“Tell me how I’m supposed to breathe with no air (quality data)?”

Pakistan: Hazardous air puts lives at risk | Amnesty International
Sourced by Amnesty International

Following on from the previous blog post, in which Lahore’s struggle with hazardous air quality was introduced, the next blog will hopefully delve into understanding this problem in more detail from a UPE understanding.

It must be noted beforehand that there is limited discussion on air quality in UPE literature. This may be due to the fact that air cannot be commoditised as easily as other resources such as water or land, and is overlooked in UPE scholarship given that typically it has had a focus on the consumption, production and recreation of natural resources- and air is difficult to frame in this sense. Nonetheless, exploring air quality in Lahore through UPE is necessary in order to better understand how the uneven cityscape was produced, and what is being done to address it.

Gustafson (2020) highlights how children’s geographies are peripheral in mainstream UPE discourses and reiterates the usefulness of locating children in the city’s metabolic flows of air pollution. This is especially relevant for Lahore, not only because young people are physically more effected by air pollution from, but also because children are at the forefront of climate activism- thus proving to be active participants within the city. In 2019, Lahore saw its first ever youth climate march, where students across the city took to the street to demand the national government to take serious action against the annual smog.

After the march, a group of children even took the provincial government to court, challenging their Air Quality Index (AQI) measuring system. After comparing it to the United States Environment Protection Agency (US-EPA) classifications, they petitioned that the government’s system under-reported the severity of air pollution, which puts children and other vulnerable demographics at higher risk. One of the plaintiffs, Misahel Hayat, was a 17 year old professional swimmer, who expressed that the smog makes it difficult for her to breathe when she trains outdoors- reiterating the detrimental impacts air pollution has on children’s lives and health that is widely mentioned across epidemiological literature.

Plaintiff Leila Alam, 13, photographed by Aysha Raja. Sourced from Dawn News

Besides emphasising the impact on children, the legal case also unveils that it is the politics of monitoring air pollution in Lahore that is further fuelling the problem. According to the US AQI metrics, the reading of 60 µg/m3 is declared ‘Unhealthy’, but under provincial standards, it is classified as ‘Satisfactory’. The local metric underreports the severity of air quality; using data from only a few monitors that is not uploaded at real time, and so when it is broadcasted by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority on LCD screens across Lahore, it is ultimately displaying incorrect information to the general public.

It is this misinformation and discrepancy in reporting that has caused Lahore’s worsening air quality to be ignored for so long. The absence of accurate, real-time data from the government means that there is a lack of hard evidence that would force policymakers to take action. However in this instance, participatory, quantitative data collection rose to take on the responsibility of monitoring. The Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), a citizens-operated network of low-cost monitors. Their historical records of air quality in Lahore was also provided as supplementary evidence in the children’s petition discussed earlier. Since its launch in 2017, this crowd-sourced data initiative has increased awareness about Lahore’s air quality amongst it’s citizens and helps to “illustrate the metabolic flows constitutive of urban life” (Gustafson, 2020: 6) by quanitfying what is actually in the air.

PAQI believes that access to and availability of real-time air quality data is necessary for the public, as being informed about the levels of pollution that are poteintially inhaled can allow for better preparation for protective measures, such as using air purifiers and limiting their outdoor exposure- as endorsed by IQAir

Click here for a Real- Time Air Pollution Map of Lahore!

But on the other hand, would more data really be that significant? For the urban poor of Lahore- many of whom have little awareness and knowledge about air pollution- the impacts of greater access to data will likely be marginal. Assuming they somehow decipher what the complex jargon and understand what the data actually represents, the urban poor are severely restricted in what measures they can take to protect themselves from the dangerous air quality. Air purifiers are known to be notoriously expensive (~31,000PKR which equate to roughly £150) and realistically speaking, knowing about the exact levels of PM2.5 in the air is unlikely to reduce the 40% of all trips that are made on foot, because the urban poor simply cannot afford to stay at home.

The emphasis on public data is undeniably valid: having irrefutable evidence will surely draw attention to tackling air pollution from both policymakers and factions of the public. But, the exclusion of the urban poor from accessing and understanding this information raises questions about the class bias that drives the demand for data. Veron (2006) explores how it is the middle class in Delhi who engage in environmental and judicial activism, which we have explore to hold true in Lahore as well. This has also meant that subsequent policies introduced in Delhi to tackle air pollution also embody this bias, and in some cases, can be “anti-poor”. It will be interesting to analyse policies in Lahore that have emerged since the legal case, and to explore whether they too carry a middle class bias, which the next post will hope to do.

To learn more about Lahore’s Air Pollution Problem, take a look at this TedTalk Abid Omar, founder of PAQI:

References

Gustafson, S. (2020) ‘Children breathe their own air: Reflections on children’s geographies, the urban political ecology of air pollution, and ongoing participatory action research with undergraduates near an east London primary school, Area 52: 1-8. 

Véron, R. (2006). “Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi.” Environment and planning A 38(11): 2093-2109

3 thoughts on ““Tell me how I’m supposed to breathe with no air (quality data)?”

  1. This is a really well-written post! I really like how you focused on children geographies through the UPE lens as it is often overlooked, and in the case of Lahore, very relevant! It’s also great that you questioned the mitigation/solution of providing more access and availability of air quality data, through analysing the impacts on different communities across the scale of class and wealth. Think it would be interesting for you to delve into children geographies and air pollution a little more, and examine exactly how children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution! Other than that, I thought it was a fantastic read! Looking forward to your other blogs!

    Like

  2. This is a really interesting approach to air quality. Your decision to focus on children’s geographies, deploying relevant readings and data provides an invaluable insight into the plight faced by Lahore. You also question the use of more data which is a key consideration when issues of air quality are already so dire. I look forward to your future blogs!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, loved this post! I hadn’t thought of air being understudied as its is not as easy to commodify as water for instance. I love how your post shows that whilst children often bear the brunt of poor air quality, they also have more agency than they are often given credit for. Thanks for such a great post

    Like

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