Nepal is going up in smoke

Wildfires lead to hazardous air quality for third straight day, with no end in sight

For the third straight day, air quality over Nepal has been at hazardous levels. In Pokhara, the smoke obliterated a view of the other side of the lake. Photo: BHUSHAN TULADHAR

There were already indications in December that the wildfire season in the Himalaya was starting early. There had been no rain for three months, and the forests were already burning from Piuthan to Pathivara. One forest blaze in Manang started in November and was still raging two months later.

During the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara in January, guests noticed the summit of Mt Machapuchre devoid of snow and the base of the mountain covered in smoke from a vast forest fire.

The blazes then spread to Lamjung and Rasuwa, blowing the smoke to Kathmandu where the Air Quality Index (AQI) crossed 500 on the afternoon of 5 January, raising calls for the government to declare a health emergency.

It only got worse in February and March, and by last week there are hundreds of wildfires spreading right across the Tarai and mid-mountains of Nepal, shrouding the whole country in smoke. People complained of stinging eyes, headaches and breathing difficulties.

The Air Quality Index that measures the concentration of harmful particles below 2.5 microns rose to 632 in Kathmandu on Friday, 26 March as a brisk southwesterly breeze blew in smoke from fires in Chitwan, Makwanpur and Parsa.

On Sunday, the AQI had stayed above 400 for the third straight day – ten times higher than air quality that the World Health Organization deems safe to breathe, with peaks of 550-600. The smoke was thick enough to blot out the sun and the full moon.

NASA satellite images taken on Sunday, 28 March showed extensive fires still sending plumes of smoke across the foothills of the eastern Himalaya and up the river valleys, sometimes right up into Tibet.

“As required by the Cabinet decision last year on the Air Quality Action Plan, the government should have declared an emergency after the AQI crossed 300,” says environmental activist Bhushan Tuladhar. “This would mean closing schools and factories, reducing traffic and strict controls on open burning.”

However, except for a statement by the Ministry of Health warning citizens about high air pollution levels that left it up to them to take care of their own health, a government consumed by political infighting has not been bothered by a crisis that adds to the threat of a Covid-19 surge.

Most environmentalists agree that this year’s fire has been unprecedented. Previous wildfires in 2008 and 2012 in Rasuwa and Nuwakot had also turned the sky dark over Kathmandu, but only briefly. What worries them is the extended nature of the current spate of fires that has now lasted five months, and continues to get worse.

They say the main reason for this year’s disaster is the extended winter drought, with precipitation over Central Nepal at only 10% of normal, and the dry spell continuing into spring. Scientists are reluctant to make a direct correlation between climate crisis and individual weather events, but studies have shown that climate-related droughts did contribute to last year’s devastating fires in California and Australia.

"Spring rainfall varies year to year. Last year we had a relatively wet spring. This year is exceptionally dry with forest fires already in January," says Arnico Panday, an atmospheric scientist and senior research fellow at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS). "While it is difficult to immediately connect specific events to climate change, which considers average change over decades, there is an expectation that climate change will bring more extreme dry and wet events even if total precipitation stays the same.”

There could be other factors at play like accumulated brush in the undergrowth because of the movement restrictions last year that added  flammable material to the forest floor. Spring is a season when many farmers deliberately light fires to encourage new shoots for their livestock to graze on, or before maize planting. These practices could have allowed fires to spread faster this year because the underbrush was already tinder dry.

Depopulation of Nepal’s hinterland due to out-migration also means there are fewer people to make and maintain firebreaks in community forests, and also to extinguish local fires when they ignite. Forest management has historically also tended to be less responsive during periods of instability, especially when there is uncertainty over control over natural resources at the local level.

Forest fires burning out of control in the mountains of Achham district on 10 March. Video: KUNDA DIXIT

Indeed, even the federal government’s response seem to be to let the fires burn themselves out. Despite the unprecedented scale of the blazes the Home Ministry has not mobilised the security forces and local authorities to take action. National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority has so far only been counting the number of fires, and expressing concern.

Besides addressing the immediate health concerns for millions of Nepalis who are exposed to hazardous air for days on end, the government also has to start looking at minimising the damage during the annual fire season in future.

This year’s wildfires have received a lot of attention because Kathmandu and other cities were badly affected, but air quality experts say the cumulative impact of vehicular emission and industrial pollution throughout the year is much more harmful to health. There is also cross-border industrial pollution, smoke from crop residue burning, as well as wind-blown desert sand dust, which have been particularly acute in the past months.

“This week’s forest fires just made the existing air pollution in Kathmandu worse, we should be doing a lot more to reduce vehicular exhaust, brick kilns and open garbage burning,” says Bhushan Tuladhar, a board member of Sajha Yatayat which last week opened a tender for 40 electric buses to upgrade Kathmandu’s urban transport system.

And although Kathmandu got a bad name this weekend for topping the list of the world’s most polluted cities, experts say such rankings are misleading because they ignore other urban centres like Bharatpur or Simra where the air quality has been even worse for longer periods.

“In the past couple of years, we have learnt that the absolute worst air quality in cities like Delhi, San Francisco, Sydney or Kathmandu is found when they are importing smoke from large nearby biomass fires,” explains Arnico Panday, who is also CEO of the Ullens Education Foundation. “Actually it is the vehicles and industries that have larger year-around emissions.”

Meanwhile, meteorologists say there is no change in wind direction or rain forecast this week to blow away smoke, or douse the fires. Without any ground or aerial firefighting ability on the scale needed, it may just be that Nepal will have to wait for the fires to burn themselves out.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).