What do you think is the easiest task? Breathing? That is what I find the most difficult one in Kathmandu. Locality matters!
Air pollution is a major environmental and ultimately a health problem in developed as well as developing cities. Kathmandu is not an exception. Instead, Kathmandu has gotten some new names because of dust and air pollution. Dustmandu and Maskmandu are the commonest ones. A recent analysis of air pollution in Kathmandu for the period of one month, Magh, showed that, the 24-hour daily averages of the PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of less than 2.5 micrometre diameter) concentration in Kathmandu atmosphere were beyond the government standard of 40 micrograms per cubic metre, forget about the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
At first, what is very difficult for me to understand is how the government standard becomes 60 per cent higher than the WHO standard. Is it because Gorkhalis are brave enough to tolerate higher levels of pollution than the WHO standard? If so, I am not a Gorkhali. Or I am an exceptional one!
The current analyses on air pollution are being done only on the PM2.5 concentration basis. What about other pollutants such as ground-level ozone, Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and Carbon monoxide (CO)? Are these pollutants within the recommended standard? What would be the quality of air if the impact of these pollutants is also included in determining the air quality of Kathmandu Valley? A recent WHO report states that, of the 1.7 million child deaths every year, five hundred seventy thousand children under five year of age die from respiratory infections attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Though exact figure of such death is not available for Kathmandu, we can easily assume that such death is high here as Kathmandu has been ranked as the seventh worst polluted cities in the world in terms of air quality recently. How can we expect a high number of children to survive who get born in the seventh worst polluted city in the world and inhale the poisonous air since their first breathe?
Suggestions you will get to avoid the pollution in Kathmandu are so ridiculous – avoid all sports activities, do physical activities only after noon, don’t go for a morning or evening walk as air pollution is higher in the morning and in the evening! Are these pragmatic suggestions? We have to wait till noon for any physical activities? Sounds like there will be suggestions like “Don’t breathe wherever and whenever you like!” in the near future. What I have understood is that the static blanket of polluted air near the earth’s surface in the morning gets dispersed as a result of human and vehicular movements. To some extent, the solar radiation helps. But if nobody comes out of their house till noon, does the air quality automatically improve as such? I don’t think so. And is it ‘ethical’ to prevent children from going outside and playing? Can we expect them to be healthy that way? I am quite confused if these suggestions are intended to prepare healthy or ailing citizens. Is it practicable to put a mask on a two-year child while carrying him out of the house? According to news reports, the ordinary, cheap cloth masks that people generally put on in Kathmandu are also ineffective against the pollutant particles. According to researches, the oldest and the youngest are the most affected people due to air pollution. We can somehow accuse the oldest generation for not acting to curb pollution earlier. But what crime has a newborn done to inhale poisonous air since his/her first breath? The pollution levels are recorded and published; not forecasted so that we can avoid the peak hours of pollution every day.
The only panacea is – cleaning the atmosphere. The recent move to ban the twenty-year-old vehicles is a good one. According to a BBC report, the brick kilns of the valley destroyed by the 2015 earthquake are being rebuilt using new technology that emits less polluting soot and smoke. For widening the road, the government cut so many green trees in many parts of the ring road some years ago, but when it comes to curbing pollution it does not plant trees. Trees are reported to have a significant impact in reducing the atmospheric pollution. What is preventing the government for large roadside plantations? Are we only focusing on development with no concerns about the environment? Can such development be sustainable? What is the use of a city with roads of multiple lanes and skyscrapers where you have to fear for ‘breathing’?