Is India Responsible?
Pakistani officials have blamed "the incursion of smoke and particle matter from the burning of crop stubble in the Indian Punjab." Particulate matter of 2.5 microns or larger as measured in micrograms per cubic meter is up to 80 times higher than the upper limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter considered safe by the World Health Organization.
Is the Pakistani claim supported by data? Let's try and answer this question with satellite images of the area released by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
|Crop Burning Incidents Seen from space. Source: NASA Earth Observatory|
NASA Satellite Images:
Here's how NASA's Earth Observatory described the situation last year:
"In early October 2016, Earth-observing satellites began to detect small fires in Punjab, and the number of fires increased rapidly in the following weeks. By November, thousands of fires burned across the state, and a thick pall of smoke hovered over India. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured a natural color image on November 2, 2016. The map (second image) shows the locations of the fires VIIRS also detected."
This year, 2,620 incidents of crop fire were spotted via satellite in Indian Punjab. In Pakistan, the number was limited to just 27, according to Indian media reports. Indian reports confirm that Pakistan has done a good job of cracking down on incidents of crop burning to dramatically reduce them.
Low wind speeds of less than 2 meters per second and reversal of wind direction from east to west are causing crop burning smoke to drift from Indian Punjab toward Pakistan, according to an Indian Meteorological Department official as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
|Satellite Images of Smoke Over India and Pakistan. Source: NASA|
South Asia's Vulnerability:
South Asia is particularly susceptible to pollutants that hang in the air for extended periods of time. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images show dull gray haze hovering over northern India and Pakistan, and parts of Bangladesh. It is believed that emissions from solid fuel burning, industrial pollutants and farm clearing fires get trapped along the southern edge of the Himalayas. NASA Earth Observatory explains this phenomenon as follows:
"The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."
|Trapped Smog. Source: Al Jazeera|
Urgent Actions Needed:
South Asian governments need to act to deal with rapidly rising particulate pollution jointly. Some of the steps they need to take are as follows:
1. Crack down on crop burning to clear fields.
2. Reduce the use of solid fuels such as cow dung, wood and coal to limit particulate matter released into the atmosphere.
3. Impose higher emission standards on industries and vehicles through regulations.
4. Increase forest cover by planting more trees.
5. Encourage the use of more renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, etc.
The cost of acting now may seem high but it will turn out out to be a lot more expensive to deal with extraordinary disease burdens resulting from rising air pollution.
Movement of pollutants does not recognize national borders. It has severe consequences for both India and Pakistan. The only way to deal with it is for the two nations to cooperate to minimize this problem.
South Asia accounts for more than a third of all PM2.5 pollution related deaths in the world. The sources of particulate pollution range from solid fuel burning to crop clearing fires and use of dirty fuels in vehicles and industries. Recognition of the growing problem is urgent. Failure to act could be very costly in terms of human health.
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