Much like the south or north poles, the western Pakistani city of Lahore remains in what looks like perpetual twilight through much of its winter.
But the phenomena, which means street lights remain surreally switched on through much of the morning and drivers along motorways use headlamps or fog lights at all times, is caused in this case not by the position of the sun but by pollution.
Worsening air quality, mainly as a result of vehicular and industrial emissions, means a hazy smog hangs over the city and is most visible in winter, when the lack of rain worsens the pollution and mist holds pollutants in suspension.
"Look at this. One can see the pollution haze everywhere in the city. And it will only grow worse in the months ahead because winter in Lahore is very dry," said housewife Saba Jabeen, pointing out of her window to the murky view of trees and grass outside.
"Each morning, there is a thick layer of black grime on my car, and that shows how bad the pollution is," she added.
In June 2006, a report entitled, 'Strategic Country Environmental Assessment: Rising to the Challenge', released by the Pakistan Federal Ministry of Environment, found that urban air pollution in Pakistan annually caused around 22,700 deaths, including those of 700 children.
It was noted that fine particulates and lead suspended in the air caused some of the most acute health problems. The major source of fine particulate pollution was vehicles, followed by fossil fuel combustion in factories and emissions from power plants.
The levels of air pollution in Pakistan's two largest cities, Karachi (in the south) and Lahore, were estimated to be 20 times higher than guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), and still rising. A study carried out in 2003-04 by the public-sector Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) under the UNDP/ENERCON Fuel Efficiency in Road Transport Sector Programme, found an extremely high concentration of pollutants in most cities.
The rapid increase in vehicles on the roads is a major problem contributing to air pollution. The number of vehicles has surged from 0.8 million 20 years ago to over 4 million in 2005, showing an overall increase of 400 percent.
Car leasing schemes by banks, the availability of motorcycles on installments and an increase in purchase power are all factors in this.
The pollution is having an extremely negative impact on health, most particularly that of children. In 2002, the Karachi-based National Institute of Child Health announced the results of a study in which it had followed the development of 3,500 children, all born healthy, from birth to their teens. Within a decade, 265 of the sample group children had developed asthma severe enough to affect their day-to-day lives. Those who spent the longest periods of time playing outdoors were the worst hit by the life-threatening disease.
The situation has not improved since then. A survey in Lahore carried out by four major teaching hospitals in 2004 found that vehicular pollution was responsible for at least 70 percent of ear, nose and throat diseases.
"The impact of pollution on health can be seen every day. More and more people are coming in with respiratory ailments, and many more children than before have breathing disorders or asthma," said Dr Anees Sultan, a Lahore-based family physician.
Doctors are also concerned about rising levels of lead in the blood caused by air-borne particulates. The Pakistan Medical Research Council reported in 2002 that it had found dangerously high levels of lead in the blood of children tested in major cities.
While courts in the country, during the past two years, have delivered several rulings seeking an improvement in air quality, there has been only limited success in implementing steps aimed at taking smoke-emitting vehicles off the roads.
The Punjab Environmental Tribunal, in April 2006, hearing a petition filed by an NGO Eco-Watch, noted that the Punjab Transport Department had issued 40,000 rickshaw (three-wheeler public transport vehicles) permits on 30 December 2004, a day before a Punjab government ban on such permits went into force. The provincial transport secretary told the tribunal an inquiry had been ordered into the matter.
Smoke-emitting rickshaws were to be taken off roads under a Punjab government initiative to improve air quality. Early this year, rickshaws were banned from plying on the central Mall Road in Lahore. A scheme to replace rickshaws with 'green' versions of the vehicle, run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is under way.
Roland D'Souza, chairman of 'Shehri' (Citizen), a civil society organisation that works for environmental improvement, particularly in urban centres, told IRIN, "The air quality in all Pakistan's major cities is terrible. There have been many studies which show how this is contributing alarmingly to health concerns and a rise in respiratory disease."
He added that it was essential to enforce the country's National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS), set in 1997, to improve the situation, but held: "This is no easy task given the massive scale of the environmental degradation problem that is being faced today."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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