May 27, 2024, Monday
Nepal 1:37:26 pm

Spring season brings no relief for Kathmandu: Air quality remains poor

The Nepal Weekly
April 16, 2024

The seasonal calendar declares that spring has arrived in Kathmandu, but the city’s residents find little reason to celebrate. The blossoming Jacaranda trees and vibrant Bougainvillea flowers that once signaled this rejuvenating time of year now serve as a cruel irony. Despite the natural signs of spring’s arrival, the air in Kathmandu remains thick with a cloud of choking smog posing a stark contrast to the crisp, clean atmosphere that should accompany this time of the year.

The dire state of Kathmandu’s atmosphere is quantified by alarming data from IQAir. On April 10, the city’s air quality index (AQI) reached a staggering 265, with particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) levels reaching 34 times higher than the annual guideline set by the World Health Organization. The situation showed little improvement just days later, with the AQI still registering at 155 on April 15.Badri Raj Dhungana, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Forest and Environment attributed this slight drop in pollution levels to a recent rainfall event. However, The PM2.5 concentrations remained a distressing 12.6 times above the WHO’s recommended threshold.

An air quality index (AQI) above 100 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as the elderly, children, and those with respiratory conditions. When the AQI exceeds 150, it is categorized as unhealthy for the general population. Regrettably, in Kathmandu Valley, the air quality remains at unhealthy levels for the majority of the time.This persistent state of poor air quality poses a serious threat to the health and well-being of Kathmandu’s residents. AQI readings above 100 can trigger a range of adverse health effects, including respiratory irritation, aggravated asthma, and increased risk of cardiovascular problems. The fact that Kathmandu’s air quality is so frequently categorized as “unhealthy” is an indictment of the city’s ongoing battle against air pollution.

Dhungana emphasized that the prominent factors driving air pollution during this dry season are the prevalence of wildfires and the widespread burning of agricultural residues along with industrial work and vehicular emissions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), wildfire smoke is a mixture of hazardous air pollutants, including particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide, ozone, aromatic hydrocarbons, and even lead.

Breathing in these pollutants leads to inflammation, oxidative stress, immune suppression, and mutagenicity in cells throughout the human body impacting the lungs, heart, and brain and ultimately leading to disease. Time and again, Experts have advised the residents to take drastic measures to safeguard their health. They recommend avoiding outdoor exercises, wearing protective masks, and limiting time spent outdoors to mitigate the respiratory risks posed by the city’s deteriorating air quality.

“The thought of going out has become suffocating for the residents of Kathmandu. Itchy eyes, persistent headaches, and the looming fear of long-term health consequences have become the unfortunate new normal.”, Tanuja Pandey, the founder and Chairperson of Harin Nepal, captured the gravity of the situation.

“In Nepal, air pollution claims approximately 42,000 lives annually, surpassing the toll of COVID-19,” Pandey said. “Despite this alarming public health crisis, the government’s response remains inadequate, neglecting it as a matter of human rights.” She emphasized the contrast between Nepal’s ambitious pledges for climate action on the global stage, seeking compensation for loss and damage, and the grim reality within the country.”Continuously ranking among the top 5 most polluted cities by IQAir exposes a glaring hypocrisy,” Pandey who has been working in the field of intersectional issues in Nepal for 6 years states “Is it too much to ask for a livable, healthy city? Sadly, clean air has become a luxury that the majority of us cannot afford in Nepal.” She explained the immense suffering and frustration felt by the people of Kathmandu, who are forced to struggle with the effects of the city’s deteriorating air quality, even during the spring season. Also, she rightly points out that the government’s response has been woefully inadequate, neglecting the fundamental human right to breathe clean air.

Sunil Kumar Manandhar, former Environment Minister expressed concern about the air pollution crisis in Kathmandu Valley, describing it as having reached a “severe and warning level.” According to him, the problem is driven by a confluence of factors, including rapid urbanization, the prevalence of fire incidents, industrial and vehicular emissions, as well as household pollution. Manandhar, who currently serves as an advisor for the organization Land for Future, which focuses on environmental and land degradation issues, urgently called on the government to enact stronger laws and regulations to address the air pollution crisis. He emphasized that the harmful impacts on human health must be the driving force behind these policy interventions, as the deteriorating air quality continues to pose a serious threat to the well-being of Kathmandu’s residents. In addition to policy reforms, Manandhar appealed for a robust public campaign to raise awareness about the air pollution issue. By engaging and mobilizing the community, he believes greater momentum can be built to demand comprehensive solutions and hold the authorities accountable for tackling this environmental calamity.

Badri Raj Dhungana highlighted that the Department of Environment had formulated a comprehensive Air Quality Management Action Plan for Kathmandu Valley back in 2017 to address the city’s ravaging air pollution crisis. However, he acknowledged that the effective implementation of this action plan has been hindered by a lack of coordination among the three tiers of government.”Air pollution is not only our issue; it is a prevalent problem in different states of India, such as New Delhi, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh,” Dhungana emphasized. He explained that the seasonal nature of the pollution before monsoon is due to the lack of rainfall and strong wind. The pollutants remain suspended in the atmosphere, creating a thick cloud of smog that envelops the region.

There is no single cause to be blamed for the air pollution. The problem of air pollution has been further compounded by the rapid urbanization of rural areas, as revealed by the National Census of 2021. The data showed a significant increase in the urban population, from 27.07% to a higher percentage over the past decade. Dhungana believes this trend of rural-urban migration has emptied the countryside, where people previously relied on forests for fodder and animal rearing. As a result, the forests have become blanketed with dry leaves and undergrowth, making them highly susceptible to catching fire and contributing to the air pollution crisis. The prevalence of wildfires, the burning of agricultural waste, climate change, and urban sprawl – have created a perfect storm, trapping the residents of urban areas in a choking haze of polluted air, even during the spring season. Dhungana said that Nepal is not in a position to create artificial rain to reduce pollution levels, underscoring the need for a multi-sectoral, collaborative approach to tackle this complex issue.

Birds still chirp their songs of spring, but their melodies are muffled by the haze that envelops the city. Locals who venture outdoors seeking an embrace of the freshness of spring are instead met with an oppressive, polluted air that stings their eyes and creates difficulty in breathing. The promise of spring, a time traditionally marked by renewal and revitalization, has been cruelly snatched away from the people of Kathmandu. Even as nature showcases its seasonal splendor, the ongoing air pollution crisis casts a dark shadow over the city, denying its people the respite they rightfully deserve.