Smog in Delhi, India. Credit: Mark Danielson

Filthy air forms smog of peace

As an air pollution crisis grips India and Pakistan, the chief minister of Pakistani Punjab has written to his Indian counterpart calling for “collective effort” to tackle their shared problem.

Following the partition of India in 1947 the geographical and cultural region of Punjab was split in two. Today, the region straddles the border between India and Pakistan – two countries with a troubled history of conflict. Yet the issue of air pollution means international cooperation is essential in order to tackle an environmental problem that knows no borders.

In a letter to the head of Indian Punjab leader Capt Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister Shebaz Sharif wrote:

I would like to invite you for entering into a regional cooperation arrangement to tackle the issue of smog as well as environmental pollution. Let us join hands for securing a prosperous future for the people of our two provinces

He continued:

The main causes of smog range from vehicular and industrial emissions to rice stubble burning. The phenomenon has now assumed regional proportions and it now engulfs areas from New Delhi to Lahore and beyond.

The Government of the Punjab also tweeted the letter:

Air pollution has reached dangerous levels across the Indian subcontinent.

A court case almost led to the cancellation of a half-marathon in Delhi, which eventually went ahead despite the ‘killer’ threat posed by filthy air. During a state visit at the start of November the Belgian king did his best to inspect Indian troops through thick smog.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, smog has led to the capital city, Lahore, being described as “one huge airport smokers’ lounge” by the New York Times.

Many of the causes of pollution in Asia are the same as in Europe: poor-quality fuel, old cars and dirty industry. Both India and Pakistan burn coal to generate electricity and are still building new coal-fired power stations, despite their negative impacts on air quality and the global climate.

Sharif’s letter concludes:

You will agree with me that the problem is essentially scientific and economic and cannot be tackled through other means.

For people living in the 130 cities in 23 EU countries where annual air pollution standards are not being met, decision makers in Europe would do well to follow the example of their southern Asian colleagues.

Whatever methods are used to tackle pollution in Punjab, elsewhere in India and Pakistan, and in the rest of the world, the Chief Minister’s letter underlines a simple truth: cooperation across borders is essential.