Talking Air Pollution in Pakistan during COVID-19 with Dawar Butt

In our first livestream podcast, we speak with Dawar Hameed Butt, a public policy, health and sustainability consultant based in Lahore, about the blue skies during lockdown. Dawar goes by @theLahorewala on Twitter, where he has become a key persona for all things climate change, environment and air pollution. He also is one of the organizers of the nationwide Climate Strikes across Pakistan. We speak about his journey into the world of air pollution, and take an in-depth look at emissions levels before and during lockdown.

Together with Sunil Dahiya of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), their analysis found that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions saw a drop of 49% in Lahore, 35% in Karachi and 56% in the Twin Cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the corresponding period during lockdown.

“NO2 is a dangerous pollutant, responsible for an estimated 120,000 new cases of child asthma and 4,000 premature deaths per year in Pakistan. It is also a key contributor to PM2.5 formation.”

“NO2 primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel and mainly formed by emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment. Most of these activities being absent/reduced due to nationwide lockdown, the emissions have gone down drastically.”

Even with blue skies, air pollution remains above safe limits

When you look at heatmaps like these from the layman’s perspective, you immediately see that there is no longer a hotspot over Lahore or over Sheikupura, and everything looks nice and blue. However, what is hiding behind this first glance is that that NO2 emission levels are still above safe limits.

Why haven’t air pollution levels come down even more drastically? Similar to what happened in Beijing and Wuhan during lockdown, certain essential services such as power generation and food industries remain in operation. In some cases, industrial furnaces such as those at steel mills cannot be shutdown, for example the Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi has kept its furnaces running since decades even when not in production.

The good news is that we now have a baseline emission level that we can target to achieve.

How do we protect ourselves from COVID-19?

Besides social distancing, the most important measure that one can take to protect themselves from COVID-19 is to wear a mask. New research from Harvard University and others show that a small increase in air pollution can make the coronavirus more deadly. Cornovirus can essentially piggy back on airborne particulate matter and aerosols, which makes us in Pakistan at higher risk. We already have a compromised respiratory system from elevated pollution levels, that is not going to withstand for long against the full onset of the virus.

In the podcast, we discuss why masks are important, and why certifiable N95 or surgical masks are difficult to manufacture in Pakistan in spite of the massive textile industry.

Listen to the whole thing for more, and leave us your comments! Help us find more guests!


  1. Read the complete analysis by CREA on Air Quality before and after national lockdown during Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak across Pakistan by Sunil Dahiya and Dawar Butt.
  2. Utilize your free time during the lockdown and learn about The Health Effects of Climate Change with this free online course by Harvard University.
  3. Jaan Bachao and make a mask with Mask Banao, a student initiative from Lahore. Support them and follow their efforts.
  4. Visit #WearAF—ingMask and learn why wearing a mask is so important to flatten the curve, as well as protecting your own health.
  5. Listen to the Tabadlab’s Pakistonomy podcast with energy economist Ammar H. Khan on Pakistan’s highly polluting energy sector, and why it is organized the way it is.

Is Breathing Killing Us?

Originally posted at the MIT Technology Review Pakistan by Nushmiya Sukhera on 21 February 2017, this article is a snapshot into the future of Pakistan without urgent air quality management programs.

“Lung diseases, facemasks, and irritable eyes – a snapshot into the future of Pakistan.”

“While the government has not been able to deal with the issue at hand timely and effectively, some concerned citizens have taken the matter in their own hands. Abid Omar, a Beijing based Pakistani has installed air quality monitors in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar and tweets the measurements found on an hourly basis, in an attempt to create awareness of the looming dangers of air pollution nationwide. Omar cites the example of Beijing where once data on air pollution was made available to the public, it forced the government to take action. “I’m trying to get the same thing to happen in Pakistan,” he says.”

Read the complete article “Is Breathing Killing Us?” at the MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

An asthma patient in every house

Originally posted at The Third Pole by Mohammad Zubair Khan on 12 January 2017, this article highlights the social costs of the stone-crushing industry for the mountain communities of Pakistan.

Often overlooked, the massive amount of air pollution created by stone crushing machines is a major health hazard for mountain communities from where the stone is mined.

“In every home you will find an asthma patient”

Much of the focus on air pollution in South Asia is on vehicular pollution, and smoke — whether from burning agricultural fields to clear them, or from traffic. While this is an important aspect of air pollution, particularly as burnt particles produce a high level of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) in width, which can enter the bloodstream and lungs, another source of such pollution — stone crushing and the creation of fine dust particles, often also PM 2.5, is ignored.

Zafar Iqbal, and environmental lawyer and activist, said that “stone crushing machines are found in our most beautiful valleys, disturbing the landscape’s natural geographical formations and archaeological features. The clean environment has been replaced by the pungent smell of industry and the noise of vehicles and machines.”

Read the complete article “An asthma patient in every house” at The Third Pole.

By Mohammad Zubair Khan, an Islamabad based environmental journalist. He tweets as @HazaraZubair.

Introducing the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative پاکی

Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI پاکی) provides community-driven air quality data to increase social awareness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that major cities in Pakistan are as polluted as the world’s most-polluted cities. The air in Pakistan has an annual average of 60 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m³) of PM2.5 particles. That is four-times the safe levels recommended by the National Environmental Quality Standards for Ambient Air by the Environmental Protection Agency in Pakistan (PK-EPA). This air quality may result in serious health effects, aggravating lung and heart diseases and causing respiratory effects in the general population.

59,241 deaths are caused by air pollution each year in Pakistan.

Should Pakistan’s air quality trigger a health alert?

Comparing with other major international cities, Karachi’s PM2.5 concentration is reported to be “Very Unhealthy” at 88 μg/m³, which is nearly six-times the level for London and Paris and nearly six-times the safe level for annual exposure. Both London and Paris have taken significant measures to curb air pollution. Karachi has no measures in place. Moreover, Karachi has no measurements of the air quality level. Even the latest publically available data on air quality is outdated, comprising intermittent data from 2008–2009. There is no awareness about the extent of air pollution, and therefore no public discussion or media reports about the air quality crises. Even though the extremely elevated concentrations of PM2.5 in Karachi are associated with significantly elevated rates of hospital admission.

The situation is the same in other major cities of Pakistan, with the PM2.5 concentration well above safe limits.

PAQI provides crowd-sourced air quality data for Pakistan

PAQI is a community-driven initiative to set up low-cost, real-time monitors to capture air quality data and thereby increase social awareness. PAQI has partnered with AirVisual, a crowd-sourced air quality community that provides tools and information people need to thrive in polluted environments. The first air quality monitors are online in Karachi since October 2016. The data is publicly available on Twitter @KarachiAir.

This initiative aims to:

  1. Monitor air quality in major urban areas of Pakistan
  2. Provide open and public access to local air quality data
  3. Create social awareness about air quality and air pollution
  4. Cooperate to provide a platform, tools and knowledge for a well-informed society

PAQI believes that that open access to data empowers the public to take necessary actions for a healthier environment for residents in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Air Quality Initiative is a project of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society, a registered non-profit that advocates for a healthier environment. Follow us on Twitter @PakAirQuality and for updates. Help us set up an air quality monitor in your city!