Furhan Hussain moved to Islamabad seeking fresher air, only to find Pakistan’s leafy capital in a semi-permanent haze. Frustrated, he joined a vanguard of citizens monitoring pollution themselves amid a void in government data. Fast-growing Pakistan is home to some 200 million people and suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the world, thanks to its giant population plying poorly maintained vehicles on the roads and unchecked industrial emissions. Countries such as India and Sri Lanka publish statistics or warnings to help citizens cope when air pollution goes to dangerous levels.
But Pakistan is “one of few countries who do not monitor air quality”, says Hussain, of the informal PakAirQuality network, a group of concerned citizens monitoring pollution in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi then publishing their data on Twitter. The lack of official information means citizens may be unaware of what they are breathing in. And without irrefutable data charting the scale of the problem it can be difficult to enforce change.
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The issue is acute in developing Pakistan, where emissions standards often go ignored partly because of a belief the country cannot afford to hamper its economic growth, says Imran Saqib Khalid of the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Government policies do not outline a long-term strategy or move towards renewables. Instead, Pakistan is building some 13 coal-fired power plants with Chinese assistance under a $50 billion investment plan.
Officials insist these will not affect air quality. “Usage of ultra critical technology has been ensured to reduce emissions,” an official from the Ministry of Climate Change told AFP. Without data, it can be impossible to prove otherwise. The situation becomes particularly dire in the north during winter, when cities are blanketed in thick toxic smog reminiscent of Victorian England’s ‘pea-soupers’.
World Bank estimates show that residents of the northwestern city of Peshawar, for example, breathe an annual average of 110 cubic micro-metres of fine particulate matter — tiny pollutants that reduce visibility and reach deep into the respiratory tract. That is more than 11 times over the recommended upper limit, and is believed to be a factor in almost 60,000 deaths from related diseases each year, including lung and heart diseases, asthmas and cancers.