(This article was published in The Kathmandu Post on Septmber 11, 2012.)
SEP 11 –
In Kathmandu Valley, one of the world’s most polluted cities, every breath is slowly killing you. Over 1,900 people die every year in the Valley due to air pollution, coming down to five premature deaths each day, according to a 2006 study by the Nepal Health Research Council and the World Health Organization. The number is likely to risen even higher in recent years as the Capital’s air quality has only continued to deteriorate.
Noxious vehicular smoke is largely to blame for the poor air quality of the city. Transport alone contributes to over 60 percent of particulate matter (PM10) in the air. Major concerns for human health from exposure to PM10 include respiratory infections, damage to lung tissue, cancer, heart diseases and even death.
A research paper published by Atmospheric Pollution Research showed that areas with high traffic density are seriously polluted. PM10 levels were found to be so high that the sites were considered ‘hazardous’ for human inhabitation, as the average ambient PM10 level exceeded 425 ug/m3. The highest level of PM10 in the air was discovered at Koteshwor, 16 times higher the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (120 ug/m3) and way above the WHO safe limit (20 ug/m3). Koteshwor, Ratnapark, Kalanki and Satdobato were found to have highest pollutant levels among the 10 studied areas.
As the number of private vehicles, largely motorbikes, increases rapidly, so do the amount of pollutants in the air. Obsolete and unmaintained vehicles are still plying on the streets of the Capital. With increasing traffic, traffic jams and gridlock have become an everyday ordeal in a lot of urban areas, further contributing to pollution with their idling engines.
The bowl-shaped topography of the Valley also makes it more vulnerable to pollution, as it restricts air movement and pollutants generated are trapped inside. The air becomes even more hazardous in the winter due to the thermal inversion process, where warm air at higher levels traps the lower colder layer, restricting the dispersion of pollutants.
A recent report published by Yale and Columbia Universities identified Nepal as the third worst performing country in the world, after India and Bangladesh, in terms of air pollution and its effects on human health.
The cost of air pollution
Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health globally. The WHO estimates the deaths of 1.3 million people worldwide each year are due to outdoor air pollution, the majority in developing countries. By 2050, air pollution will be the biggest cause of death, killing an estimated 3.6 million people a year, according to a report ‘Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction’ recently published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The health and economic losses resulting from air pollution are immense. A study by the World Bank in 2008 showed that Nepal’s annual health cost, attributed to urban air pollution, is $21 million, equivalent to 0.29% of the GDP. Records from major hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley show that Chronic Obstruction Pulmonary Disease (COPD) has been steadily increasing over the past 10 years. The number of COPD patients admitted to hospitals is highest during the winter season, when air pollution is at its peak. Another study by Clean Energy Nepal and the Environment and Public Health Organisation in 2003 showed that a reduction in PM10 levels in the Kathmandu Valley to comply with international standards would reduce 1,35,475 cases of acute bronchitis in children, 0.5 million asthma attacks, 4,304 cases of chronic bronchitis and thousands of hospital admissions and emergency room visits.
A roadmap for clean air
Measures to reduce vehicular emission are the first steps towards cleaner air. Taking obsolete, polluting vehicles off the roads, promoting non-motorised transport systems (walking or cycling) and introducing efficient public transportation with clean emission technologies would help curb the increasing level of air pollutants.
Diesel guzzling cars, public transport vehicles, pickups and trucks are the most visibly polluting sources. Even enforcers are violators. The majority of government-owned vehicles are inefficient and highly polluting and make a mockery of the green stickers certifying emission standards. They are burning taxpayers’ money and polluting the air we breathe. The problem is not just with existing policies. It has more to do with enforcement and effective implementation. If only we can ensure effective implementation and hundred percent compliance with existing standards and regulations, the air quality will improve significantly.
Urban transport planners and policy makers should move away from building car-based roads to pedestrian and bicycle-friendly city streets by building spacious, convenient and safe infrastructure for walking and cycling, and encouraging people to shift from private motor vehicles to non-motorised modes of transport.
Introducing inexpensive and efficient mass transport systems will not only encourage more people to commute by buses but also has far-reaching environmental and economic benefits to the city, from reduced air pollution to traffic congestion. The burning of refuse and the hundreds of coal-fired brick industries also add significant amounts of pollutants to the atmosphere. Cleaner technologies should be promoted in order to avoid health and environmental hazards.
While a lack of financial resources are often the government’s excuse, around a billion rupees from pollution taxes is frozen at the Ministry of Finance, owing to incompetency of the Ministry of Environment to develop plans and programmes to manage and control air pollution.
The government needs to come up with clean air action plans with bold, and ambitious targets. There is a desperate need to devise more stringent emission standards—Euro III or above—and restore air quality monitoring stations, a plan which has been in limbo for more than five years.
Commissioner of the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, Keshav Sthapit, has pledged to transform Kathmandu into a vibrant and clean city in less than five years. The most urgent and immediate action he ought to initiate towards making this city livable is to make the air breathable.
Posted on: 2012-09-11 08:26