Thick Smog in Delhi and Lahore: Is India Crop Burning to Blame?

Thick smog enveloping Pakistan's Punjab province has seriously disrupted road and air traffic and created significant health emergency for the people, according to Pakistani media reports. Indian cities, including the nation's capital New Delhi, are also suffering from it.

Is India Responsible?

Pakistani officials have blamed "the incursion of smoke and particle matter from the burning of crop stubble in the Indian Punjab." Particulate matter of 2.5 microns or larger as measured in micrograms per cubic meter is up to 80 times higher than the upper limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Is the Pakistani claim supported by data? Let's try and answer this question with satellite images of the area released by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Crop Burning Incidents Seen from space. Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NASA Satellite Images:

Here's how NASA's Earth Observatory described the situation last year:

"In early October 2016, Earth-observing satellites began to detect small fires in Punjab, and the number of fires increased rapidly in the following weeks. By November, thousands of fires burned across the state, and a thick pall of smoke hovered over India. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured a natural color image on November 2, 2016. The map (second image) shows the locations of the fires VIIRS also detected."

This year, 2,620 incidents of crop fire were spotted via satellite in Indian Punjab. In Pakistan, the number was limited to just 27, according to Indian media reports.  Indian reports confirm that Pakistan has done a good job of cracking down on incidents of crop burning to dramatically reduce them.

Low wind speeds of less than 2 meters per second and reversal of wind direction from east to west are causing crop burning smoke to drift from Indian Punjab toward Pakistan, according to an Indian Meteorological Department official as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

Satellite Images of Smoke Over India and Pakistan. Source: NASA

South Asia's Vulnerability:

South Asia is particularly susceptible to pollutants that hang in the air for extended periods of time. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images show dull gray haze hovering over northern India and Pakistan, and parts of Bangladesh. It is believed that emissions from solid fuel burning, industrial pollutants and farm clearing fires get trapped along the southern edge of the Himalayas. NASA Earth Observatory explains this phenomenon as follows:

"The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."

Trapped Smog. Source: Al Jazeera 

Urgent Actions Needed: 

South Asian governments need to act to deal with rapidly rising particulate pollution jointly. Some of the steps they need to take are as follows:

1. Crack down on crop burning to clear fields.

2. Reduce the use of solid fuels such as cow dungwood and coal to limit particulate matter released into the atmosphere.

3. Impose higher emission standards on industries and vehicles through regulations.

4. Increase forest cover by planting more trees.

5. Encourage the use of more renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, etc.

The cost of acting now may seem high but it will turn out out to be a lot more expensive to deal with extraordinary disease burdens resulting from rising air pollution.

Summary:

Movement of pollutants does not recognize national borders. It has severe consequences for both India and Pakistan.  The only way to deal with it is for the two nations to cooperate to minimize this problem.

South Asia accounts for more than a third of all PM2.5 pollution related deaths in the world. The sources of particulate pollution range from solid fuel burning to crop clearing fires and use of dirty fuels in vehicles and industries. Recognition of the growing problem is urgent. Failure to act could be very costly in terms of human health.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Pakistan's Response to Climate Change

Diwali Pollution Warnings in India

Cow Dung Sales in India

India's Air Most Toxic

State of Air 2017

Environmental Pollution in India

Diwali in Silicon Valley

India Leads the World in Open Defecation

Heavy Disease Burdens in South Asia

Comments

Riaz Haq said…
In #Lahore, #Pakistan, #Smog Has Become a ‘Fifth Season’ PM2.5 Levels Exceed 30X "Official" Safe Limit. #LahoreSmog #DelhiSmog

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/world/asia/lahore-smog-pakistan.html

While Delhi’s air quality has generated headlines worldwide in recent days, experts say the air in Lahore rivals the Indian capital’s for toxicity. The problem is not limited to the city; in 2015, according to a World Health Organization estimate, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particles in the air, one of the world’s highest death tolls from air pollution.

For years, Pakistani environmentalists have referred to November, when crop burning, higher emissions and cold weather combine to blanket Lahore and the rest of Punjab Province with acrid smog, as a “fifth season.” As in India, which Punjab borders, the problem seems to have been getting worse, and this month it has reached what many Pakistanis are calling a crisis point.

Yet there is little official data on the sources of the pollution, or on just how bad the air actually is. In announcing a new antismog policy this month, the Punjab government admitted it had “scant” air quality data, saying only that the official safety limit for PM2.5 particles, 35 micrograms per cubic meter, was “exceeded frequently.”

Naseem-ur-Rehman, a director at Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, admitted that the government had bought six air-quality monitors last year but never installed them — until last week, when a public outcry over the lack of data led to a scramble to set them up across Lahore. He said the department was “closely monitoring the situation,” but as of Thursday it was still not releasing air-quality numbers.

“This is a crisis of data,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist in Lahore. He said six meters were insufficient for a city the size of Lahore, let alone for all of Punjab.

In the absence of official information, some Pakistanis have taken matters into their own hands. One is Mr. Omar, who installed air monitors in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi, where he lives. He has set up Twitter accounts to post the readings in real time.

Mr. Omar was inspired by his experience living in Beijing, where the American Embassy changed the debate about pollution years ago by publishing air-quality readings on Twitter. The Chinese authorities were ultimately prompted to set up dozens of air monitoring stations in the capital and across China.



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Thirteen power plants that run on fuel oil have been shut down since last weekend, and power generation has been cut back at four others, leading to daily outages of more than 12 hours in many urban areas. At one Lahore hospital alone, more than 500 people have been arriving daily with complaints of respiratory difficulties and eye irritation.

“Lahore looks like a dystopian wasteland right now, kind of like a scene from ‘Blade Runner,’” said Adil Ghazi, a business owner.

The Punjab government says it has taken several emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It says that more than 100 people have been arrested for crop burning and that hundreds of factories have been shut down for not having proper emission-control equipment. The Lahore traffic police say that they have collected more than $50,000 in fines in recent days from drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards and that two centers have been set up for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.

Riaz Haq said…
How do Pakistanis get rid of the farm stubble? Very few resort to fires as Indian farmers do. Most now use mechanized methods like rotavators for it. Here's a US Aid report on it:

https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Review%20of%20input%20and%20output%20policies%20for%20cereals%20production%20in%20Pakistan.pdf

Traditionally, farm operations such as land tillage and preparation, weeding and interculture, spraying for plant protection,
harvesting, threshing, and hauling produce from farm to farmers’ homes or to storage areas have been performed manually
or by animals or animal-driven implements. Animals used in these operations are mostly bullocks, male buffalo, and camels.
In addition, horses and mules provide the muscle power to transport goods and produce. However, the source of power for
some of the operations listed above has undergone a sea change. Starting in the 1960s, tractors of various makes and
models have begun to dot the rural landscape. Most of the land preparation operations for planting seeds, sowing crops,
carrying out intercultural operations, threshing produce, and transporting various inputs and outputs are performed by
tractor-powered equipment and machines. Similarly, tube wells, powered by diesel engines or electric motors for pumping
groundwater for irrigation, have been installed in many regions of the country, making a valuable contribution in farm
production. The government has also encouraged the use of such equipment by asking commercial banks to advance farm
credit for their purchase. Sometimes provincial governments have also provided subsidies for the purchase of various farm
implements and equipment.
Initially, farm tractors, machines, and allied farm implements were imported. But over time a number of tractor assembling
or manufacturing outfits were established in Pakistan. A number of small and medium units for manufacturing farm
equipment and machines (threshers, cane crushers, seed drills, plows of various kinds, blades, trolleys, diggers, ridgers, and
rotavators) sprang up in various urban areas. The government policies facilitating the establishment of manufacturing and
assembly plants, and those for financing the purchase of farm machines and equipment, also helped the cause of farm
mechanization in the country. In the initial stages of mechanization, the government provided implicit (through an overvalued
exchange rate) and explicit (through subsidized bank loans) subsidies for the purchase of tractors. The government also
encouraged farm mechanization by directing banks to provide farm loans for purchases of tractors and other equipment. The
provincial governments have also launched some projects of their own to provide subsidies to small and medium farmers for
the purchase of tractors and farm equipment. Many workshops, repair shops, and service stations have also been set up in
both urban and rural areas for service and maintenance on tractors, tube wells, and other farm machines and equipment.
In the early stages of farm mechanization, many observers expressed reservations (McInerney and Donaldson 1975,
Parthasarthy 1977, Binswanger 1978), especially related to the adverse effects of mechanization on farm employment, the
eviction of tenants, and other social concerns. A number of studies based on field data examined the effects of mechanization
and tractors on cropping intensity, farm production and productivity, employment, and other factors (Ahmad 1975;
Salam, Ghayyur, and Hussain 1980; Salam 1981, 1986). In hindsight, it appears that many of the initial reservations about
farm mechanization stemmed from tractor substitution for bullocks, ignoring forward and backward linkages. With the
passage of time, tractor use in farming has been accompanied by the use of deep tillage implements, cultivators, planters,
ridgers, seed drills, and booms for crop spraying. The use of these implements has improved the quality of tillage operations
and land preparation, resulting in higher yields.

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