Illustration by Zara Contractor
Illustration by Zara Contractor

In November, a thick blanket of smog engulfed Lahore and most of Punjab, causing serious health risks and public outcry. With toxins over 30 times the safe limits, citizens experienced panic and despair at the serious health effects, as well as anger and frustration at the passivity of the government’s response. With limited action, everyone looked at the heavens for rain to come and clear the air.

Smog resulted in widespread illness, accidental deaths, a decline in agricultural productivity, flight delays and even postponement of the much-anticipated West Indies cricket series. The effects of smog have been well documented. A recent study by the University of Oxford on health and environment in emerging markets highlights increased incidents of respiratory and coronary diseases and possibly mental health problems as well.

I see three main narratives emerge regarding the smog phenomenon.

The first highlights public uncertainty and scepticism on the causes and effects of pollution. All of the usual suspects appear: vehicle emissions, industrial pollution, waste and crop burning, construction, tree cutting and diesel generators. Cross-border pollution and storms from the Middle East are also mentioned. Without scientific analysis of the sources of smog, identifying appropriate responses is, at best, speculative and arbitrary.

This leads to the second theme about the public demand for accurate information. What is not measured is seldom counted in decision-making. Citizens want to know precise air quality measures to take precautionary actions like wearing masks or staying indoors. This public demand for data has pushed the Punjab’s Environment Protection Department (EPD) to publish the daily Ambient Air Quality Index. However, the EPD has only six meters in place across Punjab offering general information. Effective responses, however, require location specific data.

Finally, the reality is that EPD is short-staffed, under-resourced and requires proactive participation from many other agencies such as health, planning and finance, over whom EPD has little influence. This limits the effectiveness of the government response. It was only after the Lahore High Court intervened last year that the EPD sprang into action and formulated the Policy on Controlling Smog 2017. A review of the policy, however, shows a wide wish list of responses such as improved transportation, creating woodlands and industrial regulation, but with vague or missing implementation.

So the question remains: given our incomplete understanding of the smog challenge and weak institutions, how do we move from policy to action? Smog, like many other environmental and social challenges is considered a ‘wicked problem’, which by definition has no simple solution and the required responses exceed the capacity of any one agency. Yet, there is a way forward.

First, it is acceptable to have divergent views on the causes and responses to smog. Over time, backed by scientific and social approaches, our understanding will improve, but this should not stop us from taking action now with whatever knowledge we have. Many of the causes and solutions seem obvious, like encouraging industry to switch to cleaner fuel or adopt pollution control technologies.

Second, we need to take an inclusive and participatory approach, since the challenge is broad. Instead of relying simply on strict regulations to enforce actions or fact-finding commissions, the state should facilitate working group dialogue among possible polluters, farmers, civil society, academia and policymakers to take ownership of the common challenge and identify practical solutions.

Finally, no plan is perfect, so experimentation and flexibility are important for sustained action. There is no silver bullet against smog, so multiple strategies need to be tried like enforcing strict industrial emission standards along with greening public transportation. Failure of a strategy should not be taken as a defeat or be subjected to political mileage but rather as an iterative learning process for everyone to achieve sustained action. Collectively, these steps can help us all move closer to a solution.

With the arrival of rains this year, the smog is lifting. But the underlying pollution remains and, come next autumn, the smog will return. We are capable of taking certain practical steps. It will be a shame if we are again just left to pray for rain.

The writer is an award-winning climate change specialist and research fellow at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.

This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.