LAHORE: For nearly two weeks, Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, has been like one huge airport smokers’ lounge. But Abid Omar’s jaw still dropped on Wednesday, when he checked the air-quality monitor he had installed to track the city’s appalling pollution, Newsmedialive.
It said that levels of the dangerous particulates known as PM2.5, small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, had reached 1,077 micrograms per cubic meter — more than 30 times what Pakistan’s government considers the safe limit.
“You can see and smell the smoke all day; you can actually touch the filth,” said Amna Manan, a 26-year-old manager for a multinational company in Lahore, a city of 11 million. “Half the time, I’m scared to breathe in.”
While Delhi’s air quality has generated headlines worldwide in recent days, experts say the air in Lahore rivals the Indian capital’s for toxicity. The problem is not limited to the city; in 2015, according to a World Health Organization estimate, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particles in the air, one of the world’s highest death tolls from air pollution.
For years, Pakistani environmentalists have referred to November, when crop burning, higher emissions and cold weather combine to blanket Lahore and the rest of Punjab Province with acrid smog, as a “fifth season.” As in India, which Punjab borders, the problem seems to have been getting worse, and this month it has reached what many Pakistanis are calling a crisis point.
Yet there is little official data on the sources of the pollution, or on just how bad the air actually is. In announcing a new antismog policy this month, the Punjab government admitted it had “scant” air quality data, saying only that the official safety limit for PM2.5 particles, 35 micrograms per cubic meter, was “exceeded frequently.”
Naseem-ur-Rehman, a director at Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, admitted that the government had bought six air-quality monitors last year but never installed them — until last week, when a public outcry over the lack of data led to a scramble to set them up across Lahore. He said the department was “closely monitoring the situation,” but as of Thursday it was still not releasing air-quality numbers.
“This is a crisis of data,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist in Lahore. He said six meters were insufficient for a city the size of Lahore, let alone for all of Punjab.
In the absence of official information, some Pakistanis have taken matters into their own hands. One is Mr. Omar, who installed air monitors in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi, where he lives. He has set up Twitter accounts to post the readings in real time.
Mr. Omar was inspired by his experience living in Beijing, where the American Embassy changed the debate about pollution years ago by publishing air-quality readings on Twitter. The Chinese authorities were ultimately prompted to set up dozens of air monitoring stations in the capital and across China.
“I realized that in order for air quality to become a national conversation in the way it had in China and to raise awareness about hazards and solutions, we needed the numbers to be out there,” said Mr. Omar, whose Pakistan Air Quality Initiative publishes data about air pollution and information about its effects on health.
Mr. Omar’s Twitter updates have prompted many of Lahore’s middle- and upper-class residents to buy air purifiers and don face masks.
Another activist, Aysha Raja, who runs a popular bookstore in Lahore, started a Facebook group called Citizens for Clean Air, to discuss possible solutions to the smog problem and put pressure on the government to address it.
“The political will is missing on the government side,” Ms. Raja said. “We the public need to act as a pressure group, as a watchdog, to make sure that they do something effective.”
The throat-burning, eye-stinging smoke plaguing Punjab has created problems beyond the obvious health concerns. On Tuesday alone, at least a dozen people were killed in road accidents linked to poor visibility in Lahore, according to the police. Major highways have been intermittently closed because of the visibility problems.
Thirteen power plants that run on fuel oil have been shut down since last weekend, and power generation has been cut back at four others, leading to daily outages of more than 12 hours in many urban areas. At one Lahore hospital alone, more than 500 people have been arriving daily with complaints of respiratory difficulties and eye irritation.
“Lahore looks like a dystopian wasteland right now, kind of like a scene from ‘Blade Runner,’” said Adil Ghazi, a business owner.
The Punjab government says it has taken several emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It says that more than 100 people have been arrested for crop burning and that hundreds of factories have been shut down for not having proper emission-control equipment. The Lahore traffic police say that they have collected more than $50,000 in fines in recent days from drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards and that two centers have been set up for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.
But environmentalists say a real solution would require much more serious measures: improving fuel quality, phasing out fuel-guzzling cars, introducing solar and other renewable sources of energy, planting trees on a large scale and improving public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the roads.
“There is a lot of media interest in the story and public anger right now, so emergency measures are being taken, but a long-term solution doesn’t seem to be a priority,” Mr. Alam said. “The sense of urgency has to be sustained.”
Most important, he said, the government needs to stop looking for others to blame, including India, whose crop fires Pakistani environmental officials have blamed for the worsening smog this year.
“No doubt smoke from crop burning in India is a big problem, but let’s not pretend we don’t have our own part to play in this crisis,” Mr. Omar said. “The government needs to acknowledge the problem and create awareness.”