Severe air pollution chokes Pakistan

Air pollution is an emerging environmental issue in the big cities of Pakistan. Dust and smoke particles in Pakistan are generally twice the world average and five times higher than in the developed world.

Though some of the pollution comes from natural sources, most is the result of human activities. The biggest causes are fossil fuel-burning power plants and cars.

Combined, these two sources are responsible for about 90% of all air pollution. The most serious issue relating to air pollution in Pakistan is the presence of excessive suspended particulates matter (SPM).

The big sources of SPM are vehicles, industry, burning of solid waste, bricks kilns and natural dust. Every day, each person inhales about 20,000 liters of air. With every breath, people risk breathing dangerous chemicals .

One of the key factors producing pollution is the growing rate of urbanisation. Due to people migrating to cities, the growth of infrastructure and road transport is contributing to greater pollution in the air.

Transportation vehicles are also important agents contributing to air pollution. Road vehicles emit different gases such as sulphur dioxide and lead oxide. When these gases accumulate in the atmosphere the air becomes polluted.

The rise in urban transport also generates dust particles in the atmosphere. Cities with large numbers of cars or those that use great quantities of coal often suffer most severely from the problem of air pollution.

To make way for factories and due to growing urbanisation in various parts of the country, trees are cut down on a large scale without any adequate efforts to plant new ones. This leads to deforestation, which also helps cause a rise in atmospheric pollution levels.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising due to deforestation. Industry is another big contributor.

Factories also emit substances that do not directly contribute to poor air quality, but combine with other elements to create air pollutants.

A big source of air pollution from industry comes from volatile organic compounds, which are released into the atmosphere on a large scale. Consumers also contribute to air pollution.

The use of many end products is obvious, such as driving a car. However, their constant consumption demands more industrial activity, which compounds the release of air pollutants into the atmosphere.

Think of the person who must have a new car every year. If the average car lasts 10 years, this person will have created a demand for nine more cars unnecessarily. Now imagine 1 billion people with the same lifestyle, applied to every product imaginable. Consumption is a big driver of air pollution.

Burning garbage is another practice that releases dangerous gases and dust. This contributes to global warming and pollutes lakes, forests, oceans and cities.

Pakistan has one of the largest coal deposits in the world, consisting of 184,123 billion tonnes that can produce 1 million megawatts of electricity for next 300 years. Coal mining produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change says methane is 21 times worse as a contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Burning coal in power plants is most harmful to air quality due to the emissions of dangerous gases, but the process of mining can release packets of hazardous gases.

Although Pakistan is not fully utilising its coal resources, it is still a big contributor to air pollution.

There are some who claim that air pollution in Pakistan is not overly high. They defend their argument by saying that Pakistan is not an industrialised country and pollution is the outcome of the activities of the developed world.

But this argument has flaws. Pakistan is not an industrial country, but its air pollution ratio is very high, as statistics I mentioned show. Air pollution is one of the worst factors disturbing Pakistan's environment.

Due to deforestation, lack of proper environmental protection policies, the uncontrolled rise in industrial pollution and the use of coal, the rate of air pollution in Pakistan is very high.

The government is not taking serious action against air pollution. Vehicles that release heavy smoke are on the roads without restrictions. Many industries that release large quantities of smoke are established in urban areas.

It is crucial to make strict laws to control pollution, otherwise this land will become unlivable. Air pollution is not only a big issue in Pakistan, but the whole planet. It is our responsibility to play a role in making our planet green and healthy.

[Nadeem Kasanais a journalist and a member of Pakistan's Awami Workers Party.]