All things considered, living in Kathmandu has been unusually pleasant this winter. The temperature has been relatively mild, visibility has not been too bad, and there are majestic views of Himalayan peaks to the north.
Records show that even the air is relatively cleaner than previous winters when the Air Quality Index (AQI), sometimes, was as bad as 700 — 14 times higher than the WHO standard. Brick kilns are not operating, no major construction projects are starting soon due to the economic slump, and the wildfire season has not yet started in earnest.
But we should not be fooled by all this. Hospitals in Kathmandu have seen a sharp increase in patients visiting for respiratory ailments this winter, even though Covid-19 cases are negligible.
“From regular cold, cough and wheezing, to bronchitis, asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD], we are seeing a marked increase in patients, primarily because of Kathmandu’s dry, cold and polluted air,” says pulmonary specialist at HAMS hospital, Raju Pangeni.
He adds: “Children and elderly are at most risk, and I advise everyone to try not to undertake any activities that will worsen air quality or avoid those that will expose them to bad air.”
Indeed, while AQI reading in Kathmandu is nowhere near breaking records, it exceeded the 200 mark some mornings this week in parts of the Valley. This is considered unhealthy for all populations. The air quality is much worse in Tarai towns bordering India because of transboundary pollution, local industrial emissions, as well as the thick and persistent fog that engulfed the Indo-Gangetic plains all week.
Open burning of waste is one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Kathmandu in winter. During bitingly cold winter mornings, people huddle around garbage fires in street corners that give off carcinogenic gases like dioxin and carbon monoxide.
A 2020 regional study found ‘that garbage burning emissions could increase PM2.5 concentrations by nearly 30% in India and Nepal, and result in some 300,000 premature deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the two countries.’
According to another 2020 research by Kathmandu University, some 9% of the capital’s waste is burned, adding to its hazardous levels of pollution. A Tribhuvan University survey in 2016 said that open burning in Nepal was three times as high as government estimates.
“Compared to some of the other sources, the total contribution of garbage burning to levels of air pollutants is less well-understood but it is an important contributor, especially in urban areas,” says Pallavi Pant of the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based non-profit specialising in research on the health effects of air pollution.
She adds: “Open burning of waste can also contribute to ozone formation, and is a source of benzene, a cancer-causing compound. Recent studies in South Asian countries have included garbage burning as an important source of fine particulate matter or PM2.5.”
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