On a December day in Lahore, Pakistan's second-biggest city, the smog concealed tall buildings. Men on motorbikes seemed to push through it as they rode. It reeked of diesel and charcoal, compelling the Nadim family to go to the hospital.
"I can't breathe," said Mohammad Nadim, 34. He gestured to his wife, Sonia. "My wife can't breathe." She held their 3-month-old daughter Aisha, who pushed out wet, heavy coughs. "But we are here for our children."
Air pollution is a major public health problem across Pakistan, where an estimated 128,000 people die annually from air pollution-related illnesses, according to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.
But researchers say the government has downplayed the severity of the problem for years, produced unreliable data and sought to pass blame to neighboring India. Indeed, the environmental protection department of Punjab, the province surrounding Lahore, has not updated its air quality level for several weeks on its website, reporting it at 166 – a level of airborne fine particulate matter that the U.S. EPA considers to be "unhealthy" but which the Pakistani government says is "satisfactory."
In response, a growing wave of clean-air activists — including a group called the "Scary Moms," environmental lawyers, tech entrepreneurs and even foreign embassies — is using new sources of pollution data to pressure the government to take action. And it might be working — the government is set to roll out a new series of policies aimed at improving air quality.
The movement began with a Pakistani engineer, Abid Omar, who in 2017 began crowd-sourcing data from citizen-owned air quality monitors and uploading the information on Twitter. Omar, who used to live in Beijing, said he was inspired by seeing how citizen activism helped pressure the Chinese government to tackle air pollution.
"We are utilizing data coming out of this network to spread the message about how severe the air pollution is, which we did not know until we had these monitors," Omar says. "Just a very simple act has this huge impact."
Omar's initiative was followed by the U.S. State Department, which erected monitors in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and at its consulates — for U.S. citizens living in Pakistan to have access to data about air pollution. Those figures are also regularly tweeted out. They generally correlate with the citizen-sourced data.
"For the first time, people got numbers and realized how bad it was," said Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, referring to the data shared by Omar's initiative and the State Department. "And no surprise, Lahore is near the top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world."
Those data points were compiled by AirVisual, a crowd-sourced online air quality monitor that compares countries around the world. On the same day the Nadim family went to the hospital, when the Punjab government was assuring residents that the air quality was "satisfactory," citizen-sourced data from AirVisual reported it as "hazardous."
Lahore's air quality has deteriorated over the past decade, a period during which an estimated 70% of its trees were felled to make way for more residents. Their vehicles still run predominantly on a type of highly polluting sulphur-laden gas that contributes some 40% of the air pollution in Lahore and the surrounding province of the Punjab, according to a 2019 report by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Industries mushrooming around Lahore, including those that burn tires to power their factory units, contribute another 25%. Farmers who seasonally burn their fields to prepare for more planting, as well as thousands of brick kilns in the city's outskirts, add to the problem.
The activist movement really took off in November, says Alam.
"A bunch of environmental activists sat down and decided, because we'd seen the smog season in 2016, '17 and '18, that we were going to be more coordinated about how we were going to deal with it," he says.
Armed with new sources of data over the past several years, lawyers such as Alam have brought forward several cases to the Lahore High Court to demand clean air — including one on Nov. 4 brought by Alam on behalf of his daughter and other children. It accused the government of underreporting the severity of air pollution.
Amnesty International issued an unprecedented call on Nov. 22, asking supporters to write to the Pakistani government to protest the air quality. The group argued that the human rights of every person in Lahore were at risk.
"It's the first time this crisis is being personalized as a human rights crisis," said Rimmel Mohydin, Pakistan campaigner for Amnesty International.
Despite the pollution in Lahore, residents still pack rooftop cafes. Maryam Saeed, 30, was visiting one, and gestured to the people around her.
"They don't see it anymore," she says.
Saeed, along with three other Pakistani entrepreneurs, co-founded a company to build a 25-foot, $20,000, solar-powered "smog tower" that will filter clean air for about 90,000 residents in its vicinity. Saeed says she hopes the project can be scaled up but acknowledged smog towers are a short-term solution.
"Even 10 smog towers cannot solve the entire problem," she says. "We need to change our consumption."
Then there are the Scary Moms.
Ayesha Nasir, 35, leads this network of mothers in Lahore. They hope to raise awareness about how to keep children safe from smog and to reduce pollution by persuading parents to stop driving their kids to school and put them on school buses instead. (Nasir said the name, ScaryAmmi, or Scary Moms, was a nod to the cliché of demanding South Asian mothers.)
Nasir turned to activism after reaching the limits of what she could do to protect her four children from the air that hurt their throats, made them dizzy, inflamed their eyes and gave them headaches.
She was advocating busing because "43% of the reason we have smog in Punjab is transport," Nasir says, referring to a February report by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization that analyzed air pollution in the Punjab. Nasir sees the school run as a major factor.
"There are schools in Lahore where, on average, 2,000 cars go there in the morning," she says.
Busing across Lahore fell out of favor as nearly two decades of militant attacks wreaked havoc across Pakistan. Chaperoning children became a protective instinct. Now, to assuage parents, Nasir said they were helping transport companies develop services that worried parents needed, like live dashcams, tracking locators and even a bus nanny.
On a cold December day, the Scary Moms hustled to get their point across at a private school, beginning with educating kids. "Today we need to fight the enemy that is smog," Nasir announced to rows of teenagers attending a special smog workshop with their parents — it was the 43rd such session since November.
She waved to a U.N.-issued video showing the effects of particulate matter that forms air pollution. The particles can be absorbed into the body, affecting brain development, growth and respiratory illnesses.
"Please when the air pollution is high, try to stay inside your home and try to wear a mask when you have to go outside," she says.
Another Scary Mom volunteer, Sadia Rafaqat, 36, repeated the talk to parents who came for their own smog session. They could help, she suggested, by letting their kids ride buses.
Parents seemed to agree with the notion, including Zahida Parveen, 38, who spent an hour in a rickshaw accompanying her two daughters to school.
"We are suffering. Me and my girls are asthmatic," Parveen says. If the school could offer safe transport, "then we can go for it."
The Scary Moms have had some results. The Punjab education minister, Murad Raas, who oversees 53,000 schools, is backing the mothers and said one upscale school would pilot smart buses in March. The aim was to get "50 to 100 schools" to sign on.
"In the next few months, I'm hoping we can do this," Raas told NPR.
There are now signs that the current government may be reckoning with the problem. In late November, it unveiled a raft of policies to curb air pollution, says Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the prime minister on climate change. Aslam said the government, which came into power in mid-2017, was taking the problem seriously — despite a Twitter video posted by climate change minister Zartaj Gul in October that appeared to downplay the extent of the problem.
That video did not represent the government's official view, Aslam told NPR.
"We will have to ask her what happened over there, but it's not the view of the ministry," he says.
The new initiatives included banning the import of low-quality fuel by January. In addition, local refineries would have three years to upgrade their equipment to process high quality fuel. And brick kilns have until September to install emission-reducing technology.
"I hope within three years we should be moving in the right direction," Aslam says.
Alam, the lawyer, and other activists say the prime minister's initiatives were a good sign.
"I think sanity has prevailed," Alam said. But he said he was concerned that the air pollution problem would become invisible after the heavy winter smog lifts after February. Then politicians would lose interest in wrestling powerful industries that profit from the status quo.
Once "you can't see the poor air quality," he says, "other political issues can sort of take over."