Breathing is hazardous to health

Rekha Thapa of Dailekh, in far western Nepal had a job in Kathmandu after graduation, but she was not able to join. Not because it would mean distance from her family, but because of respiratory problems caused by severe air pollution in the capital.

“I have asthma,” says Thapa. “Dailekh may not have modern health facilities, but at least the air there is fresh.”

Ram Bahadur Shahi, 65, is also an asthma patient, and can breathe without problems in his home village in Kavre. But as soon as he comes to Kathmandu, the dust and the smog make him wheeze and he has difficulty breathing.

We cannot measure the impact of air pollution directly, as we can with blood pressure or glucose level. Nonetheless, it kills as many people as does chronic diseases, if not more. One study showed that in 2019 alone, 42,100 Nepalis died directly due to dirty air, and the average lifespan of a resident of Kathmandu is cut by nearly 4 years.

“Air pollution affects all parts of the human body and even unborn babies. It is carcinogenic and about 43% of asthma deaths are cases that are aggravated by dirty air,” says cardiologist, Bhagwan Koirala.

But for something as lethal as that, what is surprising is the lack of public outrage. Clean air activist Bhusan Tuladhar attributes it to the lack of a direct causal link. “When a patient dies of respiratory problems, the hospital’s death certificate does not mention ‘air pollution’ as the cause of death,” Tuladhar said in a Saglo Samaj interview (see below).

Air quality in Kathmandu is now so bad that there are now ‘pollution refugees’ who have decided to emigrate to other parts of the country, if not abroad, for health reasons. “Parents visiting their children in Australia need no medication there but as soon as they return to Kathmandu, they have to be admitted to hospitals,” says pulmonary specialist, Raju Pangeni.

Kathmandu's air pollution is hazardous to health. Photos: SAGLO SAMAJ

Two weeks ago, the Air quality index (AQI) in the capital hit record high levels. A Nepali Times monitoring team on 6 January morning, recorded AQI at 450 at Bagmati Bridge and above 300 in most parts of the city. And that was on a good day.

Diesel vehicles are among the worst polluters in Kathmandu, and the number of buses and trucks are increasing exponentially. Ten years ago, Nepal’s annual diesel import from India was only about 500,000 kilolitres. Today, it is nearly 1,500,000 kilolitres. The number of vehicles in Kathmandu Valley is increasing every year by at least 22%.

Green stickers can be bought under the counter, and there are no emission checks on the streets. There is a lack of political will to relocate brick kilns, among the major sources of suspended particulate matter. Municipalities have done little to nothing to control open garbage burning.

Correct government policy interventions were allowed to lapse. Cargo ropeways to Hetauda used to transport up to 25 tons of cargo a day. The Kathmandu-Bhaktapur trolley bus system was allowed to rot away after serving commuters for over 30 years.

The once iconic trolley bus in ruins.

But there were examples of citizen action that forced politicians to reduce air pollution. Battery-operated Safa three-wheelers replaced diesel Vikram tempos, and brick kilns were regulated. But there has been no follow-up to encourage electric public transport, and the kilns are back. And after announcing two years ago that 20% of vehicles in Nepal would be battery-powered by 2020, Prime Minister Oli’s government re-imposed taxes on electric cars last year.

The biggest impediment to clean air is the lack of political will. After all, if Kathmandu could so effectively curb drinking and driving with breathalyser tests, why is it so difficult to conduct effective emission checks? There is now Rs7 billion accumulated from pollution tax, that could be invested in clean public transport and charging infrastructure.

“Air pollution is not just an environmental problem” 

In an interview on the Saglo Samaj tv magazine program, urban planner and clean air activist, Bhushan Tuladhar explains the challenges of achieving better air quality. Excerpt:

Saglo Samaj: Which parts of Kathmandu Valley are at more risk of air pollution?

Bhushan Tuladhar: Everyone who breathes in Kathmandu is at risk. Some places are more polluted than others, but even the least polluted areas have pollution levels much higher than that recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But neighbourhoods near traffic, brick kilns and firewood burning are most exposed.

Urban planner and environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar

Recently our team went out across the town with air pollution monitoring devices. Bagmati Bridge had the worst air quality.

That is because Bagmati Bridge has constant flow of vehicles and traffic jams throughout the day. And most of these are from motorcycles, which make up 80% of vehicles in Kathmandu.  They emit invisible poisonous gases. 

What are the main sources of air pollution in Kathmandu?

The main source of pollution is transport, followed by brick kilns, garbage burning and firewood for cooking. But during winter, an inversion layer traps smoke and dust in this bowl-shaped Valley with no outlet. And we keep adding to it until it suffocates us, which is what happened two weeks ago.

What is the solution?

Use of firewood for cooking is decreasing and brick kilns have also adopted cleaner technology. But people still burn their garbage in many places, including Kathmandu. So, local representatives can be mobilised to discourage garbage burning. We need an efficient and reliable mass transit system. The per capita emission of public transport is much lower. Only 27% of the rides in Kathmandu are on buses, we need to double it. And if we can convert to electric buses, it will be even cleaner.

Transport is the biggest source of air pollution in Kathmandu Valley.

If air pollution is so hazardous, why are people not outraged?

Air pollution is a silent killer. When a patient dies of respiratory problems, the hospital’s death certificate does not mention ‘air pollution’ as the cause of death. So, people do not see the linkages between dirty air and dangerous diseases.

Is there hope that elected local governments now have decision-making power?

Municipalities have to take the lead now. The federal government should just backstop the measures and provide guidance. Air pollution is not just an environmental problem. It is a public health and economic issue and we have to treat it as such.

This interview is based on the fourth episode of  Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130. Go online to watch a trailer of the program.

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