Print Edition - 2014-11-30  |  Free the Words

Clearing the air

  • Monuments of historical importance in Lumbini are at serious risk due to environmental degradation
Clearing the air

Nov 29, 2014-

In mid-November, a three day International Conference on Buddhism was held in Lumbini for the promotion, preservation, and protection of Buddhist cultural heritage. The conference was jointly organised by the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy of Myanmar and the Theravada Buddhist Academy ‘Vishwa Shanti Vihar’ of Nepal. It was a landmark achievement in itself as venerable monks and nuns from over 32 countries across the world participated in it. Other participants included professors, educationists, cultural experts, archaeological and environmental professionals, research scientists, dignitaries, NGOs, INGOs and Buddhist organisations.  

The event provided an opportunity to discuss the need for the preservation of both the natural and social environment of Lumbini, which is currently at risk of deterioration due to serious environmental pollution threats. This state demands immediate attention from all concerned individuals and authorities at the local, national, and international levels.  

Smog in the air

A comprehensive and quantitative air quality assessment was conducted at the Lumbini World Heritage Site and its vicinity by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2013 under a project titled ‘Heritage Air Quality and Weather Assessment for Lumbini Protected Zone’ by scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, India. The results showed that during winter, the air quality of Lumbini and its vicinity is alarmingly unhealthy, mainly due to the temperature inversion phenomenon and the trapped local industrial pollution where PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres) touch an unhealthy level of 270 µg/m3 and PM 10 (particulate matter less than 10 micrometres) hit a level of 350 µg/m3, both far exceeding the National Ambient Air Quality Standard of Nepal and WHO guidelines. This high level of air pollution is extremely dangerous and poses serious health hazards—respiratory and heart diseases and is also a threat to biodiversity.

Similarly, an environment impact assessment conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2013 confirmed the estimated release of about 912.6 metric tonnes of carbon emission per day from four cement industries in the Lumbini area. The carbon emission is carcinogenic and has been declared by a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths by WHO.        

Tourists and pilgrims visiting Lumbini are ignorant of the fact that the early morning fog visible in the sacred garden is actually smog, which is a high concentration of smoke particles in air. Smog can do substantial damage to health, and Buddhist monks and nuns living in Lumbini’s monasteries are unknowingly taking in this carcinogenic air while practicing yoga and meditation. The deteriorating air quality of Lumbini has caused significant adverse impacts and thus, requires immediate preventive and mitigation measures.

Waste and monuments

The growth of tourist infrastructure, commercial, and industrial activities and increasing population, particularly visitors, have also contributed to the increase in waste generation at the world heritage site. Furthermore, the increase in number of visitors after the completion of the ongoing international airport in Bhairahawa will generate more waste and will have serious adverse impacts, if an efficient waste management system is not timely established.       

The current waste management system is ineffective, as there is no proper segregation, collection, transportation, and disposal of garbage. While we were taken to visit the Lumbini museum during the conference, it was alarming to see the area covered with litter and releasing a foul odour. Hence, a systematic and scientific solid waste management mechanism is required to preserve the environment of this internationally significant heritage site.    

The most important monuments in the sacred garden of Lumbini—namely the Marker Stone, the Nativity Sculpture, and the Asoka Pillar—are degrading due to industrial and vehicular emissions in the vicinity. The emitted sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide react with water vapour in the air to form sulfuric and nitric acid. The resultant acid rain is very corrosive and degrades the limestone, marble, and metals of ancient sculptures and monuments.

What needs to be done

To address these environmental problems in Lumbini, I propose the following six measures. First, a comprehensive environmental study needs to be carried out to map and update environmental issues (including air, water, solid waste, noise pollution) and identify specific measures to be taken. Any master plan for Lumbini development must address all environmental issues. Second, a stringent legal framework, specifically devised to protect the environment of Lumbini, needs to be considered after due consultation with all stakeholders. Third, most industries set up in the periphery of Lumbini exceed the acceptable pollution threshold and do not comply with laws and standards. Hence, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment and its Department of Environment should urgently undertake compliance monitoring of legislation and standards in Lumbini’s industrial sector.

Fourth, immediate and stringent legal actions should be taken to exclude all carbon-emitting industries, which are major pollutants, especially the brick kilns and cement factories and all other major environmental polluting industries established within the Lumbini Protected Zone (LPZ)—a region covering a 15 km aerial distance from the Lumbini Project Area. Any new industry should be established outside the LPZ and must comply with the standards of the Environment Protection Act. Fifth, environment friendly renewable energy technologies, such as solar photovoltaic and electric vehicles should be promoted in the heritage site in order to minimise industrial pollution and vehicular emission and thus prevent the related degradation of monuments due to acid rain. Lastly, the 3R principle of waste reduction—reuse, recycle, and recover—should be adopted to minimise waste generation and its final disposal.

All stakeholders need to come forward and create a working front through which we can contribute to preserving Lumbini’s environment. At the individual level, I am willing to participate and contribute in dealing with Lumbini’s environmental issues with governmental and non-nongovernmental institutions and stakeholders.

Regmi is an Environmental Engineer and has conducted research on energy and the environment at the University of Tokyo and the National University of Singapore

Published: 30-11-2014 09:55

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