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Lahore, Pakistan, is locking down to improve air quality


When you think of the world's most polluted cities, Lahore might not spring to mind. But as NPR's Fatma Tanis reports, Pakistan's second-largest city and its cultural capital now has that dubious distinction.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: A thick layer of dust covers the many trees that line Lahore's streets and its famous gardens. All around the city, visibility is low. The air is thick with pollution. The cold weather makes it denser. And it's hard to breathe, even through a mask.

AHMAD ALAM: I can't describe the taste of it because sometimes, it's diesel. Sometimes, it's wood. Sometimes, it's something suspicious. You know, you wonder what it is.

TANIS: That's Ahmad "Rafay" Alam, attorney on environmental issues. He recalls the first days of the pandemic in March 2020, when a total lockdown led to an immediate improvement in the city's air quality.

ALAM: It was clean as a whistle, so we know exactly what needs to be done. We know where it's coming from. It's the industry, and it's the transport. Pakistan has some of the dirtiest fuels in the world.

TANIS: The air quality index in Lahore averages above 300, hazardous to breathe. At one point this year, it went up to 440. For reference, the highest is 500.

ALAM: People get sick. People lose their lives. My daughter's 15. She can't really play outside, which means a lot of sports activities are restricted. Kids can't grow up normal with this air pollution. You can't let them out because growing organs will be all at risk.

TANIS: The local government responded by ordering a partial shutdown of schools over the winter months for the first time since 2019, out of concern for children's health and to reduce traffic emissions.

On a Thursday at a small private school in Lahore, the playground is empty, and so are the classrooms and hallways. The school is closed. Principal Irum Kazi says they've been wearing masks outdoors several years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and still...

IRUM KAZI: I can see how it's affecting children. And if you notice I - (coughing) - every so often, I catch my breath. So if it affects me, it affects younger children more.

TANIS: Kazi sees these effects on a firsthand basis, as her staff and students have been calling in sick over the past couple weeks.

KAZI: I've never had so many children absent, so many teachers absent. It's a nightmare filling it in. Who is there now to take the classes? I mean, you can cope with one or two teachers not being there, but you can't cope with so many not being there.

TANIS: The constant school closures this year are also disrupting education at a time when the pandemic itself caused many disruptions. And Alam, the environmental lawyer, calls this a panicked reactionary measure, not a long-term solution. Now, the government says it has taken some broader action. Last year, they claim to have introduced new clean technology to the heavily polluting brick kilns in Lahore, which they say reduced emissions by 50%. Muhammad Ali Ijaz, the deputy director of Lahore's Environmental Protection Agency, says that's only one of many other policies they've introduced.

MUHAMMAD ALI IJAZ: We are trying to promote electric vehicles, and we are also going for the greening of the rooftops of the commercial buildings, which increase the green cover of Lahore.

TANIS: They've also been fining polluting industries. But Ijaz points out his department is severely under-resourced. He only has eight inspectors and two vehicles for the entire department in a city of 11 million people. Still, Ijaz is somewhat hopeful for the future, but he points out that Lahore's air quality problem cannot be fixed in a vacuum.

IJAZ: It will take time, but it will resolve. Only Lahore, if we curtail our industry and limit our traffic - we somehow control it, but we can't eliminate it.

TANIS: To eliminate it, he says, that requires regional cooperation and global action on climate change. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.