Breath of life

  • Policies to incentivise switch from fossil fuels to electric power a must to improve air quality in Kathmandu
- Swastika Regmi

Nov 28, 2017-

The air quality in Kathmandu has been poor for many years. Recently, it has become worse due to disorganised infrastructure development in the heart of the valley and vehicular emission and exhaust gases from brick kilns and diesel generators. The only thing people can do is wear a cheap mask which has proved to be both ineffective and unreliable in ensuring healthy lungs. 

Nepal ranks 149th among 180 countries in terms of air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Index 2016. According to a 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, one in every nine deaths a year worldwide is caused by breathing unhealthy air. The universal unit for measuring air pollution, particulate matter (PM), shows the amount of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter, and PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter. 

The WHO has set the ‘safe’ level for PM2.5 at above 10 micrograms per cubic metre, but most countries exceed that level. In 2016, the PM level in the Kathmandu Valley was measured at more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre. In the winter, it went up to 300. With a median PM concentration of 50, Nepal is the 10th most polluted country in the world in terms of air quality. 

Scientific studies have shown that smaller particulates enter deep inside the lungs and bloodstream, resulting in decreased lung function, heart attacks, aggravated asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, premature death in people with respiratory illness and cross-infection due to high population density, with immediate effects like difficulty in breathing and coughing. According to a 2003 USAID study, an increase in PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic meter can increase the risk of lung cancer by 8 percent, cardiopulmonary deaths by 6 percent and all deaths by 4 percent. 

In 2002, the Danish government installed seven air quality stations in various parts of Kathmandu, but they were shut down in 2009 due to improper management. Last year, the Department of Environment revived these stations with support from ICIMOD, and is planning to install another 56 stations throughout the country. The new stations will be better equipped to measure PM2.5, PM10 and black carbon, and they will have meteorological sensors and a gas analyser that measures harmful gases such as ozone, an array of Nitrogen oxides, Sulphur dioxide and Carbon monoxide. Once these stations are in full-fledged operation, rapid action can be taken to manage air pollution.

Essential steps

In order to manage air pollution and ensure people’s right to clean air, thereby saving millions of lives, several universally accepted measures have to be implemented. They are both attainable and necessary. The prime reason behind the deteriorating air quality is automobile emissions, and the government should implement both long- and short-term measures to control it. The most effective measure is to bring back trolley buses in Kathmandu and introduce them on suitable routes in the Tarai. 

Equal emphasis should be given to launching electric train services and transportation by ropeway in the hills. Policies should be implemented to motivate the private sector and citizens to use electric vehicles. Vehicles that run on polluting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) should be converted to run on batteries. Further, policies should be created so that transportation to major tourist destinations and historical places is provided only by electric vehicles.

Disorganisation furthers problems

Another effective measure to control air quality is proper waste management. Action should be taken to stop the burning of waste and reduce emissions from brick kilns and cement factories. Construction pollution is another major reason behind the poor quality of the air, and good construction practices have to be implemented to control it. Efforts should be made to minimise soil erosion by increasing vegetation. Using fine water sprays to control dust, placing fine mesh screening close to dust sources, covering piles of building materials like cement and checking for spillage, covering  all drains, using non-toxic paints and solvents and using low-sulphur diesel in all vehicle and equipment engines are other ways to control air pollution. 

Chemical air pollution is not the only troubling factor. Airborne dust particles resulting from disorganised and unplanned construction are primarily responsible for polluting the air. The government needs to deal with this immediately and accord priority to monitoring, overseeing and completing on-going construction projects. Preventing vandalism and delayed reconstruction is of utmost priority.

Apart from implementing policies to reduce emission of major air pollutants, preventive measures should be taken by all individuals to prevent the risk of acute and chronic health problems like reducing exposure to the ambient air pollution by staying indoors on high pollution days, reducing infiltration of outdoor air into the house, cleaning the air with air filters and, although less effective, using proper types of respirators. Individuals with chronic cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases, children and the elderly should avoid exposure to air pollutants as much as possible. 

Looking at the overall situation, it is highly essential to spread public awareness and come up with new policies through the joint efforts of the public, private and health sectors to continually monitor air quality and ensure that effective measures are implemented. 

- Regmi has a Master’s in Business Administration

Published: 28-11-2017 07:45

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