It's the brick kilnsCars are off the streets, but the air pollution persists.
As Nepal’s count of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 steadily increases, reaching 12 as of April 12, the lockdown that the country is under is likely to be extended for some time. Prime Minister KP Oli hinted as much during his video conference with the seven chief ministers on April 11, where the federal government seems to be planning on aligning Nepal’s lockdown and other measures with India’s.
While Nepal clearly has not tested enough of a sample to claim that it has the situation contained—with less than 5,000 tests conducted months since the first confirmed case in the country—the lack of severe cases and deaths that exhibit suspected Covid-19 symptoms is surely a good sign. All in all, the lockdown seems to be working to stagger the number of people suffering from the coronavirus at any given time. The number of vehicles running has decreased sharply, and people continue to work from home if they can.
However, what has been surprising, given the decline in vehicular activity and overall industry, has been the continued poor air quality. Population centres around the country continue to post high numbers on the PM2.5 Air Quality Index. Biratnagar, Chitwan and Pokhara are showing a PM2.5 AQI above 150, where the air is deemed unhealthy for all population groups. Kathmandu Valley, unsurprisingly, is straddling the line between unhealthy and very unhealthy—regularly crossing the 200 mark. The valley also remains enveloped in a haze. Of all areas regularly tested, only Nepalgunj seems to be showing numbers below 100, which still is not a good level.
This shows that vehicular emissions, while adding greatly to the problem, were never the sole contributor to air pollution. While the current virus crisis warrants the majority of the attention of governments at all levels, the present situation affords an opportunity to test all sources of air pollution that are still operational. But even without a thorough study, it is obvious that the main culprits currently are the brick kilns that continue to operate—and the scourge of open burning.
Air pollution is a major silent killer globally; the situation is not different in Nepal. While Covid-19’s effects on the lungs have gained much media attention, in Nepal and elsewhere, air pollution has for years caused chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A study published by the Nepal Health Research Council in April 2019 showed that over 10 percent of total deaths in the country are caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Data from the Ministry of Health and Population also showed that air pollution was the second leading cause of disability.
Nepal has a long history of open burning being culturally accepted. Every year, people throughout the country take the opportunity of a dry spring season to clear out the bramble and weeds that have encroached upon their lands over the previous year. A few practising such burning tactics would not be an issue. But with the population on the rise, this has become a significant challenge. Further, many Nepalis also burn their trash—which, among others, contain plastics and other chemical compounds used in packaging and printing—producing toxins such as carbon monoxide, arsenic, dioxins, furans and mercury.
With poor air quality affecting such a large set of the population, the government must prioritise the reduction of air pollution. An action plan that leads to tangible, multisectoral changes is sorely needed. While open burning has been banned within Kathmandu Valley since two years ago, this directive has clearly not been enforced. The federal government also needs to make a law that applies nationwide. It is a no brainer to suggest that all traditional brick kilns—a significant source of pollution—need to be moved away from population centres. Moreover, non-traditional brick making techniques, such as pressure brick making, need to be incentivised. All Nepalis deserve clean air.
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