30 May - 5 June 2014 #709

Every breath we take

We cough through undeclared air pollution emergencies in Kathmandu, unaware of its toll on our health and economy
Arnico Panday
In March 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) released new estimates attributing 7 million deaths per year – one eighth of all deaths – to air pollution, including 2.6 million due to outdoor air pollution and 3.3 million due to indoor pollution in the Asia-Pacific alone.

Many air pollutants are also ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (SLCPs) that have significant impacts on local and regional climate. These include black carbon particles emitted by diesel engines, brick kilns, cook stoves and open fires, as well as the gases ozone and methane. Unlike the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), which, once emitted, stays in the atmosphere for centuries impacting global climate, SLCPs have atmospheric lifetimes of days to months.

The good news is that shutting down their sources reduces their climate impact within days to months. It also means that they do not have time to mix uniformly around the world, and have the greatest impact in the region near their sources.

Plume of pollution arriving into the Kathmandu Valley from the south. PHOTO: Arniko Panday

The bad news for us is that Nepal is in a region that is a major hotspot for black carbon emissions. While globally black carbon has the second biggest impact on climate after CO2, in northern South Asia its impact is much bigger. Black carbon contributes to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields, warms the atmosphere at higher elevations and cools it at lower elevations. It also reduces visibility, and contributes to changes in monsoon rainfall patterns.

Outdoor air pollution has grown steadily in recent decades. During the dry season, plumes of smoke from hundreds of millions of cooking fires, millions of diesel vehicles, generators and pump sets, as well as tens of thousands of brick kilns merge into one thick brown haze layer that extends from Pakistan to Bangladesh, penetrating deep into Himalayan valleys. In winter, pollution contributes to the increasing persistent fog that covers large areas of the Indo-Gangetic plains for weeks on end.

Air pollution is worse in large cities like Dhaka, Delhi, and Kathmandu. In the Kathmandu Valley it is much worse in winter than in summer, and worse in the morning and evening than in the afternoon or late at night. Air pollution increases when brick kilns start operating in December, and is worse in the eastern part of the valley where the brick kilns are concentrated as well as near roads and other pollution sources. Field studies during the first half of 2013 found concentrations of air pollutants several times above WHO’s and Nepal’s own air quality standards for extended periods of time, not just in Kathmandu but also in places like Lumbini.

Some cities respond to bad air quality days by taking short-term measures to reduce emissions and exposure. Beijing shut down numerous industries during the 2008 Olympics. Mexico City enforces stringent restrictions on industries and vehicles when pollutants rise beyond pre-defined thresholds, with children and elderly are advised to remain indoors. In March Paris made headlines when it declared an emergency and enforced traffic restrictions when PM10 (coarse particle) concentrations reached 180 micrograms per cubic meter.

In Kathmandu Valley, PM10 is hardly ever below 180 micrograms per cubic meter for weeks at a time. Without continuous air pollution measurements, and without a system to communicate the results to the public in real time, we cough through undeclared air pollution emergencies, unaware of what we are breathing and unaware of its toll on our health and economy.

Nepal’s newly formed Department of Environment has recently revived three of the Kathmandu Valley’s six air quality monitoring stations that had shut down in 2007. However, these stations only measure 24 hour average P[M10 data, and that too is reported days later. The Valley desperately needs state-of-the-art real time monitoring stations, and a system of communicating the data to the public. It also needs pre-agreed measures in place that can be implemented when air pollution reaches danger thresholds. Other areas with high population density or natural or cultural heritage also need similar stations and systems in place to respond to air pollution emergencies.

Air pollution crosses borders daily. Shutting down Nepal’s 700+ brick kilns will not remove the pollution arriving from the tens of thousands of kilns just south of the border. We need regionally coordinated data sharing and responses to air pollution emergencies in the region. Beyond responding to emergencies, the entire northern South Asia needs a strong push towards cleaner, less polluting technologies, include clean cooking, clean brick production and clean transportation.

Arnico Panday is ICIMOD’s Senior Atmospheric Scientist and the coordinator of ICIMOD’s Atmosphere Initiative. arnico.panday@icimod.org

Read also:

Not business as usual, Nessim J Ahmad and Kaveh Zahedi

Sick city, Anna-Karin and Ernstson Lampou

Understanding air pollution

Lost in the smog, Dewan Rai and Suvayu Dev Pant

A breath of filthy air, Buddha Basnyat

The mechanics of clean air, Alok Tumbahangphey

comments powered by Disqus