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Review: Pakistan’s feeble fight against filthy air

A new documentary highlights the various issues, from dirty fuel to a lack of air quality measurement, that are undermining Pakistan’s fight for clean air
<p>Dense smog engulfs Lahore in this photograph from 2017 [image by: Rana Sajid Hussain / Pacific Press / Alamy Live News]</p>

Dense smog engulfs Lahore in this photograph from 2017 [image by: Rana Sajid Hussain / Pacific Press / Alamy Live News]

The days of remarkably blue skies over South Asian cities are ending. Countries in the region have started to restart their economies after months of lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. Since late March, with industries shuttered and hardly any vehicles on the roads, emissions have dropped significantly across South Asia, and the typically high levels of air pollution in cities dissipated.

The pandemic-forced shutdown and the return of breathable air over cities have driven home an important point: the simple pleasure of breathing clean air that people living in cities in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh have almost forgotten in recent decades. There have been calls across nations that we should draw lessons from this and do our best not to return to business as usual, which would mean a return to the toxic hazes that hang perpetually over our cities.

It is in this context that the environmental documentary, Out of the Smog: Pakistan’s Plea, has to be viewed. Produced by Naveen Rizvi and Sahar Abbass and directed by Shahrukh Bhatti, the documentary is a deep dive into Pakistan’s climate crisis and the links between air pollution and high carbon emissions. Featuring detailed interviews with environmental lawyers Sara Hayat and Rafay Alam, and air quality activist Abid Omar, the documentary is an excellent introduction on the challenges Pakistan faces, particularly for audiences outside the country who are not familiar with the issues.

The interviews are clearly structured, with Alam speaking mainly on emissions and air pollution, Omar focussing on air quality monitoring issues, and Hayat linking Pakistan’s smog problem with its carbon footprint and climate change.

Dirty fuel

For international audiences, and those in India and Nepal, it will come as a shock that Pakistan is still using Euro II fuel standards – emission norms that were discontinued in the developed world more than 10 years ago. India has recently leapfrogged to Euro VI standards along with Nepal, which imports all its fossil fuel from its southern neighbour.

Low-quality fuel is one of the reasons behind air pollution in Pakistan's cities [image: Alamy]
Low-quality fuel is one of the reasons behind air pollution in Pakistan’s cities [image: Alamy]
Both Alam and Omar point to this import of cheaper but dirtier fuel as one of the main reasons for the terrible air pollution in Pakistan’s cities, especially in Lahore and Karachi, and vigorously argue that authorities need to move to more stringent standards. In South Asia, Bangladesh is the only other country that lags behind in imposing tighter fuel norms but it has a clear roadmap to transition to Euro VI. Pakistan, unfortunately, is yet to have an official policy on this.

Alam provides a detailed view of Pakistan’s air pollution problem that is intimately linked with the nation’s carbon footprint. He also points out that piecemeal approaches to clean air in Lahore, the most polluted of Pakistan’s cities, are unlikely to work. He says there has to be regional and cross-border cooperation to tackle the crisis due to the unique characteristics and common issues cities in the northern Indian plains face, from Peshawar to Lahore to Delhi to Kolkata to Dhaka.

Monitoring blues

Pakistan also lags behind in monitoring air pollution, which has prompted Omar to start a citizens’ initiative to record air quality using privately owned machines. This is a problem often spoken about in India – how inadequate the air quality monitoring system is in South Asia’s largest nation.

However, the situation is much worse in Pakistan. For instance, the non-profit World Air Quality Index (AQI) project shows data from only four monitors in Pakistan, located in the US embassy in Islamabad and US consulates in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. This compares with more than 400 AQI monitors in India, with the more than 40 in the national capital region alone.

This serious lack of data also stalls any discussion on improving air quality in Pakistan, Omar says in the documentary. To address this, Omar has started Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, which provides crowd-sourced, community-driven air quality data to increase social awareness. One is forced to wonder: is this enough? Shouldn’t the government and the country’s pollution control authorities be doing something about this?

Climate crisis

The documentary, its makers say, was inspired by the climate marches in Pakistan in 2019, which were attended in large numbers by ordinary citizens, particularly young people and schoolchildren. It is heartening to know that awareness of the climate crisis is increasing in Pakistan, which was quite ably described by Hayat. However, although public opinion is in favour of taking action on this front, she says the government is yet to wake up to the reality.

Out of the Smog is an essential addition to the cinéma vérité documentaries that are emerging from the developing world. More than finding audiences within Pakistan, it is useful for international viewers to be more informed about the broad environmental problems that Pakistan faces.

Having said that, there are a few rough edges to the documentary that could have been smoothened out by tighter editing. At more than an hour and 20 minutes, it will struggle to retain viewers for its entire length. The documentary could have been shorter, with less time given to talking heads and more footage of the ground situation in various cities.

Overall, it is an informative and in-depth view of Pakistan’s climate change challenges and its problems with filthy air. It remains to be seen whether its promoters can market the documentary so that influential audiences, particularly policymakers, view it. Whether they take action is entirely another matter.