Air pollution in GB causing health, environmental hazards

Rizwan A Khan

Gilgit-Baltistan region is facing serious challenge of the air pollution due to ever increasing emissions of green house gases in the narrow mountainous valleys of the Upper Indus Basin (UIB).

The primary source  of air pollution is the mushroom growth of the Non-custom paid vehicles and burning of the wood for heating and cooking purposes.

The region is a mountainous area with unique high altitude ecosystem covered by high mountains and glaciers, pastures, forest and water resources. Due to these conditions the region has very fragile ecosystem and is under stress amid growing of the anthropogenic activities. Ambient and Indoor Air Quality is deteriorating day-by-day because of  influx of Non Custom Paid Vehicles (NCP) in the region and other sources of air pollution.

According to a survey report entitled “Outdoor and Indoor Air Quality of Pakistan”, conducted by Gilgit-Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency (GB-EPA), the ambient and indoor air quality in Gilgit-Baltistan is deteriorating day-by-day due to addition of new vehicles, burning of Fossil Fuels for heating and cooking purposes coupled with over exploiting of natural resources.

The region is now a self-governing federating unit of Pakistan with sami-autonomy status. It borders Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the west, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, China in the northeast, Kashmir in the south and to the southeast. The region is divided into seven districts Ghanche, Skardu, Gilgit, Diamer, Ghizer, Astore and Hunza-Nagar with an estimated population of round about 2 million people.

Gilgti-Baltistan has much importance since it harbors world’s three major mountainous ranges—The Karakarum, the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya. The glaciers of these mountain ranges are the primary source of Pakistan’s fresh water and the Indus tributary supplies water to the world largest irrigation system in the downstream areas of Pakistan.

Experts believe that the increasing trend of the green house gases cause to high level of air pollution and it ultimately result in melting of glaciers besides many environmental and health hazards.

Due to its geographical location, the area faces severe cold weather in the six to seven months in the winter season. To face the cold weather, the locals have no other option for cooking and heating except using of Bukhari (stove). The Bukhari is a wood burning traditional space heater system widely used for heating and cooking purposes in the houses. The survey report suggest that the existing construction pattern and Bukhari installations are not long enough to vent smoke outside the house, resulting in annual deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning and acute respiratory infections in aged and new born throughout the region.

According to the outdoor air quality survey monitoring report,  the higher value of oxides of nitrogen are resulted due to elevated temperature in the combustion device such as engines and furnaces from anthropogenic activities. As the area is mostly comprised of valleys and mountains so, road traffic in such areas results in high concentrations of pollutants in the ambient air. The topographic and meteorological conditions of valleys slow down the dispersion of air pollutants, thus increasing the concentration and harmful effects of pollutant emissions.

Head of the GB-EPA Shahzad Shigri commented that the region has narrow valleys surrounded by gigantic mountains with no space to discharge the gases out of these valleys.

“Our region is outside of the wind corridor and there is no exhaust system for green house gas emissions”, he noted. He mentioned that the emissions from the growing number of  vehicles and burning fossils, woods for heating and cooking purposes is the key responsible factors for the high level pollution. “This trend is growing with lack of measures to minimize it”, said Shigri. He opined that these gases are hazardous for both health and environment. Shigri particularly mentioned that the air is also polluted due to the usage of the sulphur in the drying process of apricots in certain valleys, mainly in Hunza and Skardu regions. He also noted that some mountains in GB also have the ingredients of sulphur and it also cause air pollution in the valleys.

Moreover, the report highlights that as GB has higher percentage of vehicles with respect to population and absorptive capacity of the region due to the influx of the cheap Non-Custom Paid Vehicles so the air pollution is higher and has detrimental impacts on human health and environment.

Medical experts say that exposure to sulphates and the exposure to acids derived from SO2 is extremely risky for people’s health because these compounds enter the circulatory system directly through the airways.

They believe that air pollution by SO2 has multiple effects on human beings like corneal haze, breathing difficulty, airways, inflammation, eye irritation, psychic alterations, pulmonary oedema, heart failure, circulatory collapse. Besides, sulphur dioxide is also associated with asthma, chronic bronchitis, morbidity and mortality increase in old people and infants.

Experts also believe that high level of the carbon monoxide can also cause harmful health effects by reducing oxygen delivery to the body’s organs (like the heart and brain) and tissues.

The health threat from lower levels of carbon dioxide CO is most serious for those who suffer from heart disease, like angina, clogged arteries, or congestive heart failure. For a person with heart disease, a single exposure to CO at low levels may cause chest pain and reduce that person’s ability to exercise; repeated exposures may contribute to other cardiovascular effects.

“Number patients of asthma, heart diseases, eye irritation and allergies is increasing with passage of time and pollution is one of the key factors of  this trend”, said Dr Qaim Ali.