How India and Pakistan can work together to fight air pollution



As I pen down these lines, Lahore, Pakistan’s most populous city, and New Delhi, the capital of India, are engaged in a dismal competition for a title no city would covet — the cities with the highest air pollution levels in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, a staggering 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities globally are situated in Pakistan and India, courtesy traffic congestion, crop burning, coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and household waste, all of which emit alarming levels of PM2.5, a particularly hazardous type of air pollutant detrimental to human health.

The adverse effects of air pollution transcend borders and impact millions. Winter exacerbates the issue, with temperature inversions trapping pollutants and creating stagnant air masses that hinder dispersion. Consequently, the poor air quality forces the closure of schools, offices, and businesses during November and December—a recurring phenomenon over the past several years.

While historical tensions persist between these neighbouring South Asian nations, a shared threat looms large over both countries — air pollution. The environment and economies of both countries are bearing the brunt of this calamity. Crops, forests and wildlife suffer damage, contributing to broader issues such as climate change and acid rain. Moreover, the quality of life and productivity of millions of people are adversely affected. The economic toll is substantial, encompassing reduced tourism, trade and transportation, alongside escalating healthcare and energy costs. According to a World Bank report, the annual cost of air pollution in Pakistan amounts to about 5.88 per cent of its GDP, while in India, it stands at approximately 8.5 per cent.

Addressing the crisis requires a comprehensive approach that goes beyond merely clamping down on crop burning. Vehicular emissions emerge as a central issue, significantly contributing to poor air quality throughout the year. Pakistan and India must, therefore, formulate a coordinated and holistic strategy to tackle the multifaceted causes of this persistent issue.

Public awareness campaigns play a pivotal role in informing citizens about shared environmental challenges and the benefits of cross-border cooperation. Citizens need to understand that the air they breathe knows no borders, and collaborative efforts can lead to a collective improvement in air quality. Simultaneously, diplomatic efforts must be intensified to open channels of dialogue specifically focused on environmental issues. Regular and transparent communication is fundamental to building trust and understanding between the nations. It is essential to depoliticise environmental challenges and recognise the urgency of collaboration for the well-being of the citizens.

The establishment of joint environmental committees, comprising representatives from both nations, can serve as a forum for ongoing discussions, information exchange, and collaborative decision-making on environmental matters. Identifying and prioritising shared environmental challenges – such as air and water pollution, deforestation – and the impacts of climate change, can lay the groundwork for cooperative solutions. Encouraging collaboration between scientists and researchers from both countries fosters a neutral ground for professionals to work together, exchanging insights and expertise to address environmental concerns effectively.

Collaborative efforts on assessing transboundary environmental impact for major projects ensure that both countries are actively involved in evaluating potential environmental consequences, mitigating risks collectively. Exploring the creation of trans-boundary conservation areas can promote joint efforts in preserving biodiversity and ecosystems, reinforcing the interconnectedness of the natural environment.

Involving local communities on both sides of the border in environmental initiatives creates a sense of shared responsibility. Grassroots participation can help build support for cooperation and demonstrate the tangible benefits of joint efforts. Implementing educational programmes that highlight the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability contributes to fostering a shared environmental ethic. Educated citizens are more likely to support cross-border cooperation and advocate for sustainable practices.

Various countries with shared borders have successfully collaborated on environmental policies. The European Union, for instance, implemented directives and regulations for common approaches to air and water quality. Similarly, the Mekong River Commission involves countries sharing the Mekong River to address water management, flood control, and sustainable development. Seeking support from international organisations and mediators can provide the expertise, resources and a neutral perspective to facilitate and catalyse environmental cooperation between India and Pakistan. Leveraging international partnerships and goodwill can contribute to creating an environment conducive to bilateral collaboration. By showcasing successful instances of environmental cooperation, the narrative can shift from rivalry to shared responsibility for tackling the escalating air pollution crisis.

India and Pakistan must rise above historical differences to collaborate on urgent and effective measures. The environment knows no borders, and the shared threat of air pollution provides a unique opportunity for both nations to foster goodwill, build trust, and work together for a sustainable and healthier future. Bridging borders for a breath of fresh air is not just a shared responsibility but a testament to the power of collaboration in the face of a common and pressing challenge. – The writer is a Pakistan-based journalist and commentator


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