27 Oct - 2 Nov 2017 #881


A social media survey reveals the true extent of the health impact of Kathmandu’s deteriorating air quality
Ayesha Shakya

Gopen Rai

With winter approaching, Kathmandu Valley’s air pollution gets worse as the inversion layer traps dust and vehicle emissions. The mountains disappear, flights are delayed and city-dwellers develop persistent coughs.

It didn’t use to be like this. Winter was the time of deep blue skies and dazzlingly clear views of the Himalayan peaks to the north. 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.

Kathmandu's air quality PM2.5 concentration
Source: Drishti The PM 2.5 levels that are being compared were recorded on the first day of each month.

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.’

% of Kathmandu residents who say their health is impacted by air pollution
Source: Code for Nepal

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 whenthey 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.’


People from Kathmandu are used to complaining, but they also have solutions to the pollution crisis. The Code for Nepal online survey elicited suggestions, including the ones below:

Respondent 1

a. Minimise vehicle emissions. (odd/even number-plated alternate days for petroleum engines)

b. Minimise re-suspension of roadside dust. (proper collection and disposal of dust generated)

c. Avoid partial combustion and open burning. (Enforce the polluters-pay principle)

Respondent 2

a. Complete all the infrastructure development projects happening in Kathmandu asap (Melamchi project, road expansion, etc).

b. Motivate citizens to use public transport.

Respondent 3

Most of the pollution comes from dust due to the ongoing road expansion, old vehicles and, recently, from digging roads for Melamchi. The government needs to do the following:

a. Ban old vehicles (15 years and above)

b. Black top roads as soon as possible

c. Bring in policies so that road expansion, Melamchi are finished

Respondent 4

Ban generators, severe punishment for garbage burners, phase out petrol/diesel vehicles, subsidise electric vehicles, make the city cycle and pedestrian friendly

a Better management of road construction, contractor should be severely fined for mismanaging the site and causing health hazards

b. Zero tolerance of polluting vehicles with emission checks.

c. A mass awareness campaign through media and ground level volunteers highlighting health hazards.

Breathing is hazardous to health

Kathmandu’s poor air quality has become so serious that with the onset of winter there is growing public outrage about its health implications.

Findings released this week by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago add further proof that air pollution is emerging as the world’s single largest environmental health threat – and Asian countries are most at risk.

The study has mapped air pollution data to show where it is worst. Deteriorating air quality in Kathmandu Valley due to suspended roadside dust particles, vehicle emission, brick kiln soot and transboundary pollution from India is shortening the average lifespan of people here by up to four years. Pollution levels in Kathmandu are sometimes worse than in cities in China and India.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month based on an analysis of pollution data from 154 Chinese cities from 1982-2012 compared with mortality data covering 78 million people from 2004-2012. Researchers found a strong correlation and concluded that life expectancy is reduced by about seven months and one year with every additional 10µg/m³ of partciles that are 10 and 2.5 microns diameter respectively.

The results greatly strengthen the case that long-term exposure to particulate air pollution causes substantial reductions in life expectancy,” said Michael Greenstone, an author of the paper and director of the Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) at the University of Chicago.

Researchers studied China’s Huai River Policy, which has provided free coal for indoor heating during winter months for residents in cities north of the Huai River since the 1950s. They found the policy lead to an increase in cardio-respiratory diseases that have decreased life expectancy in Beijing by 3.1 years, compared to cities to the south. The policy contributed to the increase of particulate matter concentration over time, with PM10 concentrations five times higher that the World Health Organisation (WHO) safe limit (20µg/m³).

China is now engaged in an aggressive policy to reduce air pollution. It is switching to electric vehciles and changing its main source of heating from sulfur-rich coal to gas-fired boilers and electric units. It has shut down polluting thermal powerplants near cities. As a result, the concentration of 2.5 micron particles in Beijing and other cities has decreased, and it is expected this will now improve average lifespans.

India has 13 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities, and despite efforts the problem appears to be getting worse every year. The crisis is compunded in winter when water vapour condenses on suspended particles leading to thick smog over the Indo-Gangetic plains, which in turn increases the burden of seasonal lung ailments.

The researchers also developed the Air Quality-life Index (AQLI), a tool that will allow people in different countries to learn how much longer they could live if the air pollution was reduced to meet WHO or national standards for smaller and more harmful PM2.5 particles. In Nepal, people in the Tarai, Kathmandu and Chitwan on average lose four years of life to pollution (see map).

Rising PM2.5 levels have shortened lifespans of South Asians. In Bangladesh, where PM2.5 concentration is often above 60µg/m³, people could live 5.16 years longer if air quality met the WHO standard, while Pakistanis live 2.49 years less than their average lifespan because of air pollution.

In 2012 in Nepal alone, 315,230 'person years' were lost to people getting sick from ambient air pollution.

Sonia Awale

Read also:

Every breath you take, Sonia Awale

Figuring out what to do, Arnico K Panday

Public transport = Public Health, Bhushan Tuladhar