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The sun has been a red eye in the sky for the past three days now. Light filtering through smoke-grey clouds is dim and visibility is poor. Even a short amount of time spent outdoors can result in breathing difficulties, itchy eyes, and a nagging cough.
Since Friday, March 26, the air quality index (AQI) for Kathmandu has remained well above 300, with peaks between 500-600, according to the air quality monitor at the US Embassy compound in Phora Durbar. AQI is a composite metric that takes into account the concentration of particulate matter below 10 microns (PM10) and particulate matter below 2.5 microns (PM2.5) in the air along with the presence of carbon monoxide, ozone, sulphur, and nitrogen dioxide.
According to the Environment Department at the Ministry of Water and Environment, AQI of above 101 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, above 151 unhealthy for all populations, and anything above 401 is “very hazardous”. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency considers an AQI between 300 and 500 as “hazardous” and should “trigger health warnings of emergency conditions”. Prolonged exposure to such high levels of pollution are likely to have serious long-term effects on respiratory health.
Across Nepal, especially along the Tarai, air quality has been dropping and residents have been advised to stay indoors and wear nose and eye protection if they have to step outside. On Monday, the AQI was highest in Bharatpur at 420, followed by Kathmandu with 326, according to IQAir, a Swiss air quality monitor. The air quality in Nepal, and especially Kathmandu, has long been a cause for concern but it has rarely reached heights like this. In early January, AQI crossed 500 for the first time due to a combination of winter inversion and wildfires across the southern border.
A satellite image from Monday, March 29, shows hundreds of wildfires across the country over the past 24 hours. Source: NASA-FIRMS[/caption] This time too, meteorologists point to a spate of wildfires across the country as being behind the rise in AQI.
“The primary source of the pollution are the forest fires,” said Bikash Nepal, a meteorologist with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “There are two main causes that support the pollution. One, the lack of atmospheric moisture, leading to no rainfall, and two, the challenging geography. Pollution is exacerbated in the valleys because they are bowl-shaped, making it difficult for the air to pass through.”
Satellite images from NASA show hundreds of small and large wildfires raging across the country, primarily in the plains but also in the lower and upper hills. While there might be reason to attribute some part of the wildfires to climate change, scientists are hesitant to draw quick links without evidence. The smoke from these fires, however, is primarily to blame for the increase in pollution as the smoke traps existing pollutants and prevents them from dissipating, say meteorologists. This effect is particularly pronounced in the Kathmandu Valley, as its bowl-like shape tends to be more conducive to trapping pollutants like particulate matter.
In response to the rising levels of particulate matter in the air, the Environment Department, in 2017, had come up with an Air Quality Management Action Plan for Kathmandu Valley. This action plan, according to Nepali Times, was endorsed in 2020 by the Cabinet and recommends the declaration of a health emergency should AQI rise above 300. The Health Ministry has so far only issued a press statement asking Nepalis to stay indoors and take precautions.
Air quality index (AQI) in Kathmandu from February 28 to March 29. Source: IQAir[/caption] In 2019, Kathmandu Metropolitan City had also installed 60 smart dustbins -- trash cans that also display the current AQI -- across Kathmandu to inform the public when the air quality is unhealthy or hazardous. But citizens barely paid any attention to these smart dustbins, especially as the air quality rarely descended below unhealthy levels. Environmentalists say that while the current levels of pollution are particularly bad, year-round pollution from vehicle emissions, factories, and brick kilns could be much worse. Nepal ranks consistently among countries with the worst quality of air. According to Yale University’s 2020 Environmental Performance Index, Nepal ranks 178 out of 180 countries in terms of air quality.
Long-term exposure to air pollution results in roughly 7 million premature deaths a year worldwide, according to the UN. Health complications like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, asthma, allergies, poor ocular health, headaches, fatigue and even cancer can also persist. According to a 2018 paper, deaths from chronic respiratory disease in Nepal account for around 13 percent of all deaths from noncommunicable diseases.
Such high levels of pollution also don’t bode well for health in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In October 2020, Dr Maria Neira, director of the public health department of the World Health Organization, had warned about the risks of air pollution making Covid-19 worse.
“In the case of the patients with COVID-19, those who will be more at severe risk of developing illness are those with underlying conditions like high blood pressure or heart diseases or respiratory diseases,” she said in an interview. “We see where air pollution might exacerbate those diseases and make the patients, the population, more vulnerable to the disease, plus to the severity of developing a more serious illness.”
In the face of such crippling pollution levels, there is not much that citizens or even governments can do in the immediate, barring weather control. Schools and colleges can be shut down, an odd-even rule for vehicles implemented, and the public asked to remain indoors.
But these are temporary stop-gaps; the long-term solution, according to Dr Neira, lies in legislation.
“We need to make sure that as citizens, we are aware of the fact that the air pollution is affecting our health, and by doing so, requesting our authorities, at the city or the country level, to tackle the causes of air pollution, reducing the emissions,” she said.
On this front, there is little being done, besides coming up with reports, task forces, and recommendations. Vehicle emissions continue to rise as millions of new cars and motorbikes are added to the country’s streets every year. There are few zoning regulations for brick kilns, factories, and industries, even in cities like Kathmandu, Biratnagar, and Bharatpur.
As of now, the government has announced a four-day closure of schools across the country in light of the pollution, but there have been no major announcements as to what measures it is taking to control the wildfires. There is no telling when the haze will clear either, as no change in the winds or rainfall is predicted for the near future.
“It [clearing the pollution] will require wind and heavy rainfall, neither of which is forecast before the end of this week,” said Barun Poudel, a meteorologist at the Meteorological Forecasting Division. “The weather, however, is predicted to be slightly better tomorrow when compared to the previous days.”
The Record We are an independent digital publication based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Our stories examine politics, the economy, society, and culture. We look into events both current and past, offering depth, analysis, and perspective. Explore our features, explainers, long reads, multimedia stories, and podcasts. There’s something here for everyone.
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