Bad air forces Pakistan to shut schools and markets and seed the clouds


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani authorities are closing schools and markets and deploying artificial rain amid growing alarm over worsening levels of air pollution.

Environmental activists say pollution levels are approaching or may have exceeded levels in the most polluted parts of neighboring India, where smog has for years practically paralyzed the capital of New Delhi during the winter months.

Lahore, long known as Pakistan’s green “city of gardens,” has emerged as the country’s most polluted city. It now regularly tops global air pollution rankings, according to Swiss technology company IQAir, which tracks more than 7,000 cities around the world. Lahore’s 11 million residents may be losing more than seven years in average life expectancy due to poor air quality, according to a University of Chicago estimate.

Pakistani officials have in recent weeks resorted to unprecedented short-term measures. In addition to closing schools and markets, the government has imposed traffic restrictions, and – when those efforts showed too little effect – turned to cloud-seeding technology, which involves dropping salts from a plane to trigger the formation of rain droplets.

Scientists have voiced doubts over whether the technology actually works. But Mohsin Naqvi, the caretaker chief minister of Lahore’s Punjab province, called its first use in Pakistan last weekend “a successful experiment,” saying that rain was subsequently reported across large parts of Lahore and that air pollution levels temporarily dropped.

While China has in the past deployed similar cloud-seeding technology, Beijing’s air significantly improved only after the government turned to emissions curbs and other large-scale interventions. Environmental activists and residents worry that Pakistan is doing too little too late.

Bashir Ahmed, 41, a civil engineer from Lahore, said the current crisis follows years of disregard for the environment, including the bulldozing of the city’s lush parks to make space for shopping malls and highways. Lahore lost 75 percent of its green cover in recent decades, local environmental groups say.

After weeks of breathing air with an acrid smell, Ahmed developed a sore throat and a permanent cough that doctors blamed on pollution. “The hospital was flooded with patients like me,” he said, adding that unless more action is taken by government officials, “Lahore will soon become unlivable.”

Rather than addressing the underlying reasons, however, Pakistan’s leadership is focusing on “Band-Aid solutions,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper warned in a recent editorial.

Besides deforestation and the disappearance of green spaces, researchers and activists primarily blame exhaust and dust from construction sites, toxic emissions from old cars and factories, and the burning of seasonal crop residue.

Kashif Salik, an agricultural economist, said powerful interest groups prevent the imposition of more effective curbs on car emissions, construction projects and agricultural practices. “In this country, we have a transport mafia and a construction mafia,” he said. “There’s no alternative to the government finally confronting them.”

But instead, business associations argue, officials have chosen to target low-emission sectors that appear easier to rein in. Tariq Mehboob, who heads the Chainstore Association of Pakistan, said the recent government-mandated closure of supermarkets and local shops caused traders in Lahore and other cities to lose more than $35 million – another hit during the worst economic downturn in years.

Mehboob urged the government to instead crack down on low-quality gas, which continues to be sold to drivers in Pakistan even as other countries have moved to ban it over its environmental impact.

In an interview, Farzana Altaf Shah, the head of Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency, defended the government’s response, saying the agency is taking action against unauthorized construction projects and has ordered police to crack down on vehicles that violate emissions rules.

Despite local outrage over perceived government inaction, pressure on politicians may be insufficient to force change, political analysts say. As Pakistan gears up for elections expected in early February, air quality concerns do not rank high on the political agenda, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political scientist in Lahore.

Much of the political debate remains focused on concerns over electoral fairness, because the most popular opposition leader, former prime minister Imran Khan, is in prison after he was sentenced to jail for corruption and arrested in August. But Rizvi said that even if the election wasn’t dominated by political tensions, a range of other pressing issues – including a rising number of militant attacks, high inflation and poverty – would constitute more immediate and serious concerns for many voters.

Irfan Ahmed, a cloth merchant in Lahore, said if he had to choose between governmental efforts to boost the economy or shutdowns to combat air pollution, he would choose the former.



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