- Air quality in Lahore measured at nearly twice “hazardous” level
- Amnesty International issues first “Urgent Action” for entire population of a major city
- Pakistan government accused of downplaying crisis
In an unprecedented step, Amnesty International has issued an Urgent Action for the people of Lahore in a bid to mobilize its supporters around the world to campaign on behalf of the entire population due to the hazardous smog engulfing Pakistan’s second largest city.
The “Urgent Action” raises concerns about how the poor air quality poses a risk to the health of every person in the Pakistani city of more than 10 million people.
“The government’s inadequate response to the smog in Lahore 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 International.
“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.”
For one in every two days this month, the air quality here has been classified as “hazardous” by air quality monitors installed by the United States Consulate in Lahore and the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative.
The government shut schools down on at least three days this month.
Urgent Actions are a campaigning tool that Amnesty International has used for decades to mobilise support internationally for victims of human rights violations and for prisoners of conscience. Previous subjects of Urgent Actions have included former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the last Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death for it.
Not a single day of healthy air this year
The air quality in Lahore has deteriorated to “hazardous” levels in November this year. Air quality measuring systems advise people to avoid all outdoor activity when that happens.
Air becomes unhealthy when the AQI level reaches 100. At 300 and above, the air is considered “hazardous”.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lahore reached 598 at 12pm on 21 November. Since the beginning of the month, at least seven days have seen air quality reach hazardous levels.
Reports have shown how prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air can result in severe health issues including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, heart problems and shortened life expectancy – putting in danger people’s rights to life and to health.
The so-called “smog season” – which runs from October to February – is where poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions and crop burning worsens the quality of the already unhealthy air in Punjab.
Lahore has not had a single day of healthy air this year, according to the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, a citizen-led effort that crowdsources and collates data on air quality.
According to a 2015 report published by the UK medical journal, Lancet, more than 310,000 people die each year in Pakistan because of poor air quality.
Teenagers sue government for violating rights to life and health
On 4 November, three teenage girls – Laiba Siddiqi, Leila Alam and Mishael Hayat– filed a suit against the government of Punjab for the “violation of their fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment.”
In the petition, the three students said the government had been downplaying the scale of crisis because its standards of measurement differ from what is used in other countries and accepted internationally. An AQI of 185, the petition adds, at the Meteorological Department station in Lahore is classified as “satisfactory” on the EPD website but counts as “Moderately Polluted” in China and India, and “Unhealthy” in Singapore, South Korea and the United States.
“Today, people are not aware of just how much danger they are in because of the air they breathe. If the expertise is available, if the consequences are dire, if the evidence of the damage is mounting, then the government must not waste time. A good starting point would be to acknowledge the risks of the quality of air and initiate smog protection protocol as recommended by the court-appointed Smog Commission,” said Rimmel Mohydin.
Health is a key human right indispensable to exercise other human rights and is recognized in numerous international treaties that Pakistan has ratified, including, Article 12.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Articles 11.1 (f) and 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 and Article 24 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child of 1989. Failing to adequately respect, protect and fulfill the right to health would amount to a human rights violation.
In his March 2019 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment described the components of the “right to breathe clean air”, which included monitoring air quality and impacts on human health; and making information about air quality publicly available.
Cities across South Asia are consistently reporting ‘unhealthy’ or ‘hazardous’ air quality levels. Delhi has been cloaked in smog that has consistently surpassed the range that is measurable by air quality monitors of 999. In Pakistan, Karachi, Peshawar and other cities in Punjab also show signs of worsening air quality.
Low income workers, such as labourers, construction workers and farmhands, and marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable as the nature of their work forces them to be exposed to hazardous air throughout the day. The fact that health care is not easily affordable to all means that only those who can afford it will be able to access health care and other preventative measures to mitigate the effects of breathing in hazardous air.