Thu. Dec 9th, 2021

Declining Air Quality of Gilgit Baltistan: A Wake Up Call


By Zakir Ullah Baig


Background

The air we breathe contains some of the most toxic gases that can potentially harm human health if exposed for a longer period.  According to Air Quality Index (AQI) report, Pakistan is ranked among the worst country in terms of air pollution quality Index resulting from industrial and vehicular the emissions. In recent years, some of the major cities of Pakistan, notably Karachi, Peshawar, Faisalabad and Lahore have experienced a sharp spike in terms of air quality index.

Various environmental factors play vital role in the dispersion and transportation of these toxic gases from one region to other. However, unsustainable human interventions has disrupted the natural cycle causing global issues like global warming, transboundary movement of air pollutants, greenhouse gases, and smog.  For instance, few notorious gases present in the air- well known as greenhouse gases are the major contributors of global warming. Studies have found that only China and America accounted for more than 50 percent of total global emissions whereas, Pakistan is only contributing less than 0.1 percent but the 7th most affected country from climate change.

Pakistan’s contribution to GHGs is less than 1 percent however; it is ranked among the most affected country from climate change

Similarly, from the last few years, smog has become one of the dominating environmental problem in Punjab clamming several lives and disrupting the economic activity.  Few experts have attributed smog phenomenon resulting from the transboundary movement of air pollution, however one needs to carry out scientific based studies in order to draw a concrete conclusion.

Photos provided by author

Gilgit Baltistan- Ecological richness

In recent years, a wide shift in the weather pattern, intensity and frequency of extreme events are widely observed in the high altitude regions of Pakistan. For instance, the duration and intensity of precipitation has increased over the last few years. Consequently leading to weather driven extreme events like flash flood, glacial lake outburst flood and avalanches. Gilgit Baltistan, which is considered one of the pristine and ecological rich regions of Pakistan, is highly vulnerable to environmental degradation and pollution. Besides its ecological richness, the region provides a source a water for the downstream population and a linkage between China and Pakistan via China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Over the last several years, it is widely observed that the air quality of GB has declined drastically which is attributed to a number of factors. For instance, winters are quite harsh temperature drops to -10°C in some of the high altitude regions such as Chipurson, Astore, and Skardu. Besides it harsh climatic conditions, people have limited access to electricity and CNG, especially during winters. As a result, energy demand is often met by firewood, gasoline and coal coupled with biomass fuels that are burned for heating, cooking, lighting and other social and cultural purpose.

Limited access to electricity and CNG, energy demand is often meet with firewood, gasoline and coal coupled with biomass fuels that are burned for heating, cooking, lighting and other social and cultural purpose

Moreover, in recent years the high dependency on coal and gasoline has significantly increased in some parts of GB, which on one hand protected the forest from being cut down however, on the other hand elevate the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to which an adverse impact on the air quality is noted across the valleys. This condition is further aggravated by the high influx of tourism and non-custom paid vehicles. According to the forest department, 1.5 million tourists paid visit to the Karakorum National Park during summers in 2019.  However, no viable data is available for other districts besides Hunza.  So, the household combustion and vehicular emission can significantly contribute to black carbon, organic carbon, Sulphur and Nitrious oxide, particulate matter and other gases that may prove detrimental not only for the human health but overall to the ecological resources of the region, notably glaciers. Studies that were conducted in the Himalayan and Tibetan regions have revealed that the emission of these gases and particulate matter have an adverse impact on the glacial melting. Whereas, Gilgit Baltistan a home to some of the world’s largest peaks and glaciers, covering an area of 11,000 sq km is retreating at alarming rate, posing a continuous threats to the water resources and the livelihood of people depending on these vital resources.

It is of critical importance to save the vital resources while maintaining its biological diversity and richness of high altitude region.

To reduce the adverse impact of air pollution on the high altitude regions, government along with other stakeholders need to take incremental steps in a progressive reduction of air pollution. Pakistan Space Agency has already initiated a network of air monitoring stations along the hotspot regions of Gilgit Baltistan in order to monitor air quality.

In order to save the vital resources of GB and maintaining its biological diversity and richness of high altitude regions, it is critical important to continuously monitor the air quality in order to obtain real time data, so that, it can help in policy and decision making to counter the emerging environmental challenges of the mountain ecosystem. Moreover, Apart from its ecological perspective, the region is a gateway to CPEC and maintaining its healthy environmental conditions would pave the path for achieving the notion of sustainable development goals. Government bodies such as Environmental Protection Agency, Tourism Department along with other stakeholders need to take incremental steps in a progressive reduction of air pollution and promote eco-tourism in the fragile mountain eco-system.

Zakir is an Environmental Researcher at the University of the West of Scotland.

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