Nepal | September 30, 2020

Deteriorating air quality: Let’s join the climate strike

Sakar Rayamajhi
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We use an archaic method of analysing pollution with the aid of PM concentrations. There is a severe contradiction between the visibility levels and the displayed PM concentrations even during the finest of spring days

“So to hasten up the process, the wind swoops on From places to places where we humans flock upon We’ll have nowhere to go when even our breath, When drawn in with a sniff, would choke us to death.”

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

It wasn’t very long ago when we could pore at the majestic hills of the Kathmandu Valley in awe, all sloshed in paint of greenery. Barely five years have passed since. But as it turns out, we, the artists of our own fate, have left the hill canvas unattended, for some paint has peeled off in this half a decade worth of time. We’re all mesmerised by the breakneck pace of urbanisation that has suddenly descended upon the hills surrounding our federal capital.

At dusk, the lights from the hill settlement areas cast a sublime feeling; our hearts jump right in, dancing to their aesthetic melody: Man! Those lights are smiling at us. Trust me, they’re not! Try becoming a bit meticulous, and you’ll be aghast at what they’re expressing. A smile that makes you feel vulnerable and at the same time is more of a smirk, a mockery against human indifference.

But wasn’t federalism supposed to say, “You’ve done enough, my dear federal capital. Allow me to bear some share of this population pressure.” Why has it been mistranslated into a scramble for the hills? Why did a heavily distributive state power extend its reach beyond the valley hills while the settlers froze in their climb across? We all have our answers, but our actions don’t reveal our acquaintance.

Apparently, there are plus sides to this problem as well. Each inhabitant of the valley has now acquired this unique ability to predict the extent of pollution. Just a quick glance at the hills and once the host of twinkling lights have been spotted, we can all heave a sigh of relief. The heavens have opened, and the dust has settled, at least momentarily. As far as PM (particulate matter, or the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air, many of which are hazardous) is concerned, which includes PM_(2.5 ), PM_10 and PM_1 (matter of different micrometers in diameter), the unbelievably low µg/m^3 suspended particulate concentrations shown by the smart dustbins (those cheeky ones with a pollution meter blinking at the front) suggest the effectiveness of the government’s massive plantation projects in Kathmandu… or do they?

We use an archaic method of analysing pollution with the aid of PM concentrations. There is a severe contradiction between the visibility levels and the displayed PM concentrations even during the finest of spring days. The visibility during the rush hour suggests pollution levels of an unhealthy category (150-200¬ µg/m^3) while these meters blink pacifyingly with < 100 or 100-150 µg/m^3, or moderate pollution levels (A bit off the mark, otherwise it would risk being termed healthy air!). The more reliable ones? But don’t be too reliant on them as well.

The Nepal government has installed some high tech Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AQMS) that regularly feed the government website with air quality updates. With the exception of one at Pulchowk, these stations are stationed at places like Sauraha in Chitwan (in the midst of greenery), Ratna Park (which is a park, of course!) in the capital, and other places like Dang, Simara, Surkhet and so on. Nepalgunj in the southern plains in mid-west Nepal (what it suggests is sinister), of course, tops the list with a 24-hour average of 248.079µg/m^3 PM concentrations on an autumn day! But then, the big question arises: These data are quite accurate alright, but can they be considered as representing the general quality of the air we valley inhabitants breathe every day? No! Most of us don’t even come in proximity of these low levels of micro particulate pollution for the significant part of the day.

This is equivalent to confining people to the room of limited knowledge, where the technological blinds are drawn and people’s own ignorance is the soundproofing material, its occupants unaware of the catastrophic war that rages on outside.

While the website disclaims that pollution levels vary from area to area – which is so true – there’s an urgent need of relocating or reinstalling these air quality monitoring stations to: (a) an industrial area and (b) around some bustling thoroughfares of the Kathmandu Valley. These would give a true picture of air quality both in the capital and outside.

Wouldn’t the act of massive deforestation in the hills that filled our lives with abundance be reluctant suicide? Sources suggest the national forest area coverage to be increasing (39.64% coverage at current standing), but the federal capital sees an opposite trend of decline (currently at 36% area coverage). If we just try to cover up the mess we’ve made, desertification seems imminent.

One may consult any hydrological cycle expert about ground water recharge conditions of the valley, just to be sure. It doesn’t mean nothing has been done yet. It simply means that our efforts get dwarfed by the monstrosity of pollution. Let us all find creative ways (ones that don’t include violation of others’ rights or intrusion) to join the global climate strike. We all have our roles to play. It is now or never.


A version of this article appears in print on October 18, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.

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