Tens of thousands of people in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore are at risk of respiratory disease because of poor air quality related to thick smog hanging over the region, an international rights group said Friday.
Amnesty International called for “urgent action” for residents of Lahore in a bid to mobilize supporters around the world to campaign on their behalf due to smog that has engulfed the city of more than 10 million people over the past week.
Amnesty says Pakistani officials’ inadequate response to the smog raises significant human rights concerns.
“The hazardous air is putting everyone’s right to health at risk,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty. “The issue is so serious that we are calling on our members around the world to write to the Pakistani authorities to tell them to stop downplaying the crisis and take urgent action to protect people’s health and lives.”
Once known as the “city of gardens,” Lahore is considered one of the world’s most polluted cities, where many residents have been forced to stay at home.
Mohydin said on one out of every two days since the beginning of November the air quality in Lahore has been classified as “hazardous” by air quality monitors installed by the United States Consulate in Lahore and the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative.
She said people in Lahore have not had healthy air for a single day this year and that the air quality deteriorated to “hazardous” levels in November. Air quality measuring systems advise people to avoid all outdoor activity when that happens.
Air becomes unhealthy when the Air Quality Index level reaches 100. Mohydin said at 300 and above, the air is considered “hazardous” and the Air Quality Index in Lahore skyrocketed to 598 on Thursday.
She said the so-called “smog season,” which runs from October to February, is when poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions and crop burning worsens the quality of the already unhealthy air in eastern Punjab Province, where Lahore is the capital.
Authorities in Lahore and elsewhere in the province have asked parents not to send their children to school on Friday to avoid being in the bad air.
Pakistan often blames farmers in neighboring India for burning waste from their crops in open farms fields.
“The fast blowing winds brought thick smog from India to Lahore and the international community should pressure India to take measures for controlling air pollution as it also affects us,” said Naseem-Ur-Rahman Shah, who heads the provincial Environment Protection Department in Punjab.
It’s a popular practice among poor farmers in Pakistan and India to set fire to remnants of the previous season’s crop before preparing their land for the next planting. Punjab Province is considered Pakistan’s breadbasket.
Rahman said thousands of people were treated this week at hospitals and private clinics for respiratory-related diseases, including asthma, flu, fever and cough.
“People should not expose themselves to smog because it is harmful,” he said. “We are also taking steps to control air pollution in Punjab.”
But many residents in Lahore blame the government for not taking adequate measures to contain air pollution.
“I can show you several factories releasing smoke in the heart of Lahore. I can show you brick kilns on the outskirts of Lahore and you can see smoke-emitting vehicles everywhere,” said 23-year-old Mohammad Abdullah, a college student, as he sat in a bed at Mayo Hospital after having breathing problems.
Uzma Tareen, 56, also complained she had to come to the same hospital on a smoke-emitting rikshaw as she could not afford a taxi.
“Doctors say smog will end when rains come so I am praying for rain,” she said. “I don’t expect any action from the government to control toxic air.”