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Pakistan’s Hazardous Air Risks Violating Human Rights

by Staff Report

Arif Ali—AFP

Amnesty International slams government for failing to implement recommendations of court-appointed Smog Commission

Rights watchdog Amnesty International on Wednesday said Islamabad’s failure to protect people from hazardous air in Punjab province risks violating their rights to life and health.

For most of the past year, air quality in Punjab has been rated at ‘near unhealthy’ and ‘very unhealthy.’ As the weather cools, the air quality often reaches ‘hazardous’ levels, with provincial capital Lahore in the past week hitting Air Quality Index values exceeding 300—and hitting 484 on Wednesday—the threshold where the air quality is deemed to be hazardous to the general population. This is often linked to poor fuel quality, emissions from heavily polluting industries, and crop burning.

“The high level of smog is neither a new problem, nor one that came without warning,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International. “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.”

Medical health professionals in Pakistan say the rise in smog often coincides with a rise in numerous health concerns, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems and shortened life expectancy. Young children and the elderly are most at risk, with the relative pollution being likened to smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day.

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

Amnesty, in its statement, said low-income workers and marginalized groups are “particularly vulnerable” due to the nature of their work. “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,” it added.

“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 Mohydin.

In 2017, the Lahore High Court ordered the formation of a Smog Commission, which issued several recommendations to improve the environment in May 2018. These included the adoption and implementation of the Punjab Clean Air Action Plan, establishing Smog Response Desks at district levels, and utilizing appropriate technologies that reduce emissions of harmful pollutants from brick kilns. Most of these recommendations have not yet been implemented.

Federal Minister for Science and Technology Chaudhry Fawad Hussin appeard to dismiss these concerns on Twitter, blaming neighboring India for the crisis in Punjab. “Min of Climate Change informed the Cabinet that Pollution in Lahore is caused by cross border field fires and abysmal environmental conditions in India level of pollution at Wagha is double than Lahore city,” he said. Activists on social media have branded this as irresponsible and urged the government to reduce its own emissions before buck-passing.

“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,” added Mohydin.

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