Winter usually signals the time when mountains start appearing in view from the outskirts of the Valley. But that hasn’t quite been the case these spast several years.
This year, Kathmandu did not even have to wait for winter for the air pollution to become hazardous thanks to a combination of smoke from crop residue burning in the Indian plains, and dust from Kathmandu’s earthquake reconstruction and never-ending road-widening project.
What is most alarming is the looming health catastrophe triggered by this perpetual pollution. Hospitals report a surge in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and even lung cancer.
An online survey by Code For Nepal, #BreatheFreely, sheds light on the negative consequences of breathing this toxic air. Not surprisingly, most of the responses were from Kathmandu Valley.
Of the 789 answers collected earlier this year, a staggering 76% stated that their health has been affected by the air pollution. Most cited were breathing problems, chest pain and eye infection.
‘I can’t walk or ride my motorbike freely. I have to cover my whole body, from head to toe, just to block out the dust. If I don’t use a mask, I’ll have to suffer from the ensuing tonsilitis and dust allergy,’ wrote one respondent.
The situation is even more difficult for people with existing respiratory problems: ‘I am an asthma patient and also have an allergy to dust and cold. So I have to think twice before I go out for a walk or even ride a scooter. Because of the pollution I have increased my meds to twice a day.’
One respondent even stated that the primary motive behind his decision to study abroad was to get away from Kathmandu’s worsening pollution. Others noted that it is not only physical health that is impacted: ‘The pollution increases my stress level and I become irritated very easily when travelling between home and work.’
Nearly 64% of respondents stated that they used masks on a daily basis. While air pollution is a round-the-clock problem, most said the period between 12-4pm was when the air quality was worst, probably because that is when they were out and about. Data collected from air monitoring stations by the group, Drishti, showed daily peaks in PM2.5 (the most harmful particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter) in the mornings and evenings in winter at 10 measurement stations in Kathmandu Valley.
Drishti’s data also show that PM2.5 levels were highest from January to March 2016, reinforcing how inversion during winter months creates a dust-bowl effect, increasing the concentration of pollutants. The levels of fine particles were significantly higher between 8-11am.
On 1 January 2017, PM 2.5 levels saw a high of 170.28µg/m³, much higher than the universally-accepted level of 15µg/m³. Between 7am-11am, PM 2.5 stayed consistently above 104µg/m³. With 10% more vehicles on the roads than last year, pollution will be even worse this winter.
One respondent pointed out: ‘There isn’t a single hour when Kathmandu air is clean, except while it’s raining.’
Survey data: Google Doc
Note: A similar version of this article was first published in Nepali Times.