ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF PAKISTAN: Hazardous air puts lives at risk

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5 Nov 2019
[International Secretariat]

The government’s failure to protect people from exposure to hazardous air in Punjab risks violating their human rights to life and health, Amnesty International said today.

Levels of air quality have been rated “near unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” for most of the year in Punjab. During the “smog season” – from October to January – air quality reaches “hazardous” levels, as recorded by multiple, independent sources including the air quality monitors installed by the United States Consulate in Lahore and the crowdsourced data collated by the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lahore reached 484 at 10am Pakistan time today. The threshold for “hazardous” levels of air quality is 300, where people are advised to “avoid all physical activity outdoors”.

“The high level of smog is neither a new problem, nor one that came without warning. The government of Pakistan needs to do much more to adequately address such a severe public health crisis - one that endangers people’s health and even their lives,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air can result in severe health issues including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems and shortened life expectancy – putting at risk people’s rights to life and to health, as well as the right to a healthy environment.

The so-called “smog season” is where poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions and crop burning worsens the quality of the already unhealthy air, from October to December.

According to the 2015 findings of the medical journal Lancet, a whopping 22 percent of annual deaths in Pakistan are caused by pollution, and the majority of those are due to air pollution.

Low income workers, such as labourers, construction workers and farmhands, and marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable as the nature of their work forces them to be exposed to hazardous air throughout the day. The fact that health care is not easily affordable to all means that only those who can afford it will be able to access health care and other preventative measures to mitigate the effects of breathing in hazardous air. Low visibility can also result in accidents and loss of life.

Warmer temperatures, a direct result of climate change, create an environment for smog formation and can lead the air to stagnate – preventing dirty air from leaving an area.

“Air pollution and the climate crisis are intricately linked. It exacerbates existing inequalities and paves the way for human rights violations. If authorities continue to stall making concerted efforts to address the smog crisis, it will continue to devastate human life,” said Rimmel Mohydin.

The court-appointed Smog Commission made a number of recommendations in May 2018 including the immediate adoption and implementation of the Punjab Clean Air Action Plan, establishing Smog Response Desks at district levels, adoption of appropriate technologies that reduce emissions of harmful pollutants from brick kilns. Those have only been partially implemented, if at all. Real-time data from the Environment Protection Department on air quality remains unavailable to the public and no efforts are being made to switch to higher quality fuel.

A fundamental shift needs to take place across Pakistan’s industrial, agricultural and transportation practices, to make sure they are consistent with people’s human rights.

“There is something very wrong when the air becomes so toxic that you cannot breathe without hurting yourself. The government can no longer afford to waste time while people are choking to death,” said Rimmel Mohydin.

30 October 2019

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