Almost every day we can read one or two letters to the editor concerning the pollution of Kathmandu valley. People have become more aware and concerned about the alarming effects of air pollution which has become a threat to our very existence due to ever rising population and centralization. The high demand of electricity, transportation and infrastructural development is making sustained clean air very challenging. Kathmandu’s air has been hazardous since many years, but recently the Government’s rampant disorganized infrastructure development at the heart of the valley, vehicular emissions, industrial fumes (brick kilns), diesel generators and unmanaged construction work have made this existing problem more “visible”. People’s only protective measure against this pollution is wearing a cheap mask which has proved to be both ineffective and unreliable to ensure healthy lungs.
The universal unit for measuring the air pollution, the PM level depends on the concentration of particulates which are the microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the air coming from natural sources like forest fires, dust blown by the wind, pollen, rock erosion, volcanic eruptions and sources connected to human activities like vehicular emissions, burning of fuel, oil, coal and wood, emissions from construction activities, power stations, agriculture, tobacco smokes and so on. According to the WHO report released on September 27, 2016, 92% of the population breathes unhealthy air and one in nine death per year or about six million deaths can be attributed to breathing in air with unhealthy PM levels. In India and Nepal, nearly 75 percent of the population are exposed to unsafe levels of fine particulate matter, and Nepal ranks 149 among 180 countries in terms of air quality. (Environmental Protection Index 2016 report). This shows that air pollution in Kathmandu has reached alarming levels.
PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter, PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. For clean air, the PM2.5 or PM10 level should be at safe levels at different times of the year. WHO has set the “Safe” PM level at 10 micrograms per cubic meter, but most of the countries surpassed those levels. Nepal’s national air pollution standard is 40 µg/m3 but in 2016 the PM level in the valley was above 200 micrograms per cubic meter, reaching over 300 in winter. With a median PM concentration of 50, Nepal is the 10th most polluted country in terms of air quality.
Scientific studies have shown that smaller particulates enter deep inside lungs and blood streams resulting in decreased lung function, heart attack, aggravated asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, premature death in people with respiratory illness and cross infection due to high population density with the immediate effects like difficulty in breathing and coughing. A recent study indicates that a mere 10 µg/m3 increase in PM2.5 can increase the risk of lung cancer by 8 percent, cardiopulmonary deaths by 6 percent and all deaths by 4 percent. (USAID 2003 report). As a result of welfare loss, decreased labor output and decline in agricultural production Nepal has encountered a huge economic decline costing 4.68% of its GDP in 2013(World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics). Several studies and recent reports have proved the immediate need of action to be taken by the Government with the joint effort of different sectors, civil society, NGOs, Environmental Protection Organizations to control air pollution.
In 2002 the Danish Government had installed seven air quality stations in various parts of Kathmandu but in 2009 these stations were shut down due to improper management. Last year the Department of Environment revived those stations with the support from ICIMOD and is planning to install 56 stations throughout the country. The new stations will be better equipped to measure PM2.5, PM10, black carbon, and will have meteorological sensors and a gas analyzer that measures ozone, NOx, SO2, CO, etc. Once these stations are in full function rapid actions can be taken to manage air pollution.
In order to manage air pollution and give people their rights to breath clean air, saving millions of lives, several universally accepted measures have to be implemented which are both attainable and necessary. The prime source for deteriorating air quality has been vehicular emissions and Government should implement both long and short term measures to control it. The most effective measure is to reinstate trolley buses in Kathmandu and in feasible sectors of Terai. Equal emphasis should be given to instigating electric train services and rope way transportation in hilly areas. Policies should be implemented which will give incentives to private sectors and the citizens to use electric vehicles. 700 polluting LPG gas operated vehicles should be converted to battery run vehicles. Further, policies should be made where travelling to major tourist destinations and historical places could be possible only via electric commutes.
Another effective measure to control air quality is through proper waste management. Actions should be taken to stop burning of waste, reduce emissions from brick kilns and cement factories. Construction pollution has been a major threat of controlling pollution and in order to prevent this, good construction site practice has to be implemented. Efforts should be made to minimize soil erosions by increasing vegetation, using fine water sprays to control dust, placing fine mesh screening close to the dust source, covering piles of building materials like cement and checking for spillage, covering all drains, using non-toxic paints and solvents and using low sulfur diesel in all vehicle and equipment engines.
Chemical air pollution is not the only troubling factor. Air borne dust particle spread from disorganized and unplanned construction has been the primary factor polluting the air. The government has to immediately allocate its concern and priority to monitor, oversee and complete the ongoing construction works. Prevention of haphazard vandalism and delayed reconstruction is of utmost priority.
Apart from implementing policies to reduce emissions of major air pollutants, preventive measures should be taken by all individuals to prevent the risk of acute and chronic health problems like reducing the exposure to the ambient air pollution by staying indoor on high pollution days, reducing outdoor air infiltration to indoors, cleaning air with air filters and although less effective, using proper type of respirators. Individuals with chronic cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases, children and elderly should avoid exposure to air pollutants as much as possible.
Looking at the overall situation, it is highly crucial to spread public awareness and come up with new policies through the joint effort of all public, private and health sectors to continually monitor air quality and ensure effective measures are implemented.
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