Gasping for airThe government’s response to the ongoing air pollution emergency is grossly inadequate.
For over three days now, much of Nepal has been enveloped by haze and smoke. Meteorologists say this is due to a large number of forest fires across the country after a prolonged winter drought. The situation is likely to prevail unless there is a change in wind direction or rainfall. Extreme events are occurring too often due to multiple factors; and as a direct result of a hazy mindset of the administration, the country has failed to mitigate the risks.
Forests are burning across the country; a record 525 wildfire incidents have already been recorded across 73 districts this season as of Thursday. Most of the fires have been recorded in the western districts, but central hill districts and Tarai are also reporting a gradual spread of wildfires. The unusual situation has already claimed one life in Gorkha, while the scale of loss of flora and fauna remains unaccounted for.
It is estimated that Nepal has been losing around 200,000 hectares of forest cover every year since 2005 to forest fires, dousing decades of conservation efforts while releasing large amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere. While a protracted dry spell has been blamed for the deadly forest fires this time, watershed experts say blaming rising temperatures and the dry winter would be jumping to a hasty conclusion. The government must grasp the evolving knowledge of wildfires and learn from indigenous practices of forest and land management. We can no longer ignore the scientific rationale behind soil loss, declining soil fertility, depleting water sources, and their interconnectivity with all of our environmental issues.
Studies also show that human-induced hazards contribute to nearly 90 percent of wildfires in Nepal, incurring a loss of 7.32 percent of the annual gross domestic product per capita. Last year, a study based on real-time satellite data showed that forest fires across the country went down by nearly 5 percent amid the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus. These facts must guide our course of action to manage wildfires, which directly affect our environment, public health and economy.
As the air quality deteriorated across the country on Friday afternoon, Kathmandu became the most polluted city globally, recording ‘unhealthy’ air quality index levels and forcing the country’s only international airport to close. Pollution monitoring stations across the country also recorded ‘hazardous’ air pollution levels as the night descended. Even indoor air quality levels turned ‘unhealthy’, with the public complaining of burning eyes, headaches, breathing difficulties and itchy skin. Records from the monitoring stations show that the air quality has stayed at ‘very unhealthy’ and ‘hazardous’ levels since Friday.
As some studies have shown, air pollution from wildfires is more toxic than regular emissions. We can only imagine the extent of harm the hazard is causing us. Last year, the government decided to declare an emergency if air quality crossed the ‘very unhealthy' level. This means that schools and factories must now be shut down, traffic restricted and open burning banned. But the government has done little other than issuing an advisory to stay indoors and refrain from unnecessary emissions.
The government’s response to the hazardous situation we are all exposed to, more so for children and senior citizens, is hardly adequate. It must immediately address the public health concerns and mobilise security forces and volunteers to contain the wildfires which could potentially spread further and faster as wildfires peak in April. It can’t remain a mute spectator as the public gasps for air.