need to adapt and change our old methods and shift towards Nature Based Solutions and environmentally resilient policies and actions.