Full of hot air

  • As all else, government directives against air pollution only work if they are enforced

Jan 24, 2018-

The move by Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development to ask the 18 metropolitan cities and municipalities in the Kathmandu Valley to immediately enforce a ban on the open burning of waste is welcome. Air pollution in the Valley, among the worst in the world, has got so bad that current levels are four times worse than the minimum breathable standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Other cities with comparable levels of pollution are Kabul, Afghanistan and Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It is hardly a Kathmandu-centric hazard, however. According the Ministry of Urban Development, more than 80 percent of Nepalis living in urban areas breathe air that exceeds safety limits. 

A recent study conducted by the Department of Environment found that over 19 percent of overall pollutants in the air in Kathmandu stem from the open burning of waste. The directive to enforce the ban on open burning, then, could truly help clean up the air in the Valley. But congratulations will be due only after the directive is enforced by the local bodies effectively.

The burning of waste—which, among others, contains plastics and other chemical compounds used in packaging and printing—produces toxins such as carbon monoxide, arsenic, dioxins, furans and mercury. These chemicals are known to cause  various types of cancer, liver problems and impairments to the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Open burning also produces particulates that are smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM2.5, which end up suspended in the air and enter our bodies through respiration—causing skin allergies and massive respiratory hazards. The WHO has deemed PM2.5 levels in the air above 25 micrograms per cubic metre as harmful for human health. As of Tuesday, PM2.5 levels hit 199 in certain parts of Kathmandu. The safest level recorded anywhere in the Valley, in Pulchowk, stood at 41.

The directive on banning open burning follows other attempts by concerned authorities in recent times with an aim to reducing air pollution levels. The government last year imposed a ban on the operation of vehicles inside the Valley that are more than 20 years old. It also has for a long time had provisions for yearly environmental emission checks on four wheelers—the green stickers on vehicles are supposed to show that they comply with emission standards. 

On paper, with vehicular emissions being a source for 38 percent of air pollution, these seem like laudable measures. But it has proven ineffective. Vehicles certified as having cleared the emissions test are routinely seen emitting dark smoke on the streets. The Finance Ministry has also been charging an environmental tax on fuel sales since 2007. However, due to what it claims as a lack of human resource to use the money effectively, more than Rs4.2 billion of the tax remains unspent. Clearly, there is a huge gap between policy prescriptions and enforcement. 

Published: 24-01-2018 07:53

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