Why is the air in Bhaktapur so bad?

Brick kilns, heavy highway traffic and prevailing winds make air quality the dirtiest in Kathmandu Valley

Brick kilns spewing smoke and steam in Bhaktapur on Tuesday morning. Photo: GOPEN RAI

Bhaktapur used to be a town where people from Kathmandu went to get away from it all, for a quieter place and fresh air.

No more. Khwopa, as the historic town is known in Newa, has consistently recorded some of the worst air quality in Kathmandu Valley, outranking even the industrial belts of Biratnagar and Bhairawa.

A recent Air Quality Index (AQI) measurement of 22 sites in Kathmandu Valley found Bhaktapur to have the most hazardous concentrations of suspended particles below 2.5 microns (PM2.5), aerosols and toxic gases. On 8 February, Madhyapur Thimi recorded the highest AQI at 310 closely followed by Duwakot at 296 and Sallaghari at 279. Changunarayan registered 234, Tathali 234 and Ghyakhel 246.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu on that day, the AQI count was still dirty at 181, but much lower than Bhaktapur. Pokhara recorded 143, Birganj 131, Chitwan 69, Nepalganj 71, Biratnagar 85 and Hetauda 81 on 8 February.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers AQI up to 50 to be good, up to 100 as medium, 100-150 bad, 151-200 unhealthy, 201-300 very unhealthy and above 300 hazardous.

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As for the PM2.5, the WHO maintains that concentration has to be below 25µg/m³ to be healthy for humans. But even in mid-February with winter almost over, the PM2.5 in Bhaktapur on 21 February was 25 times higher than the WHO annual air quality guideline value.

“During winter, the inversion phenomenon traps polluted air at ground level,” says pollution specialist Bhupendra Das. “It is still winter and the fact that there has been no rain has meant that Bhaktapur’s pollution has nowhere to go.”

Indeed, much of Nepal has not had any rainfall since mid-October 2022. Kathmandu valley alone should get about 95mm of rain between mid-October to mid-February but this dry spell has meant that there has been no precipitation to wash down the pollutants. Smoke from early wildfires across the country has added to the problem.

But the reasons why Bhaktapur has the worst air quality has more to do with prevailing winds blowing all of Kathmandu's vehicular emissions and other pollutants to the eastern rim of the Valley where it is blocked by the hills.

Read also: Hefty fines fail to deter polluting vehicles, Sushila Buhathoki

In addition, most of the Valley’s brick kilns have relocated to the outskirts of Bhaktapur where they spew out black smoke from coal and other fuel into the already polluted air.

Says Regina Maskey of the Central Department of Environment at Tribhuvan University: “The prevailing westerlies are transported over Bhaktapur, where they are trapped.”

Dirty air consists of several different types of pollutants including particulate matter made up of smoke, soot, dust, and poisonous gases like carbon monoxide and ozone from two-wheelers. Then there is open burning of agricultural residue and garbage.

On top of all this, there is the cross-border pollution from the north Indian plains which researchers say can constitute up to 40% of the pollution in Kathmandu Valley in winter.

Read also: Kathmandu’s toxic trash, Sonia Awale

But brick kilns are perhaps the biggest culprits for Bhaktapur. There are 60 registered brick kilns in the town, with 40 of them currently operating. Most of them are right outside the densely populated old town.

After nearly three years of stoppage due to the Covid-19 crisis and subsequent decline in construction, the kilns are back in operation to fulfil pent-up demand. Only a few kilns have begun to replace coal with less polluting biomass pellets because of coal prices going up after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ultimately, there is no alternative but to opt for alternatives to fired bricks like cement blocks or compressed stabilised earth bricks (CSEB). Stricter control of polluting diesel buses and trucks entering and exiting the Valley through the busy Sanga pass and a conversion to electric public transport would also help.

Reducing Nepal's petroleum import from India by only 10% will save us more than Rs30 billion a year. This money along with a seizable pollution tax in our reserves can help incentivise electric mass transit for Nepal, if there was a political will to do so.

Read also: Nepalis do not have to breathe dirty air, Shreesha Nankhwa

Worsening air pollution also has consequences on visibility. All of February, the air quality in Kathmandu Valley has been so bad that flights into the airport have had to hold for landing clearance, leading to delays.

“Lack of visibility has made it difficult for flights, which is a serious problem,” says Das, adding that while new technology has been adopted to reduce the smoke, there has been no innovation to remove sulphur dioxide emissions from low-grade coal used in brick kilns.

Given the hazardous levels of air pollution in the cities, the government back in 2020 issued the Air Quality Management Action Plan for Kathmandu Valley with a provision for a state of emergency to be declared when the AQI exceeds 300. But AQI exceeds 300 most mornings in Bhaktapur with no action from either the national government or the municipality.

Research has shown that the average life expectancy of Kathmandu Valley residents has been reduced by four years due to air pollution. The figure is 7 years for people living in the Tarai across the Indian border.

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In 2019, 17,800 deaths in Nepal were attributed to PM2.5 by the State of Global Air report. From 2010-2019, nearly 150,000 lives have been lost across the country due to respiratory ailments caused by worsening air pollution.

Air pollution causes a wide range of chronic health problems including but not limited to heart attack, cardiac arrest, pneumonia, bronchitis, lung cancer, breathlessness, diabetes, mental health disorders and congenital issues.

According to the WHO, more people have lost their lives to air pollution than the Covid-19 pandemic which has killed over 6.7 million people globally since 2020. Comparatively, air pollution killed 9 million people in just one year in 2019. And yet, there is not much effort into reducing the impact of air pollution or serious measures to reduce the emissions and save millions of lives.

The report also stated that the concentration of PM2.5 in Nepal was as high as that in Indian cities which often make it to the most polluted list. Kathmandu and Tarai cities often make it to the list too. What is surprising is that Bhaktapur municipality has been a stronghold of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party which has been known for good governance, and for service delivery in education and health.

It is time the federal and provincial governments worked with Kathmandu Valley mayors to clean up at least the vehicular emissions and open garbage burning that is disproportionately affecting Bhaktapur. And Bhaktapur itself could ban brick kilns so close to its town centre.  

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