Kathmandu's toxic trashOpen garbage burning is reducing the lifespan of Nepalis
All things considered, living in Kathmandu has been unusually pleasant this winter. The temperature has been relatively mild, visibility has not been too bad, and there are majestic views of Himalayan peaks to the north.
Records show that even the air is relatively cleaner than previous winters when the Air Quality Index (AQI), sometimes, was as bad as 700 — 14 times higher than the WHO standard. Brick kilns are not operating, no major construction projects are starting soon due to the economic slump, and the wildfire season has not yet started in earnest.
But we should not be fooled by all this. Hospitals in Kathmandu have seen a sharp increase in patients visiting for respiratory ailments this winter, even though Covid-19 cases are negligible.
“From regular cold, cough and wheezing, to bronchitis, asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD], we are seeing a marked increase in patients, primarily because of Kathmandu’s dry, cold and polluted air,” says pulmonary specialist at HAMS hospital, Raju Pangeni.
He adds: “Children and elderly are at most risk, and I advise everyone to try not to undertake any activities that will worsen air quality or avoid those that will expose them to bad air.”
Indeed, while AQI reading in Kathmandu is nowhere near breaking records, it exceeded the 200 mark some mornings this week in parts of the Valley. This is considered unhealthy for all populations. The air quality is much worse in Tarai towns bordering India because of transboundary pollution, local industrial emissions, as well as the thick and persistent fog that engulfed the Indo-Gangetic plains all week.
Open burning of waste is one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Kathmandu in winter. During bitingly cold winter mornings, people huddle around garbage fires in street corners that give off carcinogenic gases like dioxin and carbon monoxide.
A 2020 regional study found ‘that garbage burning emissions could increase PM2.5 concentrations by nearly 30% in India and Nepal, and result in some 300,000 premature deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the two countries.’
According to another 2020 research by Kathmandu University, some 9% of the capital’s waste is burned, adding to its hazardous levels of pollution. A Tribhuvan University survey in 2016 said that open burning in Nepal was three times as high as government estimates.
“Compared to some of the other sources, the total contribution of garbage burning to levels of air pollutants is less well-understood but it is an important contributor, especially in urban areas,” says Pallavi Pant of the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based non-profit specialising in research on the health effects of air pollution.
She adds: “Open burning of waste can also contribute to ozone formation, and is a source of benzene, a cancer-causing compound. Recent studies in South Asian countries have included garbage burning as an important source of fine particulate matter or PM2.5.”
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Kathmandu and major urban centres in Nepal are seeing a worrying rise in the prevalence of non-communicable and chronic diseases, which in turn is making Nepalis poorer because they have to pay expensive medical bills. While there are multiple factors involved, exposure to carcinogens is one big risk.
“By burning garbage we are not only inhaling toxins but contaminating our water resources and, in turn, our very food system. So without us ever knowing or even getting directly involved, carcinogens enter our lives often causing irreparable damage,” warns Raju Pangeni. “No wonder people who have never smoked are getting cancers or individuals with no family history of chronic illnesses are getting sick.”
The irony here is that putting a stop to open garbage burning could be one of the easier things the Valley’s municipalities could do — instead of going after sidewalk vegetable vendors.
“Our research over the past decade has shown that up to a quarter of winter-time air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley is from open burning of garbage,” explains atmospheric scientist Arnico Pandey who is now a central committee member of the Rastriya Swatantra Party, the fourth largest party in Parliament and whose chair Rabi Lamichhane is the Home Minister.
“This is a very low-hanging fruit to improve air quality … municipalities are empowered to stop garbage burning, but have shown very little interest to date. Stopping it would require both punitive action by the city police as well as better managed and predictably scheduled garbage pick-up services.”
In November 2022, Kathmandu Metropolitan City banned open burning of waste. Back in 2018, the Supreme Court also prohibited open burning in the Valley. And yet, burning continues — another manifestation of the chronic implementation failure from which Nepal suffers.
A blanket ban alone is not a solution. It is equally important to educate people about the dangers of burning trash and provide them with a better municipal waste disposal system.
“The issue of garbage burning is complex, especially because it can be very widespread, and trends can vary significantly from location to location,” adds Pallavi Pant. “Similar to residential use of biomass, charcoal, dung, etc. as a cooking fuel, it is also important to consider socio-economic factors that prompt people to burn garbage.”
Garbage burning in winter to keep oneself warm is tied to the economic status of people. The very fact that Nepal witnesses hundreds of deaths every winter because of cold is proof enough that structural changes are required, not just a piecemeal approach.
Says environmental activist Bhushan Tuladhar: “A ban on garbage burning is a good start but we need a sustained and strategic campaign to phase it out, backed by effective implementation of policies, public awareness and cleaner, healthier alternatives.”
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Garbage in garbage out
Kathmandu Valley generates over 1,200 tonnes of solid waste every day. Of this, nearly 75% ends up in the landfill site in Nuwakot, while the rest is burned, left in open spaces, or dumped into the Bagmati.
Municipal waste is an ecosystem of its own with perishables and non-biodegradable garbage often mixed together because of a lack of segregation. They can contain food items, plastics and paper, to metals and construction materials.
When burned, plastics release toxic gases, like dioxins, furans (C4H4O), mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls. Even a plain sheet of paper often contains chlorine which when burned also gives off dioxin associated with cancers and congenital defects.
Similarly, dry ink in books and newspapers generates lead which in any amount is harmful to children and their mental growth. Burning heavy metals like cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As), lead (Pb) and mercury (Hg) all produce carcinogens, while burning wood emits carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur oxides (SOx), and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Solid waste management is becoming a huge concern for Kathmandu residents. The lack of a reliable municipal system has left people to fend for themselves, and most do not even segregate waste. Mayor Balen Shah’s announcement last year that he would mandate segregation of waste has been all but forgotten.
Even before segregating waste, Kathmandu residents could reduce, recycle and turn much of the household garbage into compost. Studies have revealed that Kathmandu’s waste can be reduced by as high as 80% if proper segregation, reuse and recycling were in place.