EDITORIAL: Clear the air

Unlike other cities of the world with poor air quality, Kathmandu’s pollution is caused largely by emissions from vehicles

It is that time of the year when air pollution levels in Kathmandu reach their peak, but this year, they have reached hazardous levels, posing great risk to people’s health and well-being. The Air Quality Index (AQI) in the past few days has been hovering between 300 and 600, which makes Kathmandu’s air quality the worst in the world, exceeding even that of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan or New Delhi. According to international standards, an AQI value below 50 is good air quality while that above 300 is hazardous. Air quality monitors placed at different points of the Kathmandu Valley show pollution has reached hazardous levels in places like Phora Durbar (Kanti Path), Ratna Park, Bhainsepati, Bhaktapur and Jhamsikhel. According to the World Health Organisation, fine particulate matter (PM) of size 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter should not exceed 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air. But Nepal considers PM 2.5 of 120 micrograms per cubic metre to be healthy. Even then, different places of the Valley recorded three times or even higher levels of the desired standard on Monday and Tuesday, reducing visibility and causing the air to appear hazy.

Unlike other cities of the world with poor air quality, Kathmandu’s pollution is caused largely by emissions from vehicles. Way back in 1993, two scientists from Denver, USA had arrived here to do a study of Kathmandu’s air quality, and they found that soot, emitted by poorly maintained vehicles, was a major cause of pollution.

There are about a million motorcycles and tens of thousands of cars plying the streets of Kathmandu, not to mention trucks, buses and micros.

With so many vehicles chasing so few roads, one can well imagine the traffic congestion and the pollution they create.

Given Kathmandu’s bowl-shaped topography, the pollutants tend to get trapped in the winter months, and the particles that condense due to the cold settle down on the city, leading to a spurt in respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and pneumonia.

The rains could have improved the air quality, as it did in west Nepal, but the capital has not seen any rainfall for the past few months, exacerbating the situation.

Since the pollution is expected to remain high for the next few days, the Department of Environment (DoE) in a notice has advised people to stay indoors to avoid breathing unhealthy air. It has also asked people to shun burning refuse in the open. It would be wise for the people to ritually follow the DoE’s advice until the air quality improves. And, of course, the less number of vehicles there are on the roads, the better would be the air quality. Since we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be prudent to wear a mask at all times and stay safe from both the coronavirus and the filthy air. Cleaning up Kathmandu’s air cannot happen overnight and will require a long-term strategy that is strictly implemented.

Kathmandu’s poor air quality first made international headlines in 1993, but even after 27 years, no government has shown any seriousness to tackle the issue. Air pollution cannot be brushed aside lightly as it impacts not only the health of the people but also the tourism sector.

Leper ostracised

It is shocking to learn that a 70-year-old widow at Badhu village of Himali Rural Municipality in Bajura district has been ostracised by her family members after she was diagnosed with leprosy one year ago.

Anakala Aauji has been forced to live in a cowshed away from her home. Her family has prevented her from using the family toilet and she has to cook herself by collecting firewood on her own. She was driven out of her home, fearing that she might transmit the disease to other family members.

Health workers said the elderly woman was taken to Nepalgunj for the treatment of the communicable disease. She has already taken the prescribed medicine for 10 months and she would completely recover from the disease if she continues the medicine for two more months. What is even more shocking to learn is that the local level elected officials have taken no punitive action against the family members for driving the ailing woman out of her home. It is also the duty of the local health workers to educate the family members that she does not pose any health threat to others as she is under regular medication.

Taking care of the elderly, disabled and sick person is the ultimate responsibility of the family members.