Stuck in a hazeThe country needs a dedicated agency to control pollution and protect environment
Kathmandu is in the news again, and for the wrong reasons. The recently released Environment Performance Index 2016 puts Nepal at 177 among 180 countries in terms of air quality, reaffirming the country’s degrading air quality. India, China and Bangladesh are the only countries performing worse than Nepal.
But this is no revelation to people who live in the city. In fact, a face mask has become a wardrobe staple for most of the people in the Valley. Air pollutants in the Valley and around the country can be attributed to vehicular emissions, especially from vehicles running on diesel, and brick kilns. Increasing use of diesel generators due to the perennial power shortage has also contributed to higher levels of air pollution.
However, of late it has been discovered that the thick blanket of haze around the Capital and other parts of the country has been due to forest fires in parts of Nepal and other South Asian countries. Since March 16, the air quality monitoring stations set up in Bhaktapur have showed higher concentrations of haze, smoke particles and dust in the atmosphere. Fire raging across forests pump out carbon emissions, which are not only dangerous to health but also fuel global warming.
In Nepal, forest fires are not new. Wildfires in the country are common in the dry season between February and May, peaking during March and April when almost 80 percent of the incidents occur. According to the Nepal Forest Fire Management Chapter, a non-governmental organisation, on average over 60 forest fires were recorded across the country everyday during March this year. But it is not only forest fires in Nepal that are to be blamed for the haze in the country; agro-residue burning in the Indo-Gangetic plains is also equally responsible.
The issue of haze should not be taken lightly. Thick haze resulting from forest fires in Indonesia’s jungles last year, which spread across parts of Malaysia and Singapore, was labelled a “crime against humanity”. About 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections were reported in the region since the start of the fires.
Thus, the issue of forest fire needs more attention and the forest community groups should be imparted training on how they can tackle growing instances of forest fires.
Concrete measures also need to be taken to control the degrading air quality of the country. Pollution control has been taken lightly by the state. For instance, old vehicles that were supposed to be decommissioned long ago continue plying and pumping out poisonous fumes. Ironically, some of these buses belong to reputed schools in the Valley. As a start, Vehicle Inspection and Emission testing has to be strictly enforced in urban areas and those found to be violating the emission standards should face severe penalties.
But equally crucially, Nepal needs a dedicated agency with a strong mandate to protect the environment as a whole. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the US can be good reference point in creating a similar agency in Nepal.