Pakistan has ordered private offices and schools to remain closed on Mondays in Lahore in the hope that a three-day weekend will help reduce toxic levels of smog in the country’s second-largest city.
The directive, issued by Punjab relief commissioner Babar Hayat Tarar, aimed to act “as a preventive and speedy remedy” during the winter smog season and will last until 15 January.
Lahore was temporarily declared the most polluted city in the world by an air quality monitor earlier on Wednesday, as residents complain of shortness of breath, stinging eyes and nausea from thick, acrid pollution.
Last week, the air quality index in the city of about 12 million people was ranked at 348, much above the hazardous level of 300, according to IQAir, the Swiss technology company that operates the AirVisual monitoring platform. Since then, Lahore has been overtaken by Delhi, India, which ranked at 422. The number is a calculation based on the level of several pollutants in the air.
Pakistan has witnessed the worst air pollution in recent years from Karachi to Lahore, as a mixture of low-grade diesel fumes, smoke from seasonal crop burn off, and colder winter temperatures coalesce into stagnant clouds of smog.
As air pollution got worse and the city felt unliveable, the desperate residents filed petitions in the courts in Lahore against the government to take action against the smog, which is a mix of smoke and fog.
Abubaker Umer, a communication specialist and a resident in Lahore, said he stopped going for morning walks and sent his elderly parents to another town as they were very sensitive to air pollution. Umer says his skin allergy and throat irritation has gotten worse over a few weeks since the city has been engulfed in the smog.
“When you open the window or step outside you see no sky. Smog is everywhere,” he said. “We are inhaling smog and toxic air pollution has become part of our lives and bodies. The government has to do more than closing educational institutes as Lahore has become an unlivable city.”
He said that he is able to work from home but over a million people do not have this privilege. He added: “People don’t even wear masks and they don’t know how deadly the weather is. They lack awareness but this is the responsibility of the government to share awareness and find solutions.”
Dr Aamir Iqbal, a private doctor who practises pulmonary medicine in Lahore has seen the symptoms of his patients getting worse. “The smog is making it very hard for the people to breathe and having issues in the throat, irritation in eyes and the weather is very dangerous for people who have lung issues and some other diseases. I have instructed some of my patients not to go out.”
On average, Pakistanis are estimated to lose two years of their life due to air pollution. But Lahore suffers the worst, with the average resident losing 5.3 years of their lives, claims the report on air quality life index , produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
The information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, has blamed previous authorities for smog in Lahore. “We see Lahore engulfed by fog every winter due to the past rulers of the city, who had cut trees for erecting a jungle of concrete there which badly affected the green cover of Lahore and its surroundings,” he said on Saturday.
Rimmel Mohydin, a south Asia analyst at Amnesty International, said the smog crisis was a human rights issue, given that it impedes the right to health. “People should not be endangered by the air they breathe. If the expertise is available, if the consequences are dire, if the evidence of the damage is mounting, then the government must not waste time initiating smog protection protocol.”
Malik Amin Aslam, climate change adviser to the prime minister, Imran Khan, said the government was working on the recommendations of the smog action committee. “We are doing everything possible,” he said.
Aslam said that without regional efforts between India and Pakistan the issue of the smog cannot be tackled, as the crops are burned off on the other side of the border. “We have put this request for a dialogue between regional countries during Cop26 (climate summit). Hopefully, it will take place.”
However, Rafay Alam, a lawyer and environmental activist said that while there was a need for dialogue with India and regional countries, the smog cannot be blamed on Pakistan’s neighbours.
“There is no overnight solution to the problem. The government has to improve fuel quality and shift to renewable energy, and provide pollution control devices for the industries..”