Building with smog in Pakistan
Building with smog in Pakistan
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Revealing the Invisible: AirVisual in Pakistan

Pakistan has deadly smog. One activist changed the game with an AirVisual Pro air quality monitor and air quality data.

Abid Omar, long-time Beijing resident who is originally from Pakistan, is making waves with his outdoor citizen network of AirVisual air monitors. He has good reason to reveal his home country’s air quality issues. Indeed, the data he compiled is having an explosive impact on his country's response to the air pollution problem.

Pakistan's one-man air pollution solution

Winter begins a distinct time of year in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city – pollution season. The onset of the season is dramatic. There are often numerous reports of smog greatly reducing visibility, slowing daily activities, as well as increased road accidents and flight cancellations.

Despite the obvious effects of the thick air pollution, Pakistan’s government had not released any real-time, official air quality monitoring data to openly quantify the level and hazard of the smog. But Lahore residents can thank a single, passionate clean air activist for pushing the national debate right up to government level, armed with his citizen network of AirVisual air monitors and irrefutable data.1

Air pollution awareness is the key

Upon returning to Pakistan from Beijing, Abid noticed that the primary difference in dealing with the air pollution problem in China and Pakistan was people’s level of awareness. According to Abid, without data, “People just think it’s foggy.”

In Beijing, live air quality measurements are broadcast in elevators and on TV screens alongside weather information. “That’s what awareness looks like,” says Abid. 

Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI)

The U.S. Embassy previously launched a game-changing campaign of tweeting air quality measurements in the Chinese capital. Abid was inspired to do something similar in his home country. But first, he needed data. That’s when he decided to take his country’s lack of public air quality data into his own hands by setting up a network of six public outdoor AirVisual air quality monitors within the hearts of four major Pakistani cities: Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, and Islamabad.

The air quality monitors have been measuring and broadcasting the cities’ air quality readings ever since on the AirVisual app and website. The air quality information is also publicly posted on Abid’s own dedicated community platform: the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative.2

AirVisual Pro data in the courtroom

In Lahore, Pakistan’s 2nd-largest city, Abid’s monitors have revealed startlingly high AQI (Air Quality Index) levels. Lahore has topped AirVisual’s hourly, global air pollution Major City Ranking numerous times, above notorious “smoggy cities” such as Beijing, New Delhi, and Dhaka, sparking considerable debate on social media, culminating in a public interest petition to be heard by the Chief Justice of Lahore’s High Court to review a government response.

Following requests for data by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA or PEPA), Abid provided his AirVisual Pro monitoring network’s historical data to the hearing as supplementary evidence. Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer based in Lahore, was appointed the hearing's amicus curiae and brought an AirVisual monitor with him into the courtroom. 

Alam produced his monitor for display early into the proceedings, bringing a shocking discovery to the courtroom: the Indoor Air Quality during the hearing measured 400+ μg/m3 (that equates to US AQI 434+, well over the highest “Hazardous” tier threshold). The Court then asked for a reading to be taken outside, which showed as close to 500μg/m3. Alam said that this “changed the nature of proceedings.”

The hearing then consulted the government’s existing smog policy and found that any PM2.5 reading above 300μg/m3 is considered “Severe” – the highest category. PEPA was then asked to disclose their previously unpublished readings from a set of recently installed air monitors. The measurements were similar to the AirVisual monitor for the same time period as the hearing. With the severe level of air pollution indicated by the AirVisual data validated, the Court ordered the Government of Punjab to prepare and submit a smog response policy the very same day.

A court order has since been released, outlining a temporary Smog Health Emergency Action Plan to be put into place immediately, and more detailed plans followed. The order also demanded that the government monitoring readings be published once daily until real-time data is available to share.3

Time will tell what the impact the new policies have on the local air quality.4 Meanwhile, Abid’s proactive commitment to raise awareness local air quality proves the incredible change a single, dedicated community member can create. 

Article Resources

[1] Abbas N. (2017). 'Maybe the smog can bring us together': toxic air chokes Pakistan and India.

[2] Omar, A. (2017). Introducing the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative پاکی. -پاکی-d1f2f9ed7d11 

[3] Iqbal W. (2017) Federation of Pakistan.

[4] Despite rain, smog persists in different parts of Punjab. (2017).

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