The Free Press

The Pakistan Environmental Debacle

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Courtesy of The Free Press

These are prosperous times for Pakistan. After 60 years of independence, we as Pakistanis have achieved a lot: a burgeoning economy, a defense force to be reckoned with, a free liberal press, and superb institutions of higher education, we definitely deserve a pat on the back. But we have our shortcomings, what nation does not. Industrialization, urbanization and escalating buying power of the masses has resulted in a menace that had devastatingly pernicious effects on developed nations half a century ago. Yes, I am talking about pollution. More specifically, air pollution. The moot point among the public is whether pollution is really that malicious a problem, and is it not saner to tackle poverty and illiteracy foremost? That is not for me to decide. But it is an axiom that generally people in Pakistan have little awareness and hence little worries for a thing as “trifling” as air pollution. Here are some basic facts of air pollution in Pakistan’s perspective. There are no cumbersome details, and you do not need to be a molecular biologist to grasp the information. But do read it though, who knows you might be the next “Captain Planet” of the subcontinent.

Pakistan covers 0.7 percent of the world’s land area, but accounts for a little over 2 percent of the world’s population. Now that is a mind-boggling statistic in truly global terms. Urbanization is rampant, the giant metropolis of Pakistan- Karachi has a population growth rate well over 3 percent. And with our economy boom, Pakistan has a 35 million strong middle class enjoying per capita incomes of $8000-$10,000, according to State Bank of Pakistan. This has resulted in a perpetual increase in the number of motor vehicles and industries on roads and the countryside respectively. There is absolutely no control over vehicular emissions which account for 90 percent of pollutants. The National Conservation Strategy Report claims that the average Pakistani vehicle emits twenty-five times as much carbon monoxide, twenty times as many hydrocarbons, and more than three and one-half times as much nitrous oxide in grams per kilometer as the average vehicle in the United States. The traffic situation in the major cities is a pandemonium. With traffic moving forward at a snails speed, vehicles purr out their toxic fumes vehemently. The consequence - smog. So much so, that the once verdant, lush Margallah Hills, are now nothing more than grimy clouds for the eyes of a traffic policeman. Let us not forget the emissions from point sources such as factory stacks, thermal power stations and brick-kilns. The major fuel in Pakistan is coal. But the coal available here is rich in sulfur. Thus the pollution caused by industries is even more potent. On top of it all, this environmental catastrophe is exacerbated by alarming rates of deforestation in the country. Occurring at an annual rate of 0.5 percent, these natural “environmental physicians” are being depleted. Air pollution is a major problem, if not a diabolical one.

Enough of the stats, Pakistan’s air is badly polluted, we all agree. But what are the effects of air pollution? In order to answer this, we must understand the harmful effects, on human beings, of each component chemical of air pollution step by step.

Sulfur dioxide is an important pollutant. Dissolving in water easily, sulfur dioxide emissions lead to the formation of acid rain. Acid rain is extremely corrosive to buildings made of marble, and has detrimental effects on aquatic life. The agriculture sector of Pakistan is the backbone of its economy: acid rain leaches magnesium and calcium from soils and from damaged leaves. Eventually aluminium, manganese and heavy metals come into solution and may reach toxic concentrations, causing damage to plant roots, decreasing their capacity to take up water and nutrients. It does not take a nuclear scientist to figure out the aggravating impact this has on the country. Sulfur dioxide is also is an irritant for the lungs and is linked to many respiratory diseases including emphysema, asthma and bronchitis.

Carbon monoxide is odourless and colourless. Is it damaging to human health? Sure it is! Carbon monoxide binds to the oxygen carrying site – hemoglobin- of our red blood times 250 times more easily than oxygen. This reduces the level of oxygen in our body resulting in headaches, dizziness, reduced ability to think, and nausea. In extreme circumstances of high carbon monoxide concentrations the gas can be fatal.

Lead is also a major constituent of air pollution. It has an effect mainly on children. Lead damages the nervous system and can impair brain function among children. The heavy metal can degenerate into dust and can be inhaled easily. This puts children at even greater risk.

Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) have a tendency to remain in the atmosphere for a long period of time. It is also a major constituent of photochemical smog. Smog includes a myriad of chemicals, all of them are toxic. These chemicals are very irritating, especially to sensitive tissues such as those of the eyes and lungs. Exposure to NOx leads to cases of different respiratory illnesses. They cause extensive damage to vegetation too.

It would be quite a folly to consider tackling air pollution redundant. Measures must be taken in order to prevent aggravating the situation. Otherwise a disaster is in the making. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.6 million people die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution. Many of them are children. Our childhood activities comprised of playing cricket in parks. We have to endeavor to prevent our children from suffering from bronchitis when they play cricket outdoors. After all we had the first innings.

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