Farm Fires Make Pollution Worse in Delhi and Lahore

Why does the air quality in New Delhi and Lahore ranks among the world's worst at this time of the year? The answer to this oft-repeated question can be found in the satellite maps constantly updated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Indian government recently estimated that 36% of  pollution was contributed by farm fires. Here's how NASA Earth Observatory explains it: "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."

Farm Fires Seen By NASA Satellite. Source: FIRMS

Farm Fires:

The latest image downloaded from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Information System (FIRMS) show farm fires burning in both India and Pakistan. These fires are particularly intense in Indian and Pakistani provinces of the Punjab. These fires contribute significantly to the high level of particulates in Delhi and Lahore. Indian government recently estimated that 36% of the PM2.5 particulate matter was contributed by stubble burning by farmers.

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 stubble burning to clear fields. Incentivize use of machine removal of stubble. 

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. Incentivize transition to electric vehicles.

5. Increase forest cover by planting more trees.

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

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

Pakistan NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) For Climate Goals. Source: UN

Pakistan at COP26: 

Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's special assistant on climate change, said recently in an interview with CNN that his country is seeking to change its energy mix to favor green.  He said Pakistan's 60% renewable energy target would to be based on solar, wind and hydro power projects, and 40% would come from hydrocarbon and nuclear which is also low-carbon. “Nuclear power has to be part of the country’s energy mix for the future as a zero energy emission source for a clean and green future,” he concluded. Here are the key points Aslam made to Becky Anderson of CNN:

1. Pakistan wants to be a part of the solution even though it accounts for less than 1% of global carbon emissions. 

 2. Extreme weather events are costing Pakistan significant losses of lives and property. Pakistan is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

3. Pakistan is moving towards renewable energy by converting 60% of its energy mix to renewable by 2030. Electric vehicle (EV) transition is also beginning in his country. 

4. Aslam said:  “We are one of the world leaders on nature based solutions. However, the World Bank (WB) in its Report yesterday came up with really good numbers in a comparison of countries who are shifting their mainstream development towards environment friendly policies and Pakistan came atop among them,” the SAPM explained. 


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 impact on human health and economy. Pakistan needs to follow through on its commitments made at COP26 conference recently held in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Here's a video of Malik Amin Aslam's interview with CNN"s Becky Anderson:

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

South Asia Investor Review

Pakistan's Response to Climate Change

Pakistan Electric Vehicle Policy

Cutting Methane Emissions From Cow Burps and Farts

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


Riaz Haq said…
Cities with historically high particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration levels also experienced a substantial reduction in pollution—although further analysis is needed to determine whether natural sources or human activities explain this decrease.

South Asia is also among the world’s regions most exposed to household air pollution. About 79 percent of the population in Bangladesh, 60 percent in India, and 52 percent in Pakistan are exposed to pollution from burning of solid fuels, which contribute significantly to poor health in the region.

While lockdowns have provided the temporary side benefit of cleaner air and bluer skies, previous exposure to pollution has likely made more South Asians vulnerable to contracting severe respiratory diseases, including complications from COVID-19. As of June 22, COVID-19 cases in South Asia have been rising exponentially, with more than 735,000 confirmed so far, mostly in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Medical experts place vulnerabilities related to respiratory ailments such as asthma and chronic lung disease high on the list of preexisting conditions that can make people more susceptible to COVID-19. Among the first hospitalized patients, pneumonia, sepsis, respiratory failure, and acute respiratory distress syndrome were reported as the most frequent complications.
Riaz Haq said…
Delhi: Stubble burning contributed to 36% of pollution today, relief expected by tomorrow
A thick layer of smog covers Delhi due to the increase in air pollution (ANI)

The national capital's Air Quality Index (AQI) continued to remain in the “severe" category on Saturday, with emissions from stubble burning contributing to 36% of the pollution, as per data from Centre-run SAFAR.

In the last 24 hours, the PM2.5 level is higher as compared to 2020 but much less than that in 2018. While stubble burning is expected to remain almost the same during the day, relief is likely from 7 November.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has also said that higher wind speeds that have picked up since the morning are likely to clear out pollutants in the air over the next two days.

According to SAFAR, without any more firecracker emissions, AQI is likely to improve to the 'very poor' category by tonight.
Riaz Haq said…

How Lahore Became the World’s Most Polluted Place
Unprecedented smog in the “city of gardens” comes from a confluence of familiar factors.
By Syed Mohammad Ali, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities.

This past month, Lahore, Pakistan, has repeatedly topped the daily ranking of most polluted city in the world. Pollution and winter weather conditions combine to shroud the city in smog—disrupting flights, causing major road closures, and wreaking havoc on the health of its citizenry.

The problem of air pollution has been steadily growing in Lahore and many other cities in Punjab province. Punjab is the most populous province in Pakistan with an estimated population of 110 million people. Five cities in Punjab were listed among the 50 most polluted cities in the world in 2020. The situation in other major Pakistani cities, such as the coastal megalopolis of Karachi, is not much better. Yet, the current situation in Lahore is most alarming, with its fine particulate count repeatedly rising well above 40 times the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline values.

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes varied health complications, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, strokes, heart problems, and shortened life expectancy. The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution-related illnesses. Decision-makers have been slow to react to the pollution problem. In 2019, Pakistan’s minister of climate change infamously dubbed growing concern about the smog problem in Lahore as being a conspiratorial attempt to spread misinformation. Many officials and politicians continue blaming stubble burning by Indian farmers as the main cause for Lahore’s smog problem. Blaming India may be a tit-for-tat response to similar Indian accusations, but it not an accurate assessment. Ever-changing wind patterns during the stubble-burning season mean wind directions keep fluctuating across the India-Pakistan border. “The smog in Lahore is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors,” said Saleem Ali, a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. Namely, temperature inversion traps pollution in the atmosphere, which—alongside seasonal crop burning on the Indian-Pakistani border—combines with other sources of year-round pollution and fog to cause a spike in pollution and winter smog.

The reasons why air quality has been steadily declining in cities like Lahore are numerous. Vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, fossil fuel-fired power plants, the burning of waste materials, and coal being burned by thousands of brick kilns spattered across the province are all part of the problem. A Food and Agriculture Organization’s source appropriation study in 2020 singles out power producers, industry, and the transport sector in particular as culprits.


Khan’s stated environmental agenda of “greening” Pakistan has not prevented him from endorsing the multitrillion-rupee Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project. Critics fear this project will cause massive displacement, wreak havoc to Pakistan’s longest river’s ecology, and worsen pollution and air quality in Lahore for years to come.

In the absence of comprehensive and concerted efforts to combat air pollution, Lahore, once known as the “city of gardens,” is tragically choking on toxic air. Instead of looking forward to the welcomed reprieve of winter months, Lahore’s 13 million residents now must brace themselves for another bout of smog, which has acquired the status of a “fifth season.”
Riaz Haq said…
#DelhiPollution: Indoor air worse than outside, says study. Researchers said high-income households were 13 times more likely to own air purifiers than low-income households. Yet, the indoor air pollution levels in those homes were only 10% lower

India's capital Delhi has alarmingly high levels of indoor air pollution, new research has found.

The study found that the levels of PM2.5, the lung-damaging tiny particles in the air, indoors were "substantially higher" than those found on the nearest outdoor government monitors.

But despite that, most households have been unwilling to adopt defence measures, the report added.

Delhi city routinely tops the list of "world's most polluted capitals".

The study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), conducted between 2018 and 2020, surveyed thousands of Delhi households across varying socio-economic backgrounds and found that rich and poor households were equally affected.

Researchers said high-income households were 13 times more likely to own air purifiers than low-income households. Yet, the indoor air pollution levels in those homes were only 10% lower than those living in disadvantaged settings.

"In Delhi, the bottom line is - whether someone is rich or poor, no one gets to breathe clean air," said Dr Kenneth Lee, the lead author of the study. "It's a complex vicious cycle."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally about seven million people die prematurely each year from diseases linked to air pollution, which it puts on a par with smoking and unhealthy eating.

Experts say most of our exposure to air pollution actually happens indoors. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the levels of indoor air pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoors.

This is particularly a cause of concern for India, which has the world's worst air pollution. Home to 22 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, India's toxic air kills more than one million people each year.

Official government data shows Delhi recorded its worst November air in at least six years, with residents not experiencing even one "good" day of air quality through the month. Schools were shut amid worsening pollution levels and the situation was so dire that it also prompted a stern warning from India's Supreme Court.

A mix of factors like vehicular and industrial emissions, dust and weather patterns make Delhi the world's most polluted capital. The air turns especially toxic in winter months as farmers in neighbouring states burn crop stubble. And fireworks during the festival of Diwali, which happens at the same time, only worsen the air quality. Low wind speed also plays a part as it traps the pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

Yet, there is a low demand for clear air or adoption of defensive behaviours in Delhi households, according to the new report.

Researchers observed that even when people were offered a free trial of indoor air quality monitor to track pollution levels inside their homes, the take-up rates were low.

"When you do not know about the pollution levels inside your homes, you do not worry about it, and hence you are less likely to take corrective actions," said Dr Lee. "Only with increased awareness, demand for clean air may gain momentum."
Riaz Haq said…
#Delhi's #toxic #air is fueled by farmers burning crop stubble. But fires don't stop. Why? Answer lies in #water. But the time bomb - of depleting #groundwater - ticks on. The air might get cleaner when water runs out. But what will #India do about #food?

Think of the fields that are on fire. They get only between 500-700mm (19-27 in) of rainfall a year. Yet, many of these fields grow a dual crop of paddy and wheat. Paddy alone needs about 1,240mm (48.8 in) of rainfall each year, and so, farmers use groundwater to bridge the gap.

The northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which grow large amounts of paddy, together take out roughly 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater a year, which is not much less than India's overall annual municipal water requirement: 56bcm. As a result, groundwater levels in these states are dropping rapidly. Punjab is expected to run out of groundwater in 20-25 years from 2019, according to an official estimate.

The burning fields is a symptom of the deteriorating relationship between India and its water.

Long ago, farmers grew crops based on locally available water. Tanks, inundation canals and forests helped smoothen the inherent variability of India's tempestuous water.

But in the late 19th Century, the land began to transform as the British wanted to secure India's north-western frontier against possible Russian incursion. They built canals connecting the rivers of Punjab, bringing water to a dry land. They cut down forests, feeding the wood to railways that could cart produce from the freshly watered fields. And they imposed a fixed tax payable in cash that made farmers eager to grow crops that could be sold easily. These changes made farmers believe that water could be shaped, irrespective of local sources - a crucial change in thinking that is biting us today.

After independence from the British in 1947, repeated droughts made the Indian government succumb to the lure of the "green revolution".

Until then, rice, a water-hungry crop, was a marginal crop in Punjab. It was grown on less than 7% of the fields. But beginning in the early 1960s, paddy cultivation was encouraged by showing farmers how to cheaply and conveniently tap into a new, seemingly-endless source of water that lay underground.

The flat power tariffs to run borewells were cheapened and finally not paid - removing any incentive to conserve water. Water did not need to be managed, farmers were taught, only extracted. In the heady first years of the revolution, fields began to churn out paddy and wheat, and India became food-secure. But after a couple of decades, the water began to sputter.

To conserve groundwater, a 2009 law forbade farmers from sowing and transplanting paddy before a pre-determined date based on the onset of the monsoon. The aim was to make the borewells run less in the peak summer months.

But the delay in paddy planting shrunk the gap between the paddy harvest and sowing of wheat. And the quickest way to clear the fields was to burn them, giving rise to the smoky plumes that add to northern India's air pollution.

So, the toxic smog is but a visible symbol of India's trainwreck of a relationship with its water.
Riaz Haq said…
#Garbage mountain bigger than 50 football fields and taller than a 17-story building burns in #Delhi, #India. #LandfillFire #toxic #Modi #Hindutva #BJP

A ragpicker separates items at the edge of a fire at the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The landfill that covers an area bigger than 50 football fields, with a pile taller than a 17-story building caught fire on Tuesday evening, turning into a smoldering heap that blazed well into the night. India's capital, which like the rest of South Asia is in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave, was left enveloped in thick acrid smoke.
Riaz Haq said…
Toxic #smog turns #India's capital "into a gas chamber". Farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds have left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the #Delhi capital region. #pollution #health #Modi via @CBSNews

Authorities in India stepped up efforts on Friday to address deteriorating air quality as farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the Delhi capital region. Factories, construction sites and primary schools were ordered to shut down and Delhi authorities urged people to work from home as dangerous fine particle pollution filled the air.

Delhi's 24-hour average air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of very fine particles know as PM2.5 in the air — particularly harmful pollutants as they're easily inhaled and can settle deep in the lungs — crossed 470 on Friday, per the state-run Central Pollution Control Board.

Anything over 300 is classed as "hazardous" on the international AQI rating system, and at "severe" levels, air pollution "affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases." On Friday, many parts of Delhi recorded an AQI of more than 600.

Authorities also restricted the operation of diesel-powered vehicles and sent out trucks equipped with water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to try to control the smog.

"We are also mulling over implementing the odd-even scheme for the running of vehicles," Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, said. That would see about half of Delhi's privately owned vehicles ordered off the roads, with odd and even-numbered license plates allowed to operate on alternating days.

Even the air quality monitors installed at the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, which sits in one of the cleanest and greenest patches in the city, registered an AQI over 360 on Friday, well into the most dire, "hazardous" level on the AQI chart displayed on the embassy's website.

Residents of the Indian capital weren't likely to see much improvement quickly, with weather conditions expected to remain calm and the seasonal crop stubble burning likely to continue.

India's Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, on Wednesday blamed the opposition-run northern state of Punjab for failing to stop farmers burning off the remains of their harvested summer crops.

"There is no doubt over who has turned Delhi into a gas chamber," Yadav said in a tweet.

Punjab's top politician, Bhagwant Mann, defended his administration, saying it only took office half a year ago and calling for a collaborative effort by state and federal authorities to address the problem.

The Delhi government is following a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to combat air pollution in the city. The stricter measures were taken Friday as the average air quality worsened to "Severe Plus," with the AQI over 450.

"It is the responsibility of all of us to take initiative at every level to stop pollution," said Delhi's state environment minister Gopal Rai earlier in the week.

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