The un-breathable air | Pakistan Today

The un-breathable air

  • Burning crops is not the only source of pollution

There are several reasons why you’re having a problem breathing in Lahore these days.

The air over Pakistan is always polluted, but for several months in winter the quality of air becomes almost unbearable and has been getting steadily worse over the years.

It is due mainly to the practice of residue crop burning.

Residue crop burning takes place at any time of year, and in many places, but it takes longer to disperse in winter due to various meteorological factors. The effects are however most apparent in winter in the region in and around Lahore where the smoke forms a noxious blanket smothering the residents, affecting both health and visibility.

Residue crop burning occurs when one crop is harvested and the fields prepared for the planting of the next major crop. That is in turn harvested in summer, around April-May.

When a crop is harvested a stubble remains. The next crop in the recently harvested field can either incorporate this stubble, for example by seeding directly into the previous stub, or it can be planted after removing the stubble, in a clear field. To clear the field is a time and labour consuming process in the absence of mechanisation. The residue is therefore burnt.

It was once the practice in more leisurely times to allow stubble to remain in the field for a while before another crop was planted. This allowed what remained of the crop to degrade and pass its nutrients back into the soil. The next crop was nourished by the old nutrients, in addition to what the farmer fed it after it was planted. But things have changed and burning is now perceived to be an integral aspect of preparation a field and has become common practice in Pakistan.

Burning stubble does more harm than good. Preventing farmers from burning the crop is important for both agricultural as well as health reasons and requires an ongoing educational campaign. There appears to be none at present.

At present Pakistan is self-sufficient in the staple crops of wheat, sugar cane and rice, but while wheat is important, sugar cane and rice use too much water and are not crucial to a healthy diet

Crop residue burning has significantly raised greenhouse gas levels. Smoke travels surprisingly long distances. The smoke produced in the Indo Gangetic Plains is able to carry over and across the Himalayas. People all across this area breathe in this smoke and fumes and suffer from respiratory illnesses, particularly the young and the elderly. In addition to humans, wildlife living, nesting and feeding off the area also suffers. Their food sources and nesting sites are destroyed. These fires can be particularly disastrous for animals that nest on or close to the ground, and for those animals whose young are less mobile. Other harmless creatures such as bees and rodents that are ecologically valuable also suffer.

Burning crops is not the only source of pollution. There is also the pollution from factories and that produced by other practices, such as the burning of trash.

According to an article by Rachel Lew in July of 2018 in BioEnergy Consult, ‘more than five million people die each year in Pakistan due to waste-related diseases where roughly 20 million tons of solid waste is generated annually. Karachi, the largest city in the country, generates more than 9,000 tons of municipal waste daily. All other major cities, Islamabad, Lahore or Peshawar, are facing enormous challenges in tackling the problem of urban waste. The root factors for the worsening garbage problem in Pakistan are lack of urban planning, outdated infrastructure, lack of public awareness and endemic corruption.’

You wish the powers that be would concentrate more on these issues, because with effective waste management and better controls over agricultural practice many of the problems faced by this country would be addressed simultaneously. Farmers need to be provided with guidance as to what to grow, with better seeds to help them grow it, and with a more effective chain of production that provides buyers for producers. Knowing which crop is more efficient to grow at which time in the year with the least consumption of water would impact positively on the water shortage faced by Pakistan.

At present Pakistan is self-sufficient in the staple crops of wheat, sugar cane and rice, but while wheat is important, sugar cane and rice use too much water and are not crucial to a healthy diet.

If the authorities come down heavily on crop burning and the burning of trash, it would impact very positively indeed on the air quality and the health of the nation.

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at