For the past week, a spectre has been haunting Punjab. A spectre of smog and haze. Arriving just when temperatures began to dip in honor of winter, it was first dismissed as nothing more than the early onset of winter fog. But winter morning fog gives way to warm shafts of sunlight as the day progresses. Last week, hopes turned to ash when, as morning turned to afternoon, the “fog” didn’t settle. In fact, it took on an altogether alien look, engulfing large parts of Punjab in an unfamiliar brown, dusty cloud.

Hospitals were inundated with cases of respiratory problems; children with bad throats and commuters with stinging eyes. There was a run on surgical masks in Lahore, and haze has been blamed for a tragic accident on the motorway that resulted in the loss of 25 lives. Instinctively, large parts of the mainstream and social media started looking for someone or someone to blame.

Many knee-jerk reasons for the smog have been suggested. It could be construction dust, with the Orange Line Train and other development projects in the city choking the city. It could be industrial pollution, with factories using anything from plastic to rubber to fire up their boilers. (To the uninitiated, a drive over Sheikhupura Road on the Motorway or along the Northern part of Lahore’s Ring Road presents a bleak picture of hell: black smoke billowing from factory chimney after factory chimney literally chokes the sunlight in these areas.) It could also be the huge amount of hydrocarbons the incredibly large number of cars, motorbikes and “Chinqchi” rickshaws spew into the air. But none of these reasons explain the scale of this smog, which has affected not just Lahore, but blankets a large part of central and northern Punjab.

It could be smoke from the large scale crop burning taking place in Indian Punjab and in scattered locations along our side of Punjab as well. The smoke from these crop burnings have impacted Indian cities as far away as New Delhi and Agra and everything in between from there to as far as the Salt Range. Alternatively, the smog could be part of the Asian Brown Cloud, a massive cloud of poison that stretches from China to India, blocking out the sun, causing illness and acid rain throughout the region.

The fact is we don’t know. We don’t know because the EPA, Punjab – which is mandated with the responsibility to protect the environment of the Province and our Fundamental Right to a clean and healthy environment – doesn’t have any air quality testing machines that can determine the nature of the smog or its severity. The Government may have money for expensive chandeliers for the renovation of the Governor’s House, Murree, it may have money for overpasses, laptops, dengue control and hospitals, but it appears not to have the US$ 150,000-200,000 that UNEP says a country needs to set up “a countrywide network of mobile and stationary air monitoring stations” on the cheap.

Without monitoring equipment, we can’t tell what the smog is composed of. We can’t therefore determine the causes of the smog, its severity or how dangerous it is. Without monitoring equipment, we can’t even begin to plan how to deal with the smog. It will not do to blame the Orange Line for the smog if it it in fact crop burnings that are responsible. It won’t do to ban cars if the problem is industrial pollution. Misdiagnosis will not cure the problem. Most likely the smog is an amalgam of pollution sources. But we won’t know until and unless we have monitoring equipment.

And if it is true that the large scale incidents of farmers in Indian Punjab burning the residue of their rice crop that is responsible for the smog that has engulfed the Northern part of South Asia, this raises a number of transboundary environmental control issues. Indian courts have banned the practice of rice burning, but the state governments there appear to have little enforcement capacity. Reports from India indicate that increasing biomass prices versus falling coal prices have meant most of the tenancy farmers of small-scale holdings simply don’t have the money to afford alternatives to crop burning; and do so in full knowledge of the impact it has on other Indian cities. Regardless, the Pakistani state owes a responsibility to protect its citizens from environmental pollution. What legal frameworks and diplomatic options are available to it to interact with India on this issue. Can SAARC be leveraged to control crop burning next year? What can be done to prevent another public health emergency next year at this time? If the smog has a transboundary factor, it is a nothing less than a challenge to South Asian diplomacy.

However, a transboundary element in the current smog emergency should not be an excuse to overlook the already dangerously high pollution levels in our cities and rural areas. In 2005 – over a decade ago – the Word Bank Environment Assessment of Pakistan calculated urban air pollution caused around 22,000 premature deaths among adults and 700 deaths among young children annually, and cost the Pakistan exchequer some Rs. 65 billion a year in health-related costs. Research papers published in international science journals inform us the particulate matter (PM) in our air is 2 to 13 times higher than limits prescribed by US Environment Protection Agency; that air quality ranges from unhealthy to dangerous through the year; and that major contributions to PM are soil/road dust, industrial emissions, vehicular emissions and secondary aerosols.

Even without the present pall of smog, Pakistani cities, especially in the Punjab, have dangerously high levels of air pollution. With the smog, these levels will most certainly have shot through the roof. However, without air quality measurement devices, the public cannot be informed of the severity of the threat. In Beijing, regular air quality updates inform people how long it is safe to stay outdoors. In Delhi, as a response to the smog emergency, the Capital’s government has shut down some 1800 public primary schools to protect children from falling prey to the ill affects of the smog. In Beijing, PM is referred to nothing less than “cancer causing particulate matter.”

It is the Fundamental Right of every Pakistani to enjoy a clean and healthy environment. It is the right of every working man and woman to be able to get to work and home again without getting sick. It is the Right of every child to play outdoors without acquiring respiratory disease. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has cast a “positive obligation” on the state to protect this Right, meaning it cannot sit by and act only when the right is violated. It must remain vigilant against any threat to the Right and act to stem them immediately.

It is good news that the Government of Punjab constituted a high-level to make recommendations about how to handle the smog. The public needs to be informed. But the Government must also act fast to procure air quality testing devices. Without these instruments, there is no means of knowing how and how badly our air is polluted, or what we can do to say safe from harm. And unless the transboundary element of the smog is not properly appreciated and dealt with, Punjab could suffer more lethal smog emergencies. Standards will have to be established and protocols rolled out that can advise the public of whether its safe or not to go outdoors.

Whilst the smog of November 2016 is a environment and public health emergency, it is an opportunity for environment issues to capture the public’s interest. It is up to civil society and the media to keep the pressure on the Government’s concerned to act appropriately.