Comprehensive and multisectoral approach to air quality neededSimply running odd-even vehicle schemes will not lead to clean air.
Air pollution is one of the world’s major slow killers. A study published by the Nepal Health Research Council in early 2019 confirmed that about 12 percent of the country’s population—aged 20 years and above—have been found to be suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Statistics from the Ministry of Health and Population show that in the 1990s, air pollution was the 10th leading cause of disability. By 2019, it was the second leading cause of disability.
And, while rural areas suffer due to inefficient cooking fuels and industrial pollution, the urban parts of the country face the brunt of the problem. This is because, besides the industrial output and open burning, urban centres also have the added challenge of vehicular emissions—something that has been on the rise with a ballooning number of private automobiles. This trend has been especially prevalent in the Kathmandu Valley, home to the largest concentration of people and vehicles in the country.
The Air Quality Index for PM2.5 particulate matter registers at 200-250 micrograms per cubic metre on the most polluted days. What’s worse, even in the midst of the monsoon, when the rains typically wash down particles in the air, the Air Quality Index for PM2.5 was registering as high as 165 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the Valley. At a time like this, and when nearby New Delhi has been suffering from a public health emergency—the Air Quality Index monitors there being unable to measure the ‘off the charts’ toxicity last November—the authorities concerned redrafting Kathmandu Valley’s Air Pollution Management Action Plan is welcome.
However, with past action plans having failed to bring tangible changes, the environment department, along with the others concerned, need to hold substantial multisectoral discussions with all stakeholders to ensure implementation. Moreover, the plan’s emergency measures—a new addition not found in previous versions—seem to be short-term implements that are only triggered at misguided levels of toxicity. The levels need to be revised, and policies need to be implemented so that the Valley never faces those toxic levels of air quality, to begin with.
For example, as per the new action plan, emergency measures kick in when the level of PM2.5 reaches 300 micrograms per cubic metre and above. However, according to the World Health Organisation, the safe level of PM2.5 is at or below 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Our own government describes the safe level at 40 micrograms per cubic metre or below, which is a bit laxer. So, setting the emergency measures to kick in at 300—defined as hazardous by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency—doesn’t make sense. Any state that allows its citizens to breathe air with an Air Quality Index of above 150, defined as unhealthy, should consider itself a failure in protecting human health.
Moreover, the concerned here seem obsessed with the Air Quality Index for PM2.5 alone. While particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or smaller are deemed to be a significant cause of respiratory illnesses, only a comprehensive measure of air quality, which includes measuring for PM10, nitrous oxides, sulphur oxides and low atmospheric ozone levels, among others, can be considered as a complete metric.
The government must invest in monitors that provide a comprehensive study of air quality. Moreover, the action plan needs to lead to tangible, multisectoral changes. For instance, the promotion of electric vehicles for reduced emissions should, therefore, be combined with the promotion of clean energy generation and the simultaneous upgradation of residential power to sustain electric vehicle charging. Air quality, while particularly problematic in the Valley, affects all Nepalis. As such, action plans for the entire country need to be drawn up and implemented. All Nepalis deserve clean air, and simply running odd-even vehicle schemes will not lead to that.
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