Dirty politics = Dirty air
That Nepal’s political leadership does not care about the health of its people is abundantly clear from its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. However, they do not seem to worry even about their own health.
In the past months, they have been attending crowded indoor meetings without adequate precautions against the coronavirus. And Kathmandu’s worsening air pollution crisis, which the politicians have done nothing to address, also affects their lungs.
On Wednesday morning, the Air Quality Index (AQI) was in the maroon ‘Hazardous’ range in Singha Darbar (380), Minister’s Quarters in Pulchok (380) and the official residence of the president at Shital Nibas (360).
The air quality in the seats of power was in fact worse than in other parts of the capital – Kalanki intersection had an AQI of 320. Generally, the western edges of the Valley have relatively better air quality because of prevailing winds.
Between 8-9AM on 6 January Nepali Times reporters fanned out across the city with ambient air quality monitoring kits to measure pollution levels. At every point, the combined US AQI readings were much above 300 -- more than 10 times higher than what the WHO regards as safe. (See map)
Patan Dhoka: 380
Kupondole: 430Bagmati bridge: 450Tripureshwor: 450Teku: 420Kalimati: 455Balkhu: 320Kalanki: 320Swayambhu: 340Balaju: 370Maharajgunj: 360US Embassy: 360Shital Niwas: 355Japanese Embassy: 310Lazimpat: 330Thamel: 330Darbar Marg: 350Tudikhel: 370Singha Darbar: 380Maitighar: 390Naya bus park: 330
This is a measurement of the concentration of tiny particles in the air, including really harmful ones less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can lodge deep in the lungs, and are small enough to enter the bloodstream.
The results show that although AQI had improved after surpassing a record 500 on 4-5 January, it was still at extremely harmful levels on Wednesday morning. In fact, in Kopundole, Tripureswor and Kalimati, AQI recorded levels above 450.
By afternoon, bright sunshine and a fresh westerly breeze helped blow the smog away. Kathmandu was emitting pollution, it was just that the dirty air was being exported to districts to the east. From there, much of it was transported up the mountains for the soot to be deposited on Himalayan glaciers, making them melt even faster.
Despite the majestic view of Langtang and Dorje Lakpa to the north, AQI in Patan still hovered between 200-300 on Wednesday afternoon. At one point, a neighbour set fire to refuse and the AQI spiked to 450 within minutes.
“People are blaming weather for poor air quality, but we are polluting the air throughout the year. On Monday and Tuesday, the pollutants were trapped and had nowhere to go,” says clean air activist Bhushan Tuladhar.
Experts say that Monday and Tuesday’s exceptionally bad air quality in Kathmandu only stood out because it was visible. Open fires, brick kilns, vehicular emission, last week’s wildfires in the mountains, and cross-border industrial smog combined with winter inversion trapped pollutants in the bowl-shaped Valley.
Back in May, for the first time in many years, Mt Everest at a distance of 200km was visible from Kathmandu. One factor was zero vehicular emissions and brick kilns shutting because of the lockdown.
Kathmandu’s air pollution is a clear indication of governance failure. Corruption in emission checks for green stickers, the lack of political will to relocate brick kilns, and the inability of the municipalities to control garbage burning.
Last year, the Cabinet decided that it would declare a health emergency if AQI exceeded 300 and take measures to reduce vehicles on the roads. If it followed its own rules, the government should declare an emergency every day to protect public health.
However, the ruling Nepal Communist Party has been in a crisis ever since Prime Minister K P Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December, and called for snap polls. The government is too preoccupied to pay attention to the double whammy of Covid-19 and air pollution.
“This is a grave threat to public health, the government should have declared an emergency and taken urgent measures to curb pollution,” says Bhushan Tuladhar.
This week, all major newspapers, radio stations and tv shows for the first time made air pollution their main news headline. But as blue skies returned, people were back on the streets oblivious to still-high pollution levels.
And this was just the particles in the air, there are also poisonous invisible gases like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide and surface ozone. Studies have shown that most of these gases are emitted by motorcycles and scooters, of which there are 1.5 million in Kathmandu Valley alone and more are being added every day.
Most Kathmandu residents are now wearing masks to protect themselves from both Covid-19 as well as particulates in the air, but masks cannot filter highly poisonous gases like carbon monoxide.
During the AQI measurement trip on Wednesday, all the sources of pollution were visible: garbage burning by the banks of the Vishnumati, cargo trucks at Kalanki spewing putrid black smoke, people warming hands by a roadside fire, dust rising from sidewalks.
The problem with Kathmandu’s air quality is not so much the spike that happened on two days this week, but long-term exposure to dangerously high levels of pollution. A 2018 WHO report said such sustained exposure to dirty air could reduce average lifespans by nearly four years. The State of Global Air report said air pollution was directly responsible for 42,100 deaths in Nepal in 2019.
During the lockdown, there was sharp fall in the number of people with chronic respiratory illnesses, and it looked like masks and distancing to prevent Covid-19 protected many from other infections.
But Raju Pangeni, pulmonary specialist at HAMS Hospital says the numbers went up as winter set in, and vehicles returned to the streets. He says, “In the last two months we are back to nearly as many patients as we did this time of the year.”
There are solutions to the Kathmandu’s worsening air quality. The municipalities have not been able to relocate brick kilns, or promote alternative building materials. Green stickers can be ‘bought’ under the counter for Rs1,000, and there is no control of open garbage burning.
Prime Minister Oli promised that foreigners would come to Nepal to “breathe clean air”. Not likely. Two years ago, he pledged to make 20% of vehicles in Nepal battery-powered by 2020, that deadline has come and gone. In fact, Oli’s favourite finance minister hiked the tax on electric cars in last year’s budget.
“Air pollution is a long-term problem that needs policy level change. It should go hand in hand with education and awareness which are the precursors to clean air,” says Shisir Sharma of the group Dhristi Kathmandu that has been monitoring air quality since 2016.
The good news is that this week’s pollution emergency has increased public concern about the health risks, especially its links with Covid-19. Demand for battery-operated vehicles will rise if there is a tax rebate, and room air purifiers are flying off the shelves.
Says Bhushan Tuladhar: “People have a choice to ride Safa tempo, or bicycle. Brick kilns can be cleaner. Truck emissions can be controlled. There is a solution to pollution.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.