Addressing the third meeting of agriculture ministers of SAARC countries, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh said, “Climate change is a real episode. (Source: Reuters)

Muhammad Umar Hayyat*, Maria Qayyum Mughal, Amna Khan Barki


Environmental quality standards are useful tools to manage the pollution. The purpose of this study was to investigate the possibility of regional environmental quality standards for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries by comparing their environmental quality standards of discharged industrial effluents and ambient air emissions. Transboundary pollution is a potent problem for SAARC countries. Regional geography augments transboundary pollution of air and water. The method adopted in this study was the assessment of relevant data from available reports, official documents, journals’ articles, newsletters and official websites of the SAARC countries. Twenty parameters were taken from industrial effluents discharge standards like boron, BOD (biological oxygen demand), COD (chemical oxygen demand), copper, chromium, cyanide, lead, mercury, oil and grease, phenol, sulfate, total residual chlorine and zinc and nine of ambient air standards. The results indicated that countries have variations among their established standards along with similarities in standards for various parameters. The standard for oil and grease is similar in six countries whereas zinc standard is same in five countries. While eight parameters are similar in three countries, seven are in four, three in two for industrial effluents discharge. Likewise, in ambient air standards, nitrogen dioxide and lead parameters have similar values in Bhutan, India, and Nepal while particulate matter (PM10) and sulfur dioxide standard values are same in Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka. These results suggest that existing standards can provide a firm foundation for the formulation of regional standards like the European Union. It will increase the cooperation among these countries for environmental sustainability. SAARC can play a vital role in regional environmental management by establishing regional environmental quality standards.

Keywords: Sustainability; Environmental management; Legislation; Cooperation


Environmental problems are threatening the stability of the planet’s life-support systems; greenhouse gas emissions, long-range air pollution, dispersion of toxic chemicals. These are the result of an increase in mechanization and density of the population, leads to the situation in which humanity and its environment are exposed to a multitude of harmful factors. The industrial revolution and the subsequent large scale application of science and technology in industries gave a boost to industrial production (Strafe 2003).

Environment quality standards are used as the “reference” or “measuring sticks” against which to determine the presence and concentration of substances (Strafe 2003). European Commission (EC) (2011) stated Environmental quality standards (EQS) as the concentration of a particular pollutant or group of pollutants in sediment- water or biota, which should not be exceeded to protect human health and the environment. The standard setting facilitates the assessment of progress toward environmentally sound practices. And they are the new thematic approach for an effective environmental management (Hole 1997; NAM 2013).

For South-Asian region, and for monitoring of its environmental quality which is increasingly affected by pollution from neighboring countries, there is an organized platform which helps to identify environmental issues and proposed ideas for problems. This platform is known as the South-Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established in 1985 when it’s Charter was formally adopted (SAARC 2009). SAARC region comprises the founder countries Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Maldives and with Afghanistan joining it in the 13th annual summit in 2005. The foreign secretaries of the seven countries; Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka met in April 1981 in Colombo for the first meeting.

SAARC aims to encourage wellbeing of people living in South Asia, advance the worth of life, to accelerate the cultural development and to promote the shared assistant in technical and scientific fields (Khan 1999). The richness of the SAARC environmental landscape is dominated by several common challenges to the region. These include poverty, deforestation, and desertification, challenges of climate change, unprecedented glacial melts, and environmental degradation. Also, the region is also facing problems like air pollution, water scarcity, water pollution, food insecurity, massive land destruction, noise pollution and energy crisis at the regional level (Bandara 2003; SAARC 2009).

The SAARC region has been privileged regarding this view. A technical committee on the environment was established in 1992 to examine the recommendations of the regional study, identify measures for immediate action and make decisions on modalities for their implementation (SAARC 2009). The environmental legislation in the SAARC countries are in a state of evolution, they enacted the environmental legislations, many of which have been modified to simulate the changing needs and the ability to apply regulations. They perform the tasks of processing and monitoring of environmental phenomena, measures, and activities that affect the environment (SAARC 2009).

Hence, to investigate the cooperation potential among the SAARC countries, this study was conducted to make a comparison among the environmental standards’ values of SAARC countries. This paper will help to develop a policy towards regional environmental quality standards in the SAARC member states.

Materials and Methods

The study was based on the collection of data via mails, review of published literature in the form of research papers, reports, journals, newsletters and official documents. Official websites were also consulted to get the environmental quality standards of the each SAARC country.


In SAARC countries the environmental quality standards setting was established in their environmental policies for the needs of ensuring healthy environment, creating a region with sustainable development and maintaining the balance of the ecosystem to ensure a comfortable environment.

Twenty parameters were taken for comparison of industrial effluents discharge standards. These were boron, BOD (biological oxygen demand), COD (chemical oxygen demand), copper, chromium, cyanide, lead, mercury, oil and grease, phenol, sulfate, total residual chlorine (TRC), total suspended solid (TSS) and zinc. The results indicated that countries have variations among their established standards along with similarities in standards for various parameters (Table 1). The standard for oil and grease is similar in six countries whereas zinc standard is same in five countries. While values for eight parameters like boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, nickel, pH, sulfate, and sulfide are similar in three countries, seven (COD, Copper, Cyanide, Lead, Mercury, Phenol, and TRC) are in four, and three (BOD, Iron and TSS) in two countries for industrial effluents discharge. Zinc has same environmental quality standard value in five countries. Value for oil and grease is similar in six countries for industrial effluents discharge.

The ambient air quality standards for SAARC countries were discussed at three different average timings; 1 Hour, 8 Hours and 24 Hours (Table 2). Each SAARC country has established its ambient air quality standard values at a particular average time except Afghanistan. For the parameter of CO2, all the members of SAARC have set their standard values for 8 hours. The concentration was available only for Bhutan and India i.e. 2 µg/m3. Both the countries have fixed same value which evident their collaboration at the regional level. For other nations of SAARC their relevant policies and reports were look over for CO2 value, but they lacked records.

Loose standard values for CO in ambient air quality standards were set for 1 hour by the SAARC members. Bhutan and India have established the similar value of 4.0 µg/m3 for this parameter. Maldives has fixed the standard value of 35 µg/m3 for it. After that Sri Lanka has set 30.0 µg/m3. Then next is of Pakistan i.e. 10 µg/m3. The gentlest value of CO is established by Bangladesh i.e. 40 µg/m3. The high contrast between the maximum and minimum value is 36 µg/m3. Information on Nepal and Afghanistan for this parameter was not available. Table 2 also illustrates the equivalent value of 80 µg/m3 for NO2 in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan for 24 hours. It specified that their regional cooperation, as well as mutual collaboration to generate amity and synchronization, is strong enough. The most gentle value was set by Sri Lanka i.e. 100 µg/m3 whereas its value was 10 µg/m3fixed by Maldives. The difference between the extreme and least value is 90 µg/m3. The data for Bangladesh and Afghanistan was not available.

The standard value for O3 was fixed by the SAARC countries for 1 hour. The loose value of 235 µg/m3 was set by Bangladesh however strict value was fixed by Pakistan i.e. 130 µg/m3. Maldives and Sri Lanka have established the similar value for O3 i.e. 200 µg/m3, through which their coordination is indicated. India fixed it at 180 µg/m3. The standard value of O3 for Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal was missing in the reviewed data. The NEQS value for Pb is fixed 1.0 µg/m3 for an average time of 24 hours in the majority of the SAARC members including Bhutan, India, and Nepal for ambient air quality standards and Sri Lanka has set 2.0 µg/m3 for it. On the contrary, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have a deficiency for the data.

PM 2.5 concentration is fixed at 24 hours. Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal were having a lack of data for this value. The value of 35.0 µg/m3 for it, is established by Pakistan and gentle value is fixed by Bangladesh i.e. 65.0 µg/m3. Sri Lanka and India has set 50.0 µg/m3 and 60.0 µg/m3 respectively. Strict value for PM 10 is fixed 100.0 µg/m3 for an average time of 24 hours by Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka. Similarly, 150 µg/m3 soft concentrations were set by Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan. Nepal has set 120.0 µg/m3 for PM 10. Data was unavailable only for Afghanistan.

For SO2, the standard value of 80 µg/m3 at 24 hours is set by Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka which indicated their collaboration at the regional level. The strict ambient air quality standard value is 70.0 µg/m3, fixed by Nepal whereas loose value is fixed by Bangladesh i.e. 366 µg/m3. Pakistan has established 120.0 µg/m3 values for SO2. The data was not available for Afghanistan and Maldives. For TSS, Pakistan has set the gentle value of 500.0 µg/m3 at 24 hours. And in the SAARC region, the firm value of 200.0 µg/m3 is fixed only by Bhutan. In Nepal and Maldives, the value for it is 230.0 µg/m3 and 260.0 µg/m3 respectively.


South Asian countries are the underdeveloped and home to one of the oldest civilizations of the world. South Asia’s topography includes an incredible variety of mountains, plateaus, dry regions, intervening structural basins, and beaches. It has a 1.5 billion strong population growing at the rate of 1.8% per annum but has only 4.8 % of the world’s total land area (SAEO 2009).

The Ambient Air Quality Standards are defined for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, ozone, lead and total suspended solids in the countries of the region. Most of the countries have set the same quality standards.

Air pollution is a growing problem of the region as SAARC region has a high rate of urbanization and industrialization (ELF 2000). The primary sources of air pollution in the area are vehicular emission, industrial discharge and brick kilns (CCNDPPE 2010). Particulate matter is the most significant pollutant causing respiratory infections and diseases in SAARC population (Khawaja et al. 2012). Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world, where the environment is still protected. Due to its small urban centers and low levels of industrialization, Bhutan does not face an air pollution problem, except on a much-localized scale (CCNDPPE 2010). Over the years, the governments have been trying to follow the environmental sustainability through policy interventions and established standard values for ambient air quality. More and more cities are experiencing unhealthy levels of air pollution as a direct consequence of unplanned urbanization and population growth in India. Many reasons have been contributed to the sharp rise in air pollution. Coal is India’s most abundant source of energy, and currently, almost 60% of its commercial energy needs are fulfilled by it. Oil is another major source of pollution emissions in India. Then, widespread use of traditional sources of energy such as fuelwood and animal dung has also been contributing to air pollution. The level of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen are well within prescribed limits resulting, the establishment of their strict standards but the level of particulate matter is on the higher side because of its loose standard values’ enactment (CCNDPPE 2010).

None of the islands in Maldives had any significant air polluting activities. The islands were swept clean by the sea breeze, and there does not appear to be any form of air pollution. Trans-boundary air pollution became apparent first in the Maldives in 1997, when the country was affected by a haze caused by Indonesian forest fires. The level of carbon monoxide has increased in the country, and one of its reasons is soft pollution guideline. Years of unabated population growth and lack of a stringent pollution regulation have left a deep imprint on the environment in Nepal. Air quality in both urban and rural areas is deteriorating in the country with Kathmandu, in particular, being at very high levels of risk. The bowl-like topography of the Kathmandu Valley restricts air movement, thereby accumulating high levels of dangerous pollutants (Khawaja et al. 2012). Indoor domestic air pollution has been estimated to be unacceptably high. This sustained exposure to particulates, carbon monoxide, and various carcinogens is the prime cause of the high incidence of tuberculosis and eye diseases in the country.

However, while SAARC has been functional for about 30 years, control of air pollution has been ineffective. Air pollution leads to atmospheric transport of pollutants, also affecting countries of the region in more than one way, thus making pollution a regional issue. There should be a system to obtain assurance to reduce air pollution; in this regard, the best way is to formulate regional environmental quality standards.

River water quality is not good in the region except Bhutan since no polluting industries are located upstream in this country. Rapid urbanization and industrialization generate pressure on water resources. The stringent wastewater effluent discharge standards will able to resolve the problem (UNEP 2009). Overall, lack of proper sanitation and inappropriate treatment of industrial effluents pose water pollution in the region (Ghimire 1985; Regmi 2003).

Environmental quality is increasingly degrading in South Asia from neighboring countries and to address this environmental problem of a cross-border, it is much more efficient for the concerned neighboring countries to act collectively than just acting on its own. Undoubtedly the formation of SAARC was a landmark step taken by the leaders of the region to tackle issues with cooperation along with other countries (WEPA 2012).

The political tensions and conflicts mainly due to the non-cooperation of two largest economies of the region namely India and Pakistan, the other small countries have also become the victim of India-Pakistan political rhetoric and are not in a position to make advancement in collaboration. These conflicts pose a question of uncertainty and challenge of environment for the South Asian Union as unlike the EU environment protection and management among the eight SAARC states has remained limited (Hassan 2012).

Besides these troubles, SAARC countries have common elements like history, culture, ethnicity traditions, languages, custom and religion. The objectives of the Association are best achieved in the region due to these similarities and the establishment of Regional Centers such as the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre in the Maldives, the SAARC Forestry Centre in Bhutan, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre in India and the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre in Bangladesh constitute a Charter of SAARC Institutions which address diverse aspects of environment, climate change and natural disasters, and hence portrayed their common understanding.

Nevertheless, almost after 30 years, of the establishment, neither majority of South Asian nations have been able to push the process of integration into full swing nor the SAARC organization itself has become fully viable to promote environment protection, management, and sustainable development. Therefore, SAARC countries should forge ahead by giving up the legacy of mistrust of the past to be able to solve their environment problems among themselves through NEQS as an elementary tool. SAARC has a long road ahead. The institutional and legal binding frameworks are essentially required to address environmental challenges and to focus on diverse response options and instruments for possible solutions.


The environmental standards were set up as the official target for environmental quality. Coordination and cooperation among the countries for related organizations is a new challenge in environmental management. Most of the member countries have less or no variation among their environmental quality standards values. Those may provide a base to promote a management framework at the regional level. However, active involvement of each SAARC country and a more comprehensive regional cooperation is required to achieve the goal of regional environmental quality standards.


Sr. No Parameter Maximum Value Minimum Value Similar Value Name of Countries in which standard value is similar
1. BOD(mg/L) 80 30 50 Bangladesh, Bhutan
2. Boron (mg/L) 6 2 2 Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka
3. Chloride (mg/L) 1000 600 1000 Bhutan, India, Pakistan
4. Chromium (mg/L) 2 0.1 0.5 Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka
5. COD(mg/L) 250 150 250 Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
6. Copper (mg/L) 3 0.5 3 Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
7. Cyanide (mg/L) 2 0.1 0.2 Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
8. Fluoride (mg/L) 20 2 2 India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
9. Iron (mg/L) 3.5 2 2 Bangladesh, Pakistan
10. Lead (mg/L) 0.8 0.1 0.1 Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
11. Mercury (mg/L) 0.01 0.0005 0.01 Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan
12. Nickel (mg/L) 3 1 3 India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
13. Oil and Grease (mg/L) 10 10 10 Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka
14. pH 8 7.5 7.25 India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
15. Phenol (mg/L) 2 0.1 1 Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
16. Sulfate (mg/L) 1000 600 1000 Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka
17. Sulfide (mg/L) 10 1 2 India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
18. TRC (mg/L) 1 1 1 Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
19. TSS (mg/L) 150 50 150 Bangladesh, Pakistan
20. Zinc (mg/L) 5 2 5 Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan






Serial No. Parameters & Units Averaging Time Afghanistan Bangladesh Bhutan India Maldives Nepal Pakistan Sri Lanka
1. CO2



1 Hr.                
8 Hrs. 2.0 2.0
24 Hrs.                
2. CO


1 Hr. 40.0 4.0 4.0 35.0 10.0 30.0
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs.                






1 Hr.

  8 Hrs.                
  24 Hrs. 80.0 80.0 10.0 80.0 80.0 100.0
4. O3


1 Hr. 235.0 180.0 200.0 130.0 200.0
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs.                
5. Pb


1 Hr.                
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs. 1.0 1.0 1.0 2.0
6. PM 2.5(µg/m3) 1 Hr.                
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs. 65.0 60.0 35.0 50.0
7. PM10(µg/m3) 1 Hr.                
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs. 150.0 100.0 100.0 150.0 120.0 150.0 100.0
8. SO2


1 Hr.                
8 Hrs.                
24 Hrs. 366.0 80.0 80.0 70.0 120.0 80.0
9. TSS


1 Hr.                
8 Hrs.                
  24 Hrs. 200.0 260.0 230.0 500.0


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