Pakistan has high levels of pollution, which impose heavy costs on the country’s citizens and the economy through the impacts of pollution on health and productivity , . According to the World Bank, the annual cost of pollution in Pakistan is around 10% of GDP .
Pakistan’s air pollution is among the most severe in the world, as concentrations of PM2.5 are consistently well above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) . In the 2019 Pollution and Health Metrics: Global, Regional and Country Analysis, Pakistan ranked as the third country in the world with the highest number of total annual premature air pollution-related deaths . According to the WHO (2016), nearly 60,000 people die each year from air pollution related diseases in Pakistan and all large cities in Pakistan have severe air pollution problems . In fact, many of these cities (Swabi, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi etc.) fall among the top cities in the world with the worst outdoor air quality . According to the World Bank, air pollution is estimated to cost Pakistan approximately 6.5% of GDP per year .
Water pollution in Pakistan is another serious concern. Discharge of untreated wastewater from households, industry and agriculture into rivers, streams, and groundwater is the primary source of water pollution in the country. Although information about the causes of death in Pakistan is largely inadequate, waterborne diseases are estimated to be the primary cause of death of about 15,000 people living in urban and 25,000 people living in rural areas, annually. The burden of illness is significant. Further, the contamination of groundwater with arsenic is also a threat to human health. About 119 million people in Pakistan, mostly living in the Indus Valley, may live in areas with levels of arsenic in drinking water well above the recommended WHO threshold of 10 µg/L. About 7 million people are estimated to be exposed to arsenic concentrations of more than 300 µg/L. This chronic exposure to arsenic can lead to cancer, increased mortality from heart disease, and infectious diseases. Arsenic also impairs intellectual function, especially in children. Deaths linked to arsenic contamination are estimated at 31,000 annually, and the annual cost to GDP of arsenic-related illness and death are estimated at over US$ 3 billion annually or 1% of GDP .
Solid waste management has become a serious challenge for Pakistan. In 2020, Pakistan generated an estimated 36 million tons of solid waste, which is projected to increase to 85 million tons by 2050 , due to rapid population growth, urbanization, and economic development. Overall, about 50% of waste generated in Pakistan is estimated to be collected, but this varies significantly between localities, with minimal waste collection in most rural areas. As for waste disposal, managed landfill sites are almost non-existent. Urban waste is typically left uncollected or dumped on open ground , and most existent dumping sites become the source of air, soil, and water pollution, release large amounts of GHG, and pose a threat to public health.
Outside of urban areas, Solid Waste Management (SWM) is also becoming a critical issue in Pakistan’s environmentally fragile areas, including in the country’s rich mountain landscapes. In the country's mountain areas, uncollected solid waste contributes to flooding, open burning leads to air pollution and causes respiratory ailments, and haphazardly dumped waste creates eyesores that may eventually have a negative impact on tourism. Poor waste management practices also affect areas downstream. Litter, in particular plastic, is carried in streams and rivers from mountains to the plains, and eventually to the oceans .
The disposal of hazardous waste (HW) is also an important problem in the country , as it poses a significant threat to public health and the environment. There is no systematic mechanism in Pakistan for the collection and disposal of hazardous waste generated from hospitals, industries, transport, energy, mining, and agriculture activities. In practice, local authorities are handling and disposing of significant quantities of HW, often without any consistent procedures, and sometimes with no knowledge of the serious problems they may create . Industries dispose of some of the most toxic and persistent pollutants, including heavy metals and synthetic organic chemicals, directly on land and to water bodies, without any form of environmental treatment or protection. The toxic sites identification program (TSIP) database estimates that about 575,000 Pakistanis are exposed to Lead contamination from a range of industries, mostly in Punjab and Sindh. Of these, about 15,000 children suffer exposure levels sufficient to lead to loss of intellectual function .
In addition, Pakistan is facing the alarming issue of waste being dumped from developed and some developing countries. For instance, imports of plastic waste into Pakistan have shown an exponential growth in the past few years. According to a study on “Plastic waste management in Pakistan: baseline report, 2020”, Pakistan has been importing around 46,000 tons of plastic waste from different parts of the world each year .
Air pollution in Pakistan is caused by mobile and stationary sources. Mobile sources include heavy-duty vehicles and motorized two- and three-wheelers. Stationary sources include point sources such as thermoelectric power plants and industrial units, and non-point sources such as the burning of agricultural residues, sugarcane fields, and municipal waste, and natural dust clouds due to dry weather conditions .
Concerning indoor air pollution, around 60% of households in Pakistan still use solid fuels for cooking (85% in rural areas vs 13% in urban areas), according to the World Bank (2019). As a result, health impacts from household air pollution (HAP) in Pakistan are also significant .
Water in Pakistan is being contaminated by increasing salinity, improper disposal of untreated wastewater, agricultural runoff with pesticide and fertilizer residue, and geogenic (natural) contaminants .
In Pakistan, the volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) is growing, due to increasing population, urbanization, and industrialization. Several other factors also contribute to this, including the lack of coordination among the public and municipal service providers, lack of national environmental quality standards for SWM, fragmented governance, insufficient collection vehicles and equipment, lack of proper landfill sites, designated dumps being overfull and exceeding capacity, scarce funding for waste management, a lack of expertise on the subject, and low priority of the sector at all tiers of government. In addition, in Pakistan’s mountain areas, tourism is placing increasing stress on the local environment, with one of the most significant impacts being increasing solid waste generation .
Key policies and governance approach
In 2010, the 18th Constitutional Amendment was approved by the National Assembly of Pakistan , which significantly transformed the governance structure in the country, particularly concerning the environment and sustainable development . Under the Amendment, environmental functions in the federal capital territory of Islamabad were delegated to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), and Provincial Environmental Protection Agencies were delegated the environmental management functions for provinces. In 2012, the federal government converted the Ministry of Environment (MoE) to the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC). The MoCC is primarily responsible for managing national-level environmental issues, including pollution .
Prior to the enactment of the 18th Amendment, Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA) 1997 governed all operations and activities related to the protection of environment , extending to air, water, soil, marine, and noise pollution, and to the handling of hazardous wastes . Following the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act 2010, provincial governments are given exclusive powers to legislate on the subject of 'environmental pollution and ecology.' Hence, provincial governments have the task of formulating their own environmental legislation .
PEPA was the first legislative instrument to address water pollution in the country; it required Pak-EPA to prepare, revise, and establish National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) for water. NEQS were made public in 1993 with limits for discharge from industries for industrial and municipal effluents .
Over the years, several plans and regulations have sought to address air pollution in Pakistan. One milestone was the development of the NEQS in 1993, which were revised in 2009 and 2010 for all new and in-use vehicles, and for ambient air quality . The NEQS (1993) controlled industrial pollution by creating limits for industrial effluents and emissions, as well as municipal discharges from wastewater systems, but did not take into account pollution caused by improper disposal of MSW . Other notable programs and action plans on air pollution include the National Environment Action Plan in 2001; the Pakistan Clean Air Program (PCAP) in 2006, whose main objective was controlling the health and economic impacts of air pollution by directly tackling emissions from vehicles, industries, solid waste burning, and natural dust; and the PEPA .
Pakistan’s SWM has traditionally been handled by local governments. However, the increasing rate of solid waste generation in the country has pushed other institutions to deal with one or more aspects along the SWM chain, including the MoCC. Recently, the MoCC launched the National Hazardous Waste Management Policy, 2022, a milestone achievement in addressing the issue of hazardous waste management in Pakistan. This policy underscores the significance of a life cycle approach to manage hazardous waste from its generation to disposal in an environmentally sound manner. It provides measures for controlling transboundary movement of hazardous waste, managing contaminated sites, institutional capacity building, monitoring & reporting mechanisms, and sustainable financing options. Further, it will enable Pakistan to play a pivotal role in meeting the obligations under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. It will also help Pakistan achieve the relevant Sustainable Development Goals and avail extension of the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status post - 2023 , a special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance .
Dated 22 July 2019, MoCC, after approval of the Federal Cabinet, also issued a Statutory Regulatory Order (SRO) namely “Ban on (Manufacturing, Import, Sale, Purchase, Storage and Usage) of Polythene Bags Regulations, 2019” and has taken several steps to discourage excessive use of plastic and alternatives of polythene bags. More than 1,000 retail shops, restaurants, factories, etc. have been inspected for practicing use of polythene plastic bags. Around 3,000 kg of plastic bags have been confiscated and Rs. 1,600,000 imposed as fines (from August 2019-February 2020) .
Successes and remaining challenges
The devolution of environmental policy and the management of air and water quality to the provinces offers great opportunities for Pakistan to respond and adapt to province-specific environmental challenges, while bringing service delivery closer to local populations. At the same time, it comes with many challenges, including persisting issues related to the lack of capacity and resources of provincial authorities, as well as to the lack of a coordination framework for environmental challenges spanning several provinces .
Although Pakistan has developed a set of policies and regulations for pollution control at the national and subnational levels, their implementation is lacking due to the weak institutional capacity of enforcement agencies. The provincial authorities, which are charged with the implementation of the existing legal and regulatory framework, have ambitious mandates, but in general, they face obstacles in their work because they have insufficient staff, small budgets, little administrative autonomy, and high staff turnover rates. The agencies have rarely been adequately staffed with experts to enforce or even monitor ambient air, water, and soil quality standards. As a result, the enforcement of mandatory regulations is lax, and stricter penalties that are sometimes available in the laws are almost never imposed because of, among other reasons, the lack of technical capacity to provide sound evidence of infractions and the fear of political retribution .
Additionally, despite Pakistan’s efforts, the country still lacks comprehensive and coordinated policies and regulations on air quality, water quality and solid waste management .
Initiatives and Development Plans
On World Environment Day 2021, the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC) announced the new Pakistan Clean Air Plan (PCAP), prepared with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded technical assistance project on “Strengthening Knowledge and Actions for Air Quality Improvement”. This project aims to improve air quality and livability in 7 Asian cities through the establishment of Clean Air Action Plans (CAAP). Peshawar and Sialkot in Pakistan are 2 of the 7 cities. The revised PCAP assesses ongoing air pollution reduction efforts being made by national and local stakeholders in Pakistan and includes feedback received from provincial stakeholders. The PCAP aims to improve air quality in the country through systematic monitoring and implementation of various policy, technological, and management-based measures .
In addition, the government has approved the National Electric Vehicle (EV) Policy 2019 to reduce oil import bill and pollution, targeting to convert 100,000 cars and 500,000 two and three wheelers into electric vehicles over four years. Implementation of the policy is also likely to create around 40,000 new employment opportunities, mainly for young electric technicians .
The “Clean Green Pakistan Movement” has been launched with a vision to drive a nationwide movement for clean and green environment for all citizens. A “Clean-Green Cities Index” has been initiated in 20 cities to trigger a shift towards improved waste management and sanitation . The Index covers 5 pillars namely, water, sanitation, hygiene, solid waste management, and plantation .
Pakistan, through the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC), has also joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP). MoCC will work with GPAP to launch a National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP), a platform that is currently being implemented in Indonesia, Ghana, Viet Nam, and Nigeria. The NPAP creates a circular economy framework for plastics through a locally-led, locally-driven platform to bring together the country’s most influential policy-makers, business leaders and civil society advocates .
- Promote the use of sustainable production and consumption practices in all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, industry, and tourism.
- Build an environmental monitoring network for Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) and local governments’ and establish appropriate laboratory and modelling capacity.
- Data collection is the foundation of sustainable management. It is crucial to understand the current pollution levels and sources in Pakistan to develop an effective pollution reduction plan.
- The Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) should set up a data collection system at the federal level on the amount of waste generated, its composition, and the methods of waste disposal. This national system could be integrated with a similar system at the provincial departments of local government.
- Develop local government policies and regulations in line with national guidelines and standards.
- Develop a National Waste Management Strategy, prepared and adopted after full consultation with all the national, provincial, local stakeholders, including the private and nongovernment sectors.
- A sound institutional framework, from the local level to the federal level, on waste management should also be developed.
- Strengthen the planning capacity of EPAs, including (i) air and water quality management planning with protocols and technical/ financial capacity; (ii) regulatory reform; and (iii) protocols for information disclosure and citizen engagement.
- Adequate staffing capacity is required at all levels of government for pollution control.
- Integrate environment into provincial planning documents and revise Provincial Environmental Protection Acts after consultations with stakeholders.
- Develop effective institutional mechanisms to manage environmental cross boundary challenges.
- Clarify federal, provincial, and local responsibilities given boundary and efficiency issues.
- Facilitate access to green financing by issuing green banking guidelines and explore public-private partnerships.
- Invest in the development of clean technologies and renewable energy sources, particularly in the transportation and power generation sectors.
- Invest in the development of wastewater treatment and solid waste management facilities.
- Nature Based Solutions should be prioritized in all urban areas to support the improvement of air quality.
- Support education and awareness raising on pollution among citizens including school children.
- Reducing methane emissions as rapidly as possible could be an effective way to address climate change and air pollution.
- Involve local communities and community-based organizations (CBOs) in waste segregation and collection.
 World Bank Group. 2022. Pakistan Country Climate and Development Report. CCDR Series;. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank Group. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/38277 License: CC BY-NC-ND.
 World Bank. 2019. Opportunities for a Clean and Green Pakistan : A Country Environmental Analysis. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/32328 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
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