The Himalayan Times, 19 Jan 2018
Relentlessly increasing air pollution in Kathmandu Valley is proving to be a peril to the health of its inhabitants, calling government agencies to recognise the situation as a public health emergency.
The air quality of Kathmandu is deteriorating with each passing day and the city dwellers do not know when or whether they can expect any improvement in the quality of air they breathe. The situation is no longer just a general topic of conversation as it has started posing serious threats to the health of general public.
Major factors contributing to the risky levels of air pollution are harmful and uncontrolled emission from vehicles, increasing level of dust in the air caused by the seemingly unending road demolition-road construction cycle and Melamchi Drinking Water Project, emissions from industries, and smoke emitted from brick kilns, among others, as cited in a meeting held at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers (OPMCM) on January 10.
The city is largely covered in smog, like a blanket of dust and smoke, especially during the dry season. This phenomenon further retains the pollution within the valley. According to a data released in The Guardian, Dr Andrew Lodge reports that the smog in Kathmandu is five times worse than the levels which prompted Paris to ban cars.
The magnitude of air pollution in the city has reached its level-high. As stated in the data provided by the US Embassy in its website, the Air Quality Index (AQI) monitoring of PM 2.5 at the premises of the embassy measured 162 at 1:00 pm today, which falls under the ‘unhealthy’ category that affects not only the sensitive groups – people with heart or lung disease, older adults, children and teenagers – but everyone.
Backing this data, the air quality monitoring of the Department of Environment placed at Ratnapark measures PM 2.5 at 109.51 as a running average in the past eight hours. The department states that air pollution has become a serious environmental concern and a public health risk.
“THE DUST WILL LINGER FOR LONGER SINCE NATURAL SINKS HAVE DISAPPEARED”
According to Watershed Practitioner and Climate Change Expert Madhukar Upadhya, air pollution is a very complex issue and it has reached its peak in Kathmandu. He expressed that vehicle emission is one of the primary causes of accelerating pollution of the city’s air. The number of vehicles has uncontrollably multiplied in the valley, not just making the city congested, but its air unhealthy and unwholesome.
Adding to this is the thick layer of dust that is consuming the city air. Upadhya stressed the absolute need of ‘natural sinks’ like grasslands, ponds, and other greenery to absorb this dust. He shared that the city does not have such sinks any more. There are only concrete everywhere, which does not provide any place for the dust to land, and so the dust is always floating in the air.
“The dust is not going to settle after the Melamchi project is over,” he said, “it is going to be there for a long time after because the natural sinks have disappeared.”
Addressing the repercussion that the worsening air quality of Kathmandu is having on people’s health, Upadhya said that breathing problems amongst people have increased drastically. Despite people using masks to shield themselves from the pollution, it is a challenge to escape the long term implication of this dire situation. It is harder still for the children for whom masks are ineffective. Likewise, the elderly population is severely affected.
“If we are not alert about the current level of air pollution, then we will reach a point of no return. By the time some policy is developed to counteract this situation, it might be too late,” Upadhya told THT Online.
Upadhya also expressed that people tend to clean the smaller areas of their homes, forgetting the larger impact. So people – at an individual level – should also be aware and proactive in keeping their larger environment clean, especially by growing plants and controlling concretisation in its literal sense.
As a climate change expert, he informed that the environmental problems caused by air pollution are mostly local. “We must start looking at environment with a very focused approach with ideas that are minutely analysed,” Upadhya suggested.
“A FUNDAMENTAL PARADIGM SHIFT IS NEEDED IN HOW WE VISUALISE OUR CITY”
Environment Expert Bhusan Tuladhar expressed that the country is getting worse by the day in terms of air pollution.
Tuladhar shared with THT Online that air pollution is especially high during winter. The reason behind this is pollution tends to remain closer to the ground during this season when the valley is covered in fog or clouds. The westerly wind toward mid-day tends to blow the pollution out to some extent.
Other than this, the burning of bricks in the kilns also takes place during the winter time. Similarly, the cold causes people to burn more firewood. They also have the tendency to burn garbage. All these contribute to making the air more polluted during the winter, which peaks in the month of January, informed Tuladhar.
He also shared an interesting notion that not just time, but space is also another determinant of air pollution. “When we are talking about emission from vehicles, the air pollution is high not just at a certain time but also in a certain place depending on the flow of vehicles.”
In context with vehicle emission, Tuladhar added that the dust laden air clogs up the air filter of the vehicles, affecting the engine, which in turn will worsen the vehicle emission.
Tuladhar added that as per the statistics of WHO, Kathmandu ranks 261st in the list of most polluted cities in the world that comprises of 3,000 cities, clearly indicating that we fall within the top 10 per cent of polluted cities, which in itself says a lot.
Some of the measures Tuladhar shared in managing air pollution and its implications, as concerned responsible citizens are tuning the vehicles well, management of waste, walking and cycling where possible, and voicing our concerns with the government authorities and concerned agencies.
“If possible, avoid the most polluted areas during the most polluted times of the day,” he added as a suggestion to the general public.
Stating the importance of proper sidewalks and bicycle lanes in the city, having something more than a car-centred transport system, he said, “A fundamental paradigm shift is needed in how we visualise our city.”
Addressing the issue of implications of air pollution on public health, Tuladhar shared that unhealthy air negatively affects the respiratory system, which then hits the circulatory system of the human body giving rise to various heart and lungs diseases primarily. Then through the circulatory system, various other parts of the body get affected. In pregnant women, not just the mother, but the fetus is also adversely affected.
He also shared that WHO reported 9,943 deaths in Nepal due to air pollution, making it a major public health risk. He further added how this has a domino effect and influences the nation’s productivity, thereby affecting the economy of the country.
This issue, however, is not an overnight or a current one. Persistent negligence on part of the state to address environmental concerns, especially as a threat to public health, has led us to this point. Partly, citizens’ apprehension to voice their concerns can also be taken as a responsible factor behind an ever-deteriorating environment of the city.
The state’s negligence is evident also in the fact that not much effort has been made in terms of scrutinising the effect of growing vehicles in the city. During auto-shows, thousands of bookings are made in advance and sales of vehicles during other times are rampant too. This is just a random instance of where the state could impose regulation in terms of controlling indiscriminate sales of vehicles. Not only does this add to an existing environmental concern, it further puts a huge question mark against the already complicated traffic management system in the city.
However, albeit late, the state has become alert and has started taking little steps to address this issue after mounting public pressure. This concern may now be confined to the capital and a few urban areas, but this will definitely expand if not brought into check.
Young activists and politicians too are taking these environmental concerns seriously, which definitely has not yet fallen in the ‘priority-list’ of most of our senior politicians.
THT Online will get back to its readers with further commentaries and suggestions of such environmental-activists and experts with more polished details in the next article, in an attempt to give continuity to the environmental-concern debate.