Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thick Smog in Delhi and Lahore: Is India Crop Burning to Blame?

Thick smog enveloping Pakistan's Punjab province has seriously disrupted road and air traffic and created significant health emergency for the people, according to Pakistani media reports. Indian cities, including the nation's capital New Delhi, are also suffering from it.

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 dungwood 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.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Pakistan's Response to Climate Change

Diwali Pollution Warnings in India

Cow Dung Sales in India

India's Air Most Toxic

State of Air 2017

Environmental Pollution in India

Diwali in Silicon Valley

India Leads the World in Open Defecation

Heavy Disease Burdens in South Asia


Junaid Q. said...

It's a good idea to "Reduce the use of solid fuels such as cow dung, wood and coal to limit particulate matter released into the atmosphere"


1) The economics of solar are unbelievable, but the biggest problem is unreliable panels.

2) solar cooker can be an interesting item for villagers to use.

3) solar water pumping is working out great.

Riaz Haq said...

In #Lahore, #Pakistan, #Smog Has Become a ‘Fifth Season’ PM2.5 Levels Exceed 30X "Official" Safe Limit. #LahoreSmog #DelhiSmog

While Delhi’s air quality has generated headlines worldwide in recent days, experts say the air in Lahore rivals the Indian capital’s for toxicity. The problem is not limited to the city; in 2015, according to a World Health Organization estimate, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particles in the air, one of the world’s highest death tolls from air pollution.

For years, Pakistani environmentalists have referred to November, when crop burning, higher emissions and cold weather combine to blanket Lahore and the rest of Punjab Province with acrid smog, as a “fifth season.” As in India, which Punjab borders, the problem seems to have been getting worse, and this month it has reached what many Pakistanis are calling a crisis point.

Yet there is little official data on the sources of the pollution, or on just how bad the air actually is. In announcing a new antismog policy this month, the Punjab government admitted it had “scant” air quality data, saying only that the official safety limit for PM2.5 particles, 35 micrograms per cubic meter, was “exceeded frequently.”

Naseem-ur-Rehman, a director at Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, admitted that the government had bought six air-quality monitors last year but never installed them — until last week, when a public outcry over the lack of data led to a scramble to set them up across Lahore. He said the department was “closely monitoring the situation,” but as of Thursday it was still not releasing air-quality numbers.

“This is a crisis of data,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist in Lahore. He said six meters were insufficient for a city the size of Lahore, let alone for all of Punjab.

In the absence of official information, some Pakistanis have taken matters into their own hands. One is Mr. Omar, who installed air monitors in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi, where he lives. He has set up Twitter accounts to post the readings in real time.

Mr. Omar was inspired by his experience living in Beijing, where the American Embassy changed the debate about pollution years ago by publishing air-quality readings on Twitter. The Chinese authorities were ultimately prompted to set up dozens of air monitoring stations in the capital and across China.


Thirteen power plants that run on fuel oil have been shut down since last weekend, and power generation has been cut back at four others, leading to daily outages of more than 12 hours in many urban areas. At one Lahore hospital alone, more than 500 people have been arriving daily with complaints of respiratory difficulties and eye irritation.

“Lahore looks like a dystopian wasteland right now, kind of like a scene from ‘Blade Runner,’” said Adil Ghazi, a business owner.

The Punjab government says it has taken several emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It says that more than 100 people have been arrested for crop burning and that hundreds of factories have been shut down for not having proper emission-control equipment. The Lahore traffic police say that they have collected more than $50,000 in fines in recent days from drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards and that two centers have been set up for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.

Riaz Haq said...

How do Pakistanis get rid of the farm stubble? Very few resort to fires as Indian farmers do. Most now use mechanized methods like rotavators for it. Here's a US Aid report on it:

Traditionally, farm operations such as land tillage and preparation, weeding and interculture, spraying for plant protection,
harvesting, threshing, and hauling produce from farm to farmers’ homes or to storage areas have been performed manually
or by animals or animal-driven implements. Animals used in these operations are mostly bullocks, male buffalo, and camels.
In addition, horses and mules provide the muscle power to transport goods and produce. However, the source of power for
some of the operations listed above has undergone a sea change. Starting in the 1960s, tractors of various makes and
models have begun to dot the rural landscape. Most of the land preparation operations for planting seeds, sowing crops,
carrying out intercultural operations, threshing produce, and transporting various inputs and outputs are performed by
tractor-powered equipment and machines. Similarly, tube wells, powered by diesel engines or electric motors for pumping
groundwater for irrigation, have been installed in many regions of the country, making a valuable contribution in farm
production. The government has also encouraged the use of such equipment by asking commercial banks to advance farm
credit for their purchase. Sometimes provincial governments have also provided subsidies for the purchase of various farm
implements and equipment.
Initially, farm tractors, machines, and allied farm implements were imported. But over time a number of tractor assembling
or manufacturing outfits were established in Pakistan. A number of small and medium units for manufacturing farm
equipment and machines (threshers, cane crushers, seed drills, plows of various kinds, blades, trolleys, diggers, ridgers, and
rotavators) sprang up in various urban areas. The government policies facilitating the establishment of manufacturing and
assembly plants, and those for financing the purchase of farm machines and equipment, also helped the cause of farm
mechanization in the country. In the initial stages of mechanization, the government provided implicit (through an overvalued
exchange rate) and explicit (through subsidized bank loans) subsidies for the purchase of tractors. The government also
encouraged farm mechanization by directing banks to provide farm loans for purchases of tractors and other equipment. The
provincial governments have also launched some projects of their own to provide subsidies to small and medium farmers for
the purchase of tractors and farm equipment. Many workshops, repair shops, and service stations have also been set up in
both urban and rural areas for service and maintenance on tractors, tube wells, and other farm machines and equipment.
In the early stages of farm mechanization, many observers expressed reservations (McInerney and Donaldson 1975,
Parthasarthy 1977, Binswanger 1978), especially related to the adverse effects of mechanization on farm employment, the
eviction of tenants, and other social concerns. A number of studies based on field data examined the effects of mechanization
and tractors on cropping intensity, farm production and productivity, employment, and other factors (Ahmad 1975;
Salam, Ghayyur, and Hussain 1980; Salam 1981, 1986). In hindsight, it appears that many of the initial reservations about
farm mechanization stemmed from tractor substitution for bullocks, ignoring forward and backward linkages. With the
passage of time, tractor use in farming has been accompanied by the use of deep tillage implements, cultivators, planters,
ridgers, seed drills, and booms for crop spraying. The use of these implements has improved the quality of tillage operations
and land preparation, resulting in higher yields.

Riaz Haq said...

#India's capital #Delhi (450) air quality #AQI worst in the world, #Pakistan's #Lahore (356) is 2nd, followed by #Dhaka (182), #Krakow (165), #Ulaanbaatar (162), #Wroclaw (158), #Guangzhou (157), #Wuhan (153), #Chongqing (152) and #Kathmandu (151).

Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) had to declare a public health emergency and the Delhi government announced that all schools in the Capital will remain closed till November 5.

The grave situation can be understood on the basis of the 2018 global database report of WHO, which said that out of the 20 most polluted cities of the world, 14 are in India. Almost 20 lakh people in India die annually due to polluted air. Out of every four deaths due to polluted air in the world, one death is recorded in India. Delhi topped the ranking in that report too.

The major reason behind the increasing air pollution in India is that various governments have failed to work on any plans to tackle the problem permanently.

On the one hand, people are dying due to poisonous air and on the other hand the political leaders are busy in finding temporary solutions to it.

A report of released in 2018 identified the sources and reasons of air pollution. According to the report, the air pollutants released from industries, homes and vehicles are extremely dangerous for health. Out of all the air pollutants, the micro pollutants affect the people most.

Political statements and temporary solutions won't be able to curb increasing air pollution, rather the government should come up with some permanent solution to it.

Riaz Haq said...

Is India's crop burning polluting Pakistan's air?
By Reality Check team
BBC News

Nasa satellite data shows a heavy concentration of fires on the Indian side and far fewer on the Pakistani side of the border.

Lahore is some 20km (12 miles) from India's border, so could easily be affected by smoke from across the border.

Also, the number of fires on the Indian side this year does appear to be higher than last year, despite efforts to restrict the practice.

India's Punjab state government figures show there were 42,676 fires between 23 September and 6 November - more than during the entire season in both in 2018 and 2017.

Riaz Haq said...

#Delhi's #toxic #air is fueled by farmers burning crop stubble. But fires don't stop. Why? Answer lies in #water. But the time bomb - of depleting #groundwater - ticks on. The air might get cleaner when water runs out. But what will #India do about #food?

Think of the fields that are on fire. They get only between 500-700mm (19-27 in) of rainfall a year. Yet, many of these fields grow a dual crop of paddy and wheat. Paddy alone needs about 1,240mm (48.8 in) of rainfall each year, and so, farmers use groundwater to bridge the gap.

The northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which grow large amounts of paddy, together take out roughly 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater a year, which is not much less than India's overall annual municipal water requirement: 56bcm. As a result, groundwater levels in these states are dropping rapidly. Punjab is expected to run out of groundwater in 20-25 years from 2019, according to an official estimate.

The burning fields is a symptom of the deteriorating relationship between India and its water.

Long ago, farmers grew crops based on locally available water. Tanks, inundation canals and forests helped smoothen the inherent variability of India's tempestuous water.

But in the late 19th Century, the land began to transform as the British wanted to secure India's north-western frontier against possible Russian incursion. They built canals connecting the rivers of Punjab, bringing water to a dry land. They cut down forests, feeding the wood to railways that could cart produce from the freshly watered fields. And they imposed a fixed tax payable in cash that made farmers eager to grow crops that could be sold easily. These changes made farmers believe that water could be shaped, irrespective of local sources - a crucial change in thinking that is biting us today.

After independence from the British in 1947, repeated droughts made the Indian government succumb to the lure of the "green revolution".

Until then, rice, a water-hungry crop, was a marginal crop in Punjab. It was grown on less than 7% of the fields. But beginning in the early 1960s, paddy cultivation was encouraged by showing farmers how to cheaply and conveniently tap into a new, seemingly-endless source of water that lay underground.

The flat power tariffs to run borewells were cheapened and finally not paid - removing any incentive to conserve water. Water did not need to be managed, farmers were taught, only extracted. In the heady first years of the revolution, fields began to churn out paddy and wheat, and India became food-secure. But after a couple of decades, the water began to sputter.

To conserve groundwater, a 2009 law forbade farmers from sowing and transplanting paddy before a pre-determined date based on the onset of the monsoon. The aim was to make the borewells run less in the peak summer months.

But the delay in paddy planting shrunk the gap between the paddy harvest and sowing of wheat. And the quickest way to clear the fields was to burn them, giving rise to the smoky plumes that add to northern India's air pollution.

So, the toxic smog is but a visible symbol of India's trainwreck of a relationship with its water.

Riaz Haq said...

#Garbage mountain bigger than 50 football fields and taller than a 17-story building burns in #Delhi, #India. #LandfillFire #toxic #Modi #Hindutva #BJP

A ragpicker separates items at the edge of a fire at the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The landfill that covers an area bigger than 50 football fields, with a pile taller than a 17-story building caught fire on Tuesday evening, turning into a smoldering heap that blazed well into the night. India's capital, which like the rest of South Asia is in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave, was left enveloped in thick acrid smoke.

Riaz Haq said...

Toxic #smog turns #India's capital "into a gas chamber". Farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds have left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the #Delhi capital region. #pollution #health #Modi via @CBSNews

Authorities in India stepped up efforts on Friday to address deteriorating air quality as farmers burning crop stubble and calmer winter winds left a thick blanket of haze and smog to choke residents across the Delhi capital region. Factories, construction sites and primary schools were ordered to shut down and Delhi authorities urged people to work from home as dangerous fine particle pollution filled the air.

Delhi's 24-hour average air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of very fine particles know as PM2.5 in the air — particularly harmful pollutants as they're easily inhaled and can settle deep in the lungs — crossed 470 on Friday, per the state-run Central Pollution Control Board.

Anything over 300 is classed as "hazardous" on the international AQI rating system, and at "severe" levels, air pollution "affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases." On Friday, many parts of Delhi recorded an AQI of more than 600.

Authorities also restricted the operation of diesel-powered vehicles and sent out trucks equipped with water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to try to control the smog.

"We are also mulling over implementing the odd-even scheme for the running of vehicles," Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, said. That would see about half of Delhi's privately owned vehicles ordered off the roads, with odd and even-numbered license plates allowed to operate on alternating days.

Even the air quality monitors installed at the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, which sits in one of the cleanest and greenest patches in the city, registered an AQI over 360 on Friday, well into the most dire, "hazardous" level on the AQI chart displayed on the embassy's website.

Residents of the Indian capital weren't likely to see much improvement quickly, with weather conditions expected to remain calm and the seasonal crop stubble burning likely to continue.

India's Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, on Wednesday blamed the opposition-run northern state of Punjab for failing to stop farmers burning off the remains of their harvested summer crops.

"There is no doubt over who has turned Delhi into a gas chamber," Yadav said in a tweet.

Punjab's top politician, Bhagwant Mann, defended his administration, saying it only took office half a year ago and calling for a collaborative effort by state and federal authorities to address the problem.

The Delhi government is following a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to combat air pollution in the city. The stricter measures were taken Friday as the average air quality worsened to "Severe Plus," with the AQI over 450.

"It is the responsibility of all of us to take initiative at every level to stop pollution," said Delhi's state environment minister Gopal Rai earlier in the week.

Riaz Haq said...

Rich cities #London, #Paris, #LosAngeles, #HongKong breathe cleaner #air. #India is host to 12 of top 15 most #polluted cities in central & south Asia regions. N’Djamena, #Baghdad and #NewDelhi are suffering higher levels of #pollution than last year

Residents of Paris, London, Los Angeles and Hong Kong are breathing cleaner air than a year ago, while N’Djamena, Baghdad and New Delhi are suffering higher levels of pollution, the latest report on global air quality shows.

Roughly 90 per cent of the world’s population is still breathing air that poses a risk to health but the gap between high and low income cities is widening, the annual study by IQAir, the Swiss-based air technology group found, using 30,000 ground level sensors from more than 7,000 cities.

The study measured the concentration of fine particulate matter with diameters of up to 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, one of the most hazardous pollutants as it may be able to enter the bloodstream.

In richer countries, air quality was improved where industry was complying with stricter World Health Organization guidelines, and transport was being electrified, it concluded, but developing countries were struggling.

“Biomass and agricultural burning are the number one reason for stubbornly high air pollution levels in the developing world,” said Frank Hammes, IQAir chief executive.

In Europe, where Berlin and Rome had slightly worse air quality levels in 2022, household burning of wood accounted for a large proportion of winter smog.

China had managed to achieve impressive reductions in air pollution for the past seven years, Hammes said, based on a crackdown on polluting industry and a focus on renewable energy and electric vehicles, though continued burning of coal still caused serious air pollution.

In the most recent year, China’s air quality improved as extensive Covid lockdowns suppressed economic activity, leading to lower emissions.

“In 2023, it remains to be seen if China can further reduce air pollution, or if the pressure of increased economic activity leads to stagnation or an increase in air pollution,” Hammes cautioned.

The WHO estimates that poor air quality accounts for 7mn preventable deaths a year, while the World Bank has put the economic cost at more than $8tn.

New Delhi and Baghdad’s concentration of pollutants in 2022 were almost 18 times higher than the maximum safe level recommended by the WHO.

N’Djamena in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, earned the dubious accolade of being the most polluted capital, replacing New Delhi even though air quality there also continued to deteriorate. The surge in PM2.5 concentration in N’Djamena was attributed to massive dust storms from the Sahara Desert, the report found.

India remains host to 12 of the top 15 most polluted cities in the central and south Asia regions.

Vietnam’s capital Hanoi reported the second worst air quality in south-east Asia and was in the bottom 18 globally. Vietnam has been expanding its industrial activity rapidly in recent years as big tech companies such as Apple, Google, Dell and their suppliers invest in new factories to diversify away from China.

Several Middle Eastern capitals ranked among the 20 most polluted cities globally. These included Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha, which all saw air quality worsen in 2022.

Meanwhile, Canberra in Australia overtook Nouméa, in the Pacific island of New Caledonia, to report the world’s best air quality last year. Fewer fires and dust storms helped to deliver its residents cleaner air, researchers found.

Other nations among the 13 out of 131 surveyed that met WHO’s air quality guidelines included Guam, New Zealand, Estonia, and Finland. Of the cities surveyed, Hamilton in Bermuda, Puerto Rico’s San Juan and Reykjavik in Iceland had the freshest air.