An edited version of this article is published in The Himalayan Times. This link – https://thehimalayantimes.com/opinion/breathing-woes-kathmandu/
January 05, 2018
Air pollution has become a major environmental, and ultimately a health problem in developing as well as some developed cities. Kathmandu has not been able to be an exception. Instead, Kathmandu has gotten some new names due to excessive dust and air pollution. Dustmandu and Maskmandu are the commonest ones.
The average, hourly concentration of PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of less than 2.5 micrometer diameter) in the Kathmandu atmosphere last winter reached four to five times the government standard of 40 micrograms per cubic meter; forget about the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for now. And this winter too, the concentration is very likely to rise as high as the last winter’s if not higher. Signs are already on the way since the onset of winter. Yes, the government has formed a rapid task force and other organizations have performed some actions to control air pollution in the valley but such actions were performed last year also to some extent. If these actions will really make a significant difference this time that remains to be seen. The Department of Environment had said in March that a draft of the action plan to control air pollution in the valley had already been prepared and had intended to launch it by the end of that fiscal year and what the secretary of the Office of Prime Minister and Council of Ministers (OPMCM) was saying some weeks ago, in late November was “the action plan on air pollution control in the Kathmandu Valley would be immediately approved and forwarded.” This shows the pace and seriousness of our government work.
A WHO report published in 2015 states that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes some three (3) million annual deaths worldwide. It also reads, “Nearly 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.” Another report published last March states that, of the 1.7 million child deaths every year worldwide, five hundred seventy thousand children under five year of age die from respiratory infections attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Though exact figures of such death are not available for Kathmandu, we can easily assume that such death is high here as it has been ranked as the seventh worst polluted city in the world in terms of air quality recently. [Numbeo’s Pollution Index 2017] 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 toxic air since their first breath?
Here are the suggestions you will get, to avoid air pollution in Kathmandu – avoid all sports activities, do physical activities only after noon, don’t leave home without a mask, don’t go for a morning or evening walk as air pollution is higher in the morning and in the evening!
Are these any pragmatic suggestions? Do we have to wait until noon for any physical activities? Do we have to go for a morning walk in the afternoon? Or avoid morning and evening walk totally!? Is it practicable to put a mask on a one-year child while carrying him/her out of the house? According to news reports, the ordinary, cheap cloth masks that people generally put on in Kathmandu are ineffective against the pollutant particles. Is it ethical to prevent children from going outside and playing? Can we expect them to be healthy that way? Sounds like there will be suggestions like “Do not breathe wherever and whenever you like; do it only at designated places!” in the near future. It is quite confusing if these suggestions strictly followed, will prepare healthy or ailing citizens.
What can be done?
The only panacea is – cleaning the atmosphere. The suggestions of increasing the effectiveness of green stickers in the vehicles and promoting large size buses for public transportation have already become clichés. The government’s decision last March, to ban the 20-year-old public vehicles in Kathmandu also helps to reduce pollution though there were some controversies. Switching to euro 5 standard fuels is also an alternative but it seems quite unrealistic unless India uses and sells fuels of this standard.
Vehicles are obviously the major source contributing some 38 per cent for air pollution in the valley, but they are not the only source. 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. The government should encourage such technologies providing technical assistance as well as subsidies for those who are building new brick kilns in/around the valley.
Hundreds of trees along the ring road were cut some years ago citing its widening, but we do not hear news reports about such large-scale plantations in the valley. Forget about the government promoting urban forestry, the Forest Act 2049 does not recognize urban forest as a separate forest type. No matter how wide the ring road became, not a single lane for cycles is apportioned. What is the use of a city with roads of multiple lanes and skyscrapers where we have to fear for breathing? Trees are reported to have a significant impact in reducing the atmospheric pollution. For the long-term solution, trees should be planted wherever possible. Sprinkling water or buying road broomers are only short-term remedies.
And, the health minister, like the last year, and mayors sprinkling water and sweeping the dusty roads is also a good way to reduce the dirt flying to the atmosphere but this is not a sustainable solution.