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Despite there being rulings of the country’s apex court declaring a clean environment as a fundamental right, every winter, like clockwork, Pakistan’s most populated cities take turns for first place on the world’s most polluted cities list.

Provincial governments, past and present, have repeatedly claimed that policies will be enacted to curb pollution and the prevalence of smog but even a cursory glance at the Air Quality Index (AQI) readings for Pakistan’s cities tells a different tale. For instance, the AQI readings for Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Islamabad show that in the past week the air has been either hazardous or unhealthy. It is pertinent to mention that the four cities have a combined population of over 32 million people – who are in effect breathing in toxic air.

Professor Dr Moazzam Ali Khan, Director of the Environmental Studies Center of the University of Karachi, believes that there should be little to complain about since the environmental deterioration is a consequence of our own actions. “Population boom, upsurge in cars, and lack of green spaces have made our cities unlivable. There is also a lack of awareness amongst the people about the importance of a clean environment,” Dr Khan remarked.

Environmentalist Asifa Minhas, who hails from Lahore, was of the view that lack of public transport and toxic smoke emitting factories were the leading causes for the country’s densely populated cities to be so polluted. “Furthermore, in Punjab, crop burning is also a major threat to the air quality.” With multiple threats, it is no surprise that the air quality in Lahore has resulted in an influx of patients at hospitals. “The smog and air pollution have caused an increase in patients with a cough, sore throat, chest infections, and eye infections. Sensitive groups like children and the elderly are the worst affectees,” informed Dr Shakeel Aslam, a primary health care expert based in Lahore. Dr Alamgir Yousafzai, who’s based in Peshawar, a city which at one time during the past week clocked an AQI reading of 590, concurred with Dr Aslam.

“The toxic air is incredibly damaging for lungs and can lead to a shorter lifespan due to diseases like lung cancer.” However, despite Dr Yousafzai’s warnings, Ali Raza, an environmental expert from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (K-P) capital, believes that the provincial government has no solution at all to improve the air quality. “Contrary to the government’s claims, even the billion tree tsunami has done little to improve the air we breathe in. We need at least four trees per person to curb the toxic air,” Raza suggested. Sardar Sarfraz, Chief Meteorologist of the Meteorological Department, Karachi, agreeing with Raza, opined that a city like Karachi needs a mass plantation drive. “All the residents of Karachi should be responsible for planting one tree each. Apart from that, we desperately need to cut our reliance on cars.”

Raza was of the view that cars are a problem for Peshawar as well and only a robust public transport system could end the nightmarish traffic pollution in the city. “Back when Covid-19 was peaking, there was little traffic on the roads and barely any human activity, which resulted in the best air quality the city has seen in a long time,” said the Peshawar based expert. While it may be impossible to bring the country to a coronavirus-esque halt again, Naeem Ahmed Mughal, Director General of Sindh’s Environmental Protection Agency, was of the view that all stakeholders need to play a part in improving the air quality. “We need to make sure our cities expand according to their master plans, we need to plant more trees, we need to improve public transport options, and we need to heavily punish the polluters,” Mughal suggested while talking to The Express Tribune.

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