Scientists take a step towards India-Pakistan cooperation to fight air pollution

  • Experts from India and Pakistan are planning to come together in Kathmandu next month to facilitate sharing of data regarding the air pollution problem in both countries and develop a common understanding.
  • In the winter months, neighbouring countries India and Pakistan suffer from severe levels of air pollution but often end up pointing fingers at each other for not doing enough to tackle it.
  • With this meeting, scientists of the two countries would take a significant step to address the problem on a regional level.

Air pollution does not adhere to human-created borders. So, even as south Asian neighbours India and Pakistan spend a majority of time in political conflict, both countries suffer from the impact of air pollution in the region. Now, scientists of the two nations may soon come together to address the issue.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) will host scientists, experts and urban planners from the two countries in Kathmandu (Nepal) in March 2019, to facilitate data sharing between India and Pakistan regarding air pollution and devise a common understanding about it.

“Between India and Pakistan, especially the two Punjabs, there is a lot of pollution that goes both ways across the border. There are sources on both sides of the border. Managing air quality in one place whether it is Delhi or in Lahore needs regional understanding and perspective. This is something where ICIMOD has a potential role to play and we have actually been asked by Pakistan’s EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) in India to initially facilitate data sharing and scientific understanding,” ICIMOD’s Regional Programme Manager (Atmosphere), Arnico K. Panday, told Mongabay-India.

“So, in March 2019, we are hosting this meeting, which we are calling, ‘Two Punjabs one atmosphere.’ We are trying to achieve a scientific consensus on what happens (in that region) every year. We are trying to get atmospheric scientists, agricultural specialists and transborder urban planners to come to a joint understanding and prepare a peer-reviewed paper on what is our joint understanding of this annual air pollution crisis that crosses the border,” said Panday.

Air pollution is a significant issue for the South Asian region, especially in India and Pakistan. During every winter season, since past few years, the northern Indian region, including Punjab and Delhi, and the Punjab area in Pakistan suffer from hazardous level of air quality which is several times higher than the safe limit of pollutants. This often results in both the countries pointing fingers at each other for not doing much to address it.

Panday stressed that it is “easy for people to point fingers across the border” but “it is very difficult for scientists from Pakistan and India to travel to meet each other.”

“So we have a potential role to play, actually responsibility in some ways, to facilitate the sharing of scientific understanding and data to have a common understanding of the air pollution. If you are trying to do air pollution forecast for Delhi, which the CPCB is moving towards now, they need to know what’s happening on that side of the border also,” said Panday while expressing that in the context of regional cooperation the easiest starting point could be scientists.

“Once you have a joint scientific understanding of the problem and it points out to the need for cooperation and collaboration among policymakers, I think it can happen. The cross border sharing is not just of the data and the problems but also the solutions,” he added.

The basic idea behind the plan is to bring experts together who would look at the region in totality without looking at the political map or focusing on cross-border politics.

Based in Kathmandu, ICIMOD is an intergovernmental organisation that serves as a learning and knowledge sharing centre for eight member countries of the Himalayan region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

Air pollution a significant problem in South Asia

A report released by ICIMOD in February 2019 emphasised that air pollution in the Himalayas is on the rise and regional air quality has worsened in the past two decades, with the adjacent Indo-Gangetic Plains now one of the most polluted regions in the world.

It noted that in 12 cities (Allahabad, Patna, Dehradun, Delhi, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Agra and Jaipur in India, Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan and Narayangonj in Bangladesh), the annual average particulate matter 2.5 concentration is more than ten times higher than the guideline value (safe value).

Air pollution has emerged as a significant regional problem in South Asia. Photo by Saagnik Paul/Greenpeace.

Air pollution has a significant impact on the Himalayan region affecting not just the health of people and ecosystems, but also climate, the cryosphere, monsoon patterns, water availability, agriculture and incomes, it noted. The report emphasised that air pollution is very much a regional issue, with widespread haze extending across much of the urban and rural parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains and southern Himalayan foothills during the dry season.

Though both the nations have been taking steps in addressing air pollution they have not been successful as yet in tackling it. For instance, India recently released a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) to solve the problem on the national level, but it has been criticised for lacking the teeth to ensure compliance. Similarly, the authorities in Punjab of Pakistan too have been taking measures to control air pollution.

Read more: India’s plan to breathe easy is out, but targets are not legally binding

But when toxic levels of air quality return, the two countries often pass the blame to the other. In November 2017, for example, the government of Punjab in Pakistan tweeted that it had banned stubble burning and hoped that the chief minister of India’s Punjab state would take similar measures.

ICIMOD’s Arnico K. Panday stated that the Himalayan region is not the first place in the world that is facing air pollution and there is a lot to learn from others. He highlighted examples of knowledge sharing between Mexico City and Kathmandu in Nepal where mayors of multiple municipalities of different political parties came together to address air pollution and other pressing environmental issues.

“In Kathmandu, there are 18 municipalities run by different political parties. We made Ambassador of Mexico speak to all mayors of Kathmandu because Mexico City had 72 municipalities. They managed to create an inter-municipality council that went above politics and came up with solutions. Due to that effort, Mexico City went from being the most polluted city around 20 years ago to being fairly decent,” he said.

Similarly, a forum of mayors was formed in Kathmandu and in October 2018 they came out with a declaration to tackle environmental problems including air pollution, he added.  

Director of Climate Trends, Aarti Khosla said that “if authorities in India and Pakistan rise above politics and take a common stand against a problem like air pollution then it will be a significant step.”

“Even if the process gets initiated by a meeting of experts from both the sides it will be a welcome move as air pollution doesn’t care about boundaries and impacts people of both the countries,” Khosla added.


Banner image: Pollution doesn’t adhere to human-created boundaries and a regional mechanism may provide an effective solution. Photo by Saagnik Paul/Greenpeace.

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