South Asia’s extreme smog worsens each winter, helping to kill an estimated 1.2 million Indians and 128,000 Pakistanis annually—more than have died in either country from the COVID virus. As pollution this past winter exacerbated the pandemic, India’s and Pakistan’s governments responded with mutual blame. Yet COVID, and a sudden moment of détente between these bitter rivals, could offer an opportunity to address the smog crisis, and build rare collaboration with the only strategy that can work: a joint one. The governments, their U.S. and international allies and civil society should use this chance to jumpstart such an effort.

New Delhi’s chronic smog has led the Indian capital to declare repeated medical emergencies. Even though 14 of the world’s 15 most air-polluted cities are in India and Pakistan, the countries do not cooperate on the crisis. (J.E.Poirrier/CC License 2.0)
New Delhi’s chronic smog has led the Indian capital to declare repeated medical emergencies. Even though 14 of the world’s 15 most air-polluted cities are in India and Pakistan, the countries do not cooperate on the crisis. (J.E.Poirrier/CC License 2.0)

Northern India and Pakistan exhale a toxic blanket of smog—from vehicle exhaust, coal-burning power plants, trash incineration, brick kilns and farmers’ burning of post-harvest rice stubble. This creates the world’s most poisonous air pollution, as measured by levels of “microparticle” pollutants—those fine enough to lodge deep in people’s lungs and enter their bloodstreams, causing cardiovascular and lung disease. The two countries include 14 of the world’s 15 cities most dangerously polluted by the deadliest particles, labeled “PM 2.5.”

India ranks second, and Pakistan third, behind China, in the numbers of people who die prematurely each year from pollution, according to health data analyzed in 2019 by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution. Every winter, the subcontinent’s brown haze, heavy with sulfur and metals including lead, thickens as winds and rain subside. In November, Delhi recorded its worst five-day stretch of smog since 2016. and the epidemiologists and the World Health Organization say the pollution is likely to elevate the death toll from COVID-19.

But in spring 2021, the pressures of COVID plus sudden moves toward détente may offer opportunity. The countries’ militaries have restored a commitment to a ceasefire in the disputed region of Kashmir, Pakistan’s army chief urged a new effort to settle the conflict and the countries’ prime ministers exchanged conciliatory notes. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as a mechanism for addressing COVID regionwide. While moments of relaxation in the 70-year India-Pakistan conflict often pass quickly, this one might offer the chance to launch a necessarily long process of building the requisite political will in both countries to cooperate in reducing air pollution. Such an act of environmental peacebuilding could constructively build confidence between the countries while avoiding the more intractable elements of their conflicts.

Missing: Political Will, Effective Governance

Decades of pollution-control efforts in India have foundered on a lack of political will and effective governance. A 1981 air pollution control law ambitiously declared it a crime to burn any material other than fuels, but was never effectively enforced. Worse, when India’s Punjab state ordered a delay in the rice-growing season to save scarce water, it inadvertently forced farmers to quickly clear their fields for winter wheat by burning vast acreages of rice stubble after each harvest. As pollution reached extremes in Delhi, the local government shuttered an in-city, coal-fired power plant and periodically restricts vehicle traffic. In 2020, the national government set up a commission to try to improve air quality in the capital city. But the disparate government actions, and even last year’s drastic lockdowns against COVID did not achieve any lasting improvement in air quality. More concrete, enforceable and widespread reforms are required, according to the New Delhi-based Center for Science and the Environment.

Below the snowcapped Himalayan range, a gray haze blankets Pakistan and northwest India in October 2010. To the right of the faint, gray border line, red dots show fires set to clear stubble from Indian farmlands. (NASA satellite photo)
Below the snowcapped Himalayan range, a gray haze blankets Pakistan and northwest India in October 2010. (NASA satellite photo)

In Pakistan, too, the lack of political will and weaknesses in governance have been the biggest roadblock to any sustainable improvements. Pakistan lacks even a national network of air quality monitoring stations to show the country the extent of its problem. When activist Abid Omar installed the first public monitoring stations in 2017, they showed air quality in Lahore and three other cities to be dangerously worse than was being reported by the government—a fact soon confirmed by monitors set up at U.S. diplomatic missions in Pakistan. That citizens’ monitoring project, now the crowd-sourced Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, was followed by some government efforts. Pakistan’s government in 2020 ordered fuel providers to stop importing the cheaper, dirty grade of gasoline (called “Euro 2”) that Pakistan has used for years, and that European and other Asian countries phased out beginning 20 years ago. Pakistan’s Punjab province banned the burning of grain stubble to clear farmland and ordered upgrades to traditional, coal-fired brick kilns, but those laws are not effectively implemented.

India and Pakistan’s mutual antagonism has prevented dialogue between the governments on the smog crisis, and officials in each country blame the other. Pakistan’s top official on climate change, Minister of State Zartaj Gul Wazir, accused India of using air pollution as an weapon of “unconventional warfare” on Pakistan. A prominent leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party told Indians that Pakistan or China might have released poisonous air near New Delhi to cause pollution. When the environment minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province made a rare call in 2017 for an India-Pakistan dialogue on pollution, India’s foreign ministry spokesman responded that, before any such discussion, “a conducive . . .  environment has to be created which is free of terrorism and free of terrorists getting support from Pakistan."

The violent conflict that pits Pakistan and India against each other in Kashmir—and in which India blames Pakistan for supporting terrorist attacks on its soil—has periodically threatened the main achievement of Indian-Pakistani dialogue on environmental or resource issues: the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty on sharing the Indus River and its tributaries. The countries have sustained this accord—“one of the most successful international treaties” according to the World Bank—despite six decades of conflict, including two wars.

The Environment: Terrain for Building Peace

The world’s growing environmental crises, with their disregard for political borders, have created new opportunities for building peace even in seemingly intractable conflicts. The field of “environmental peacebuilding” has been developing since scholars Geoffrey Dabelko and Ken Conca helped frame the idea in a 2002 book. That volume’s chapter on South Asia noted the region’s promising start—three major treaties between India and its neighbors on sharing the river waters flowing from the Himalayas. While those accords have been maintained in the decades since, governments have failed to extend that cooperation to reduce the shared poisons of their air.

The Indus Waters Treaty offers potential patterns to work from. It established a permanent bilateral commission, its members often engineers rather than politicians, that meets annually to ensure continued collaboration. The pact is technocratic in its focus and includes the World Bank as a mediator to help manage conflicts that arise in implementing the treaty’s terms.

Brick kilns like this one in Pakistan’s Punjab province are heavy polluters in South Asia. (Malik.xayn/CC License 4.0)
Brick kilns like this one in Pakistan’s Punjab province are heavy polluters in South Asia. (Malik.xayn/CC License 4.0)

Turning South Asia’s smog crisis into a peacebuilding opportunity could begin with convening scientists and scholars from the two countries to explore options and help lay a foundation of ideas upon which to build political will. Such convening could promote a bilateral commission—of civil society leaders, environmentalists, scholars and government officials—that could sustain discussion of the need, and the ways, to reduce air pollution and the attendant public health crisis. International organizations such as the World Bank with a history of mediation in the region could promote such initiatives.

The recent flurry of goodwill gestures and messages from senior Pakistani and Indian government and military officials may offer a moment in which to begin. Still, such moments often pass quickly—and powerful institutions in both nations rely politically on the rivalry, and even on demonizing the other side, to build their support at home. This will ensure systemic resistance in both countries to proposals for collaboration. Thus sustained public demands for breathable air will need to be built through civic campaigns that ally with health advocates in both countries, and with the priority on combating COVID.

Any civil society campaigns would need to press the two governments to divorce clean air from politics, and two megacities would be key: Delhi and Lahore. These metropolises suffer some of the worst harm from their shared smog, and each is a center of political power where government elites operate in close, sometimes uncomfortable, proximity to vigorous civil societies. The Indian Medical Association repeatedly has declared public health emergencies in Delhi due to smog. Even with the government’s recent suppression of civil society groups nationwide, the capital retains a clutch of independent research or advocacy organizations, such as the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Lahore is Pakistan’s second-largest city and capital of its most politically powerful province, Punjab. It hosts a node of environmentalist civic leaders, such as the women of Scary Ammi (“Scary Moms”) and lawyer Rafay Alam, who has sued the government to improve its sparse reporting  of air pollution levels.

Civil society activists, and their partners in government and the international community, might also explore how to build dialogue, cooperation and cross-border cooperation against smog between the two parts of Punjab—the Indian state and the Pakistani province. Building civic campaigns at city and state or provincial levels will be vital to force public demands onto the agendas of the national governments.

Zaara Wakeel is a research analyst at USIP.

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