We cannot expect improved air quality in the Valley until the westerly winds enter the country with the possibility of rainfall

The Kathmandu Valley and even Pokhara Valley have witnessed toxic haze, blanketing them since Friday and leaving people with burning eye sensation and breathing difficulty. It is a hazardous haze that has arrived just like the cold wave in the Tarai belt during the winter season. Weathermen blame the massive wildfires that have ravaged large swaths of forests in Makwanpur, Parsa and Chitwan districts for the toxic haze. The smoke bellowing from the wildfires in the Tarai is believed to have engulfed the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley, where low wind speeds have prevented the dispersion of pollutants, and the inversion layer has led to trapping of pollutants, according to officials at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Apart from smoke from the wildfires in the Tarai and hilly regions, such as in Langtang National Park, vehicular emission, dust from construction sites, smoke emitted by brick kilns and burning of refuse in the urban areas have added fuel to the fire. March and April are the driest months of the year, during which Nepal's forests witness massive wildfires every year, causing hazardous haze in many parts of the country, especially in the valleys, where air circulation is blocked by the surrounding hills. When air cannot circulate at the desired level, there is a haze for a couple of days or even weeks.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, more than 110 places in the country have reported forest fires in the past one week alone, largely responsible for the hazy condition in the Kathmandu Valley in recent days. Statistics maintained by the Department of Environment indicate the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the Kathmandu Valley has exceeded AQI 300. Bhaisepati reached an AQI above 370 Saturday afternoon.

As per international standards, AQI below 50 is considered to be good air quality, while an AQI above 300 is harmful for health. Therefore, the Kathmandu Valley has become one of the 10 worst cities in the world in terms of air quality.

Doctors have warned that the high concentration of pollutants in the air could cause skin and eye allergies as well as respiratory problems and lung diseases.

People recovering from COVID-19 infection and other pre-existing heart and lung diseases are more vulnerable to smog, which contains harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Doctors have advised the people not to venture out of their homes and wear protective masks even indoors. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health and Population has asked the people to avoid visiting open spaces and not go out for morning walks and avoid physical exercise in the open until the weather condition improves for the better.

Children, elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions should take extra precautions during this time. People who are suffering from the coronavirus or have just recovered from it should take extra precaution to stay safe from the hazy environment. This hazy condition is not going to clear unless the westerly winds enter the country with possibility of rainfall in a day or two. It would be wise to put off construction activities in the urban areas until the air quality improves to the desired level.

Fertiliser factory

For ages, the country's farmers have been facing a shortage of chemical fertilisers when they need them. This year was particularly bad because the country could not import fertiliser in time, leaving the farmers in the lurch, which is likely to affect food production in the country. Even as the demand for fertilisers keeps growing year after year, the government has only paid lip service to setting up a factory in the country itself. Nepal spends more than Rs 16 billion annually in importing fertilisers, money that could be saved if Nepal had its own factory to produce the agricultural input. So the government's recent go-ahead to set up a fertiliser factory in the country is long overdue.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 29, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.