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Peshawar's Battle for Clean Air: Fear of Reduced Lifespans Looms

If the people of Peshawar come to accept that merely breathing the air in the "City of Flowers" might cost them and their descendants an average lifespan of three and a half to seven years, it would be a grim reality.

by Muhammad Fahim - 03 Nov, 2023 1558
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These days, life in Pakistan has become a collective nightmare because of political uncertainty and its implications on the country’s economy. The nation's leaders, the current caretaker government, and the general public alike find themselves grappling with an assortment of challenges.

While the ruling authorities struggle to navigate the ongoing political uncertainty and manage the dire economic crisis, increasing inflation, unemployment, and the burden of direct and indirect taxes weigh heavily on not only the underprivileged but also the upper middle class.

The surging incidents of terrorism, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, further erode any lingering hope. The traditional refrain heard from past rulers, "The country is passing through a critical juncture," now rings undeniably true.

As Pakistan traverses this critical juncture, it ranks as the seventh most climate change-affected country globally. However, concerning air pollution, Bangladesh tops the list, with Pakistan ranking second. Additionally, Lahore, a major Pakistani city and business hub, claims the unfortunate distinction of being the world's most polluted city, with Peshawar trailing closely in fifth place.

If the people of Peshawar come to accept that merely breathing the air in the "City of Flowers" might cost them and their descendants an average lifespan of three and a half to seven years, it would be a grim reality.

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A recent study by the University of Chicago revealed that adhering to WHO's air quality standards could increase the average life expectancy of Pakistanis by 3.9 years, with Peshawar residents gaining 5.2 years. Conversely, failure to address the current air pollution levels in Pakistani cities, including Lahore, Kasur, Sheikhupura, and Peshawar, raises alarm, potentially reducing residents' average life expectancy by up to seven years, as feared by the WHO.

Regrettably, present evidence supports the WHO's concerns. IQAir reported a concentration of particulate matter (PM2.5) at 331 µg/m³ in Lahore on November 2, indicating an air quality 66.2 times higher than the WHO's annual standard. Similarly, Peshawar recorded a PM2.5 concentration of 82 µg/m³, categorizing it as "very unhealthy," surpassing the WHO's annual air quality limit by 16.4 times.

What is Particulate Matter (PM2.5)?

Particulate Matter (PM) larger than 2.5 microns is a common indicator of air pollution. These particles, approximately 30 times smaller than human hair, carry strong evidence of adverse effects on human health. PM comprises various components, including sulfates, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust, and water.

Air Pollution - A Global Crisis

Over the past two decades, air pollution, coupled with climate change, has escalated into a global crisis, particularly in South Asian nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution stands as the foremost environmental contributor to poor public health, accounting for seven to nine million annual deaths worldwide.

A report from the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance (PCAA), a voluntary civil society organization advocating for cleaner air in Peshawar, reveals that air pollution in Pakistan leads to 22,000 premature deaths each year. However, experts note that those exposed to air pollution, who don't meet an untimely demise, endure an excruciating existence. Their respiratory health suffers, leaving them vulnerable to throat, chest, and lung ailments, including lung cancer.

The WHO emphasizes that reducing air pollution can alleviate the burden of illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and various chronic and acute respiratory conditions, including asthma. In essence, nations neglecting the pressing issue of air pollution risk perpetually increasing this heavy burden.

Causes of Air Pollution in Peshawar

Peshawar, once known as Peshawar Valley and fondly remembered as the 'City of Flowers,' has transitioned from fragrant blooms to an environment tainted with smoke, dust, and unpleasant odors. The city's atmosphere has taken on a toxic quality.

Initially hosting a substantial number of Afghan refugees as a consequence of the Afghan war and subsequently serving as a frontline city in the battle against terrorism, Peshawar, which embraced its tribal residents, finds itself echoing its historical past.

While the simplicity and charm of its ancient traditions have faded, the population's unruliness, the government's flawed policies, and projects driven by political interests have distorted its former beauty. Primarily, this surge in population has amplified the issue of air pollution.

The city's population continues to swell, coupled with the expansion and improvement of roads connecting Peshawar to Swat, Dir, Chitral, and the recently merged districts. Consequently, the number of vehicles, spanning from private cars to motorcycles, in Peshawar has surged exponentially. Over the past nine years, there has been an 84.6% increase in the total number of vehicles, with motorcycles and scooters experiencing a remarkable 168.8% surge.

According to the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance (PCAA) report, the transport sector stands as the predominant source of air pollution in Peshawar, accounting for 58.46%. Most alarming is that a significant portion of these vehicles is between 30 to 40 years old, lacking proper emissions management systems, thereby emitting pollutants that surpass other sources of air pollution. Among these, rickshaws are notorious for leaving behind a trail of smoke.

Dust and the re-suspension of dust particles represent the second-largest contributors to Peshawar's air pollution at a rate of 17.67%. The domestic sector follows at 11.6%, with industry at 6.58%, open waste burning at 4.10%, and finally, the commercial sector with a share of 1.49%.

Government Apathy - A Significant Factor

A significant part of the blame lies with successive governments, their lack of concern, negligence, and irresponsibility. Governmental negligence is conspicuous in the absence of comprehensive data on this issue in relevant institutions. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), primarily tasked with environmental protection and enforcing the KP EPA Act 2014, grapples with considerable challenges like resource shortages and understaffing. The EPA currently relies on air monitors situated at the US Consulate in Peshawar for air quality records, as its sole air monitor has reportedly remained dysfunctional for the past three years.

Talking to the Tribal News Network, a senior official from the Environmental Protection Agency in Peshawar admitted the city's poor air quality, emphasizing that the concentration of PM 2.5 micrograms per cubic meter is alarmingly high, indicating very poor air quality. Surprisingly, Peshawar's air quality, although dire, is still comparatively better than that of Islamabad and other cities of the country.

The official cited several contributing factors to Peshawar's deteriorating air quality, including the escalating traffic volume, the closure of CNG filling stations, and insufficient rainfall. He pointed out that soaring unemployment and inflation rates have compelled many residents to opt for rickshaws or motorbikes, exacerbating the situation. The transition of vehicles from CNG to petrol has further aggravated the city's already precarious air quality.

“Peshawar is plagued by thousands of smoke-emitting two-stroke rickshaws that have been banned years ago yet they still ply our roads and pollute our air, as well as decades-old buses, trucks, and tractors, all of which significantly contribute to air pollution,” he said. Additionally, the city suffers from a high level of dust pollution, aggravated by the high volume of traffic and its meager rainfall.

The official did, however, note a slight improvement in air quality during October due to sporadic rain showers. He also highlighted that air quality tends to be better on weekends, possibly due to reduced industrial activities and vehicular traffic.

Strategies to Mitigate Air Pollution

In its report, the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance (PCAA) has put forth several recommendations aimed at curtailing air pollution. These include an urgent need to enhance monitoring capabilities, thus fostering public awareness and enabling preventative actions.

Moreover, the promotion of public transport should be encouraged by enhancing accessibility, offering incentives, and through public communication efforts. In this regard, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service can play a pivotal role, necessitating the introduction of additional feeder routes. To improve walkability and non-motorized transport access to BRT stations, it is crucial to establish pedestrian crossings, buffer zones, bicycle lanes, and speed breakers near pedestrian zones.

The PCAA suggests that the cost of these measures could be recuperated from private transport operators in the form of pollution or green taxes during peak hours. Additionally, car-pooling should be introduced as a government policy, which means prohibiting private cars with less than two-thirds occupancy during peak hours to discourage the daily personal use of cars for commuting to schools and offices.

To combat air pollution, alternative or subsidized heating methods should be developed to reduce wood burning, with the introduction of smokeless stoves and alternative fuel sources such as biogas derived from organic municipal waste, or pelletized solid biomass from crop residues.

A public awareness campaign should be initiated to promote behavioral change by highlighting the affordability and eco-friendliness of alternative transport and fuel options, particularly in the face of rising inflation. In this context, providing incentives to encourage the adoption of alternative resources would be paramount.

However, Abdul Rahman Khan, an environmentalist, while acknowledging PCAA's contributions, believes that governments and other stakeholders often make grand promises but fail to take practical actions. He emphasizes that small steps can yield significant results, advocating for immediate measures to control fuel quality at petrol pumps and manage traffic flow in Peshawar city. Addressing the issue of resuspended dust, he suggests that employing daily wage workers and implementing a few straightforward measures can significantly reduce pollution, resulting in cost-effective, efficient, and timely solutions.

Health Impact of Air Pollution

The detrimental effects of air pollution on the health of Peshawar's residents are evident in statistics from major medical facilities, including the region's largest hospital, LRH.

Dr. Anila Basit, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pulmonology at LRH, highlights the increasing prevalence of diseases such as respiratory obstructions, allergic reactions, chest allergies, allergic flu, and asthma in recent years. Alarmingly, approximately 90% of these patients can be attributed to air pollution.

Dr. Basit emphasizes that individuals of all ages are affected by air pollution, but children are particularly vulnerable. Prolonged exposure to air pollution can result in stunted lung growth in children. Moreover, ongoing exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can harm fetal lung development, leading to long-term respiratory health issues.

Health experts warn that sustained exposure to high-level air pollution can reduce life expectancy due to its adverse effects on cardiovascular and respiratory health. Furthermore, it escalates the risk of lung cancer and poses a substantial threat to public well-being.

Precautions for Combating Air Pollution

Dr. Anila Basit recommends a series of precautions to counter the adverse effects of air pollution. As the weather turns cold, it's advisable to dress warmly, especially for children who should avoid sleeveless shirts and instead opt for sweaters or other warm clothing. If someone has the flu, avoiding large gatherings is wise. Individuals suffering from the flu should wear masks and encourage those they interact with, whether doctors or others, to do the same. Getting a flu vaccine before winter is crucial; however, these vaccines are renewed annually and can be expensive. This year's vaccines, for instance, cost Rs 2500 each, with limited availability in the market.

PCAA: A Beacon of Hope

Just as the saying goes, there's a silver lining in every dark cloud, the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance (PCAA) has emerged as a beacon of hope for the city, which grapples with governmental indifference and public apathy. By garnering cooperation from all stakeholders, including the general populace, the fate of Peshawar and its residents can be transformed. Established in 2020, the PCAA, comprising over 130 members, has undertaken responsibilities originally entrusted to the government.

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Notably, the PCAA produced a groundbreaking diagnostic report in the preceding year regarding air quality in Peshawar, earning approval from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Cabinet, the Chief Secretary of the province, and the Environment Department, among others. This pioneering report not only provides real-time data on air quality but also elucidates the sources of air pollution, their consequences, and measures for their mitigation.

PCAA's achievements include the establishment of an air quality monitoring network throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, courtesy of crowdfunding initiatives. The data from these monitors is accessible on the PCAA website and IQAir's platform in real time.

Crucially, these efforts have allowed the identification of pollution hotspots, granting the public the ability to make informed choices about outdoor activities and health. Furthermore, the PCAA facilitates research into the health repercussions of air pollution and the effectiveness of pollution control measures. In essence, PCAA has laid the foundation for air pollution regulation in Peshawar, aiming to provide clean air to its residents and pave the way for governmental interventions.

Environment journalist Muhammad Daud Khan, an ardent advocate for cleaner air, contends that the tireless endeavor of PCAA should not merely be acknowledged but necessitates the active participation of the government, scholars, academia, and the media in their mission to restore Peshawar to its former splendor as the "City of Flowers." He underscores that the stakes are not the health and well-being of one or two individuals but potentially millions.

Khan warns that if the PCAA's campaign is overlooked by the government and the people of Peshawar, the ancient city may soon suffocate, rendering it uninhabitable after millennia of existence.

Note: The story is produced under the supervision of Mr. Tayyeb Afridi and in collaboration with Report for the World.