Revealing the Invisible: AirVisual in Pakistan

Abid Omar, a long-time Beijing, China resident originally from Pakistan, made waves with his outdoor citizen network of AirVisual air quality monitors. The data he compiled had an important impact on his country's response to the air pollution problem.

Pakistan's one-man air pollution solution

Winter begins a distinct time of year in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city – pollution season. The onset of the season is dramatic. There are often numerous reports of smog greatly reducing visibility, slowing daily activities, and increased road accidents and flight cancellations.

Data Abid compiled is having an important impact on his country's response to the air pollution problem.

Despite the obvious effects of the thick air pollution, Pakistan’s government had not released any real-time, official air quality monitoring data to openly quantify the level and hazard of the smog prior to Abid’s activism (1). However, thanks to the efforts of this dedicated clean air activist, the national debate has elevated right up to government level. Abid’s contribution, leveraging his network of citizen-operated AirVisual air quality monitors and the data they gather, has been pivotal in this shift.

Air pollution awareness is the key

Upon returning to Pakistan from Beijing, Abid noticed that the primary difference in dealing with the air pollution problem in China and Pakistan was people’s level of awareness. According to Abid, without data, “people just think it’s foggy.”

Without data, “people just think it’s foggy.”

Abid, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, had never recalled Lahore being foggy during annual visits. But this “fog” was so severe in winter that poor visibility increased traffic accidents and made it hard for aircraft to land.

In Beijing, live air quality measurements are broadcast in elevators and on TV screens alongside weather information. “That’s what awareness looks like,” said Abid.

Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI)

The U.S. Embassy previously launched a game-changing campaign of tweeting air quality measurements in the Chinese capital. Abid was inspired to do something similar in his home country. “We need continuous data,” he said. “You need to know not only when I'm looking at the data now, but also the differences between morning and night and between summer and winter and spring.”

That’s when he decided to take his country’s lack of public air quality data into his own hands: “I started thinking about low-cost sensors.”

Abid set up a network of public outdoor AirVisual air quality monitors within four major Pakistani cities:

Since then, Abid has managed or distributed around 50 air quality monitors around the country.

That’s when he decided to take his country’s lack of public air quality data into his own hands.

Ever since, the air quality monitors have been measuring and broadcasting the cities’ air quality readings on the AirVisual app and website. The air quality information is also publicly posted on Abid’s own dedicated community platform: the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (2).

AirVisual Pro data in the courtroom

In Lahore, Pakistan’s 2nd-largest city, Abid’s monitors have revealed clearly poor air quality. Lahore was the most polluted city in the world in 2022 and has appeared on IQAir’s ranking of the world’s most polluted cities numerous times. It has ranked above notorious “smoggy cities” such as Beijing, New Delhi, and Dhaka, sparking considerable debate on social media. That debate culminated in a public interest petition to review the government’s air pollution response being heard by the Chief Justice of Lahore’s High Court.

In Lahore, Abid’s AirVisual monitors have revealed clearly poor air quality.

Following requests for data by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA or PEPA), Abid provided his AirVisual monitoring network’s historical data to the hearing as supplementary evidence. Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer based in Lahore, was appointed the hearing's amicus curiae and brought an AirVisual air quality monitor with him into the courtroom.

Abid provided his AirVisual monitoring network’s historical data to the hearing as supplementary evidence.

Early in the proceedings, Alam displayed his monitor, revealing a surprising discovery to the courtroom: the indoor air quality during the hearing measured over 400 μg/m3 (that equates to US AQI 434+, well over the highest “Hazardous” tier threshold). The Court then asked for a reading to be taken outside, which showed as close to 500 μg/m3. Alam said that this “changed the nature of proceedings.”

Alam produced his monitor for display early into the proceedings, bringing a surprising discovery to the courtroom.

The hearing then consulted the government’s existing smog policy and found that any PM2.5 reading above 300 μg/m3 is considered “Severe” – the highest category. PEPA was then asked to disclose their previously unpublished readings from a set of recently installed air monitors. The measurements were similar to the AirVisual monitor for the same time period as the hearing.

With the severe level of air pollution indicated by the AirVisual data validated, the Court ordered the Government of Punjab to prepare and submit a smog response policy the very same day.

A court order has since been released, outlining a temporary Smog Health Emergency Action Plan to be put into place immediately, and more detailed plans followed (3). The order also demanded that the government monitoring readings be published once daily until real-time data is available to share.

The order also demands that the government monitoring readings be published once daily until real-time data is available to share.

Has air pollution in Pakistan improved?

There is some evidence that Pakistan’s policies may have had a positive impact on the country’s air quality – but improvements in air quality are starting to backslide.

According to the World Air Quality Report, annual PM2.5 levels in Pakistan averaged 74.3 µg/m3 in 2018. In 2019, the average dropped to 66 and as low as 59 in 2020. These reductions mark a significant decrease in a deadly pollutant in a short number of years.

But those air quality improvements didn’t last. By 2021, annual average concentrations of PM2.5 rose to 69 and by 2022, they had risen to pre-2019 levels – 71 µg/m3.

Lahore experienced smog in May, June, and December of 2020 (4).

Air quality worsened in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi in 2022.

While sources of air pollution continue to be crop residue burning, landfill fires, and brick kilns, Abid notes that transportation is a major contributor to poor air quality. An aging vehicle fleet and low-grade petrol can contribute as much as 40% of the air pollution in Lahore (5).

What’s next?

Abid’s activism has inspired other citizens’ movements, like the Peshawar Clean Air Alliance, to partner with governments and corporations to deploy air quality monitors.

To build on the work of the initiative, Abid is interested in forming a non-profit. While growing is important, he also feels educating journalists, policy makers, and the public is an essential component of air quality activism.

“We need to train journalists to understand the numbers, when to be alarmed, and how people should react.” Abid said. “Rather than the reaction being, ‘let's shut down the monitors because the numbers are too high,’ the response should be, ‘these numbers are too high. Let’s figure out how to reduce them.’"

Activism and public education can then lead to positive action by “spreading the message that you need to do something about air pollution.”

While there are many hurdles to developing a non-profit in Pakistan, Abid is determined to continue expanding the air quality monitoring network and improve air quality in his country.

The takeaway

All it took was one determined air quality citizen scientist installing AirVisual air quality monitors to compel a country’s top government policymakers into taking action. Abid’s work has inspired others to learn more about their air quality and has raised awareness about the dangers of endemic air pollution.

Abid’s proactive commitment to raising local air quality awareness underscores the profound impact a single dedicated community member can have.

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