New action plan proposes declaring public health emergency in case of hazardous level of pollutionThe emergency situation could mean introducing odd-even rules for vehicles, stopping vehicular movement in some parts and shutting schools among others.
The new draft of Kathmandu Valley’s Air Pollution Management Action Plan has proposed declaring a public health emergency whenever the level of Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 crosses 300 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3).
When PM2.5, the most dangerous pollutant, crosses 300 μg/m3, it can broadly affect everyone breathing the air irrespective of their age groups.
“The government authority can announce emergency condition if the PM2.5 crosses the 300 μg/m3 mark,” said Indu Bikram Joshi, deputy director general at the Department of Environment. “So far, the pollution level in Kathmandu has not reached 300 μg. Even on most polluted days, PM2.5 level stays somewhere between 200-250 micrograms per cubic metre.”
According to Joshi, the government will swing into action like imposing odd-even formulae for vehicles plying the Kathmandu Valley, or even stopping vehicles in some parts and shutting down schools if required in case the public health emergency would be declared due to poor air quality.
Last November, authorities in the Indian capital of New Delhi had declared a public health emergency, asking schools to shut and residents to avoid outdoor physical activities after its air quality deteriorated into the “hazardous” category. Following the end of the festival of Diwali, the air quality in New Delhi had worsened and turned nearly ten times worse than the healthy limits.
Every year, as winter sets in, the air quality in Kathmandu Valley also gets worse, leaving its residents gasping for clean and healthy air. The annual average PM2.5 level for Kathmandu in 2018 was 54.4 μg/m3, an increase from 45.9 μg/m3 in 2017, according to AQ AirVisual, a Swiss group that collects air quality data from around the world and ranks countries and cities based on their air quality.
The Air Quality Index (AQI), which calculates presence of pollutants in the air, has been reaching record highs in recent years in Kathmandu Valley, crossing over the levels prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO). On Wednesday, the average hourly level of PM2.5 was recorded from a minimum of 76.32 to maximum 222.67μg/m3 recorded between 9-10 am.
As per the WHO air quality guidelines, PM2.5 level of 25 μg/m3 is considered safer for public health, whereas our Nepal government standards consider 40 μg/m3 of PM2.5 to be safer as well.
At this time of the year, air quality in Kathmandu often reaches ‘very unhealthy’ levels, which the AQI warns that even healthy people will show symptoms such as wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache and nausea. People with respiratory or heart diseases are affected the most.
The proposed action plan has set eight objectives to get rid of the toxic quality of air pollution the Valley is battling with.
According to the plan, it will work towards controlling air pollution emanating from the transport sector, construction sites, industries, and unhealthy means of managing solid waste. Besides, it also talks about reducing indoor air pollution, raising awareness regarding sources of air pollution, its effects and how to minimise them.
Vehicle exhaust, along with smoke coming from brick kilns and dust from construction sites, are the major sources of air pollution in Kathmandu Valley. The transport sector contributes over 30 percent of total suspended particles (TSP) or 20,072 tonnes into the air, according to the 2017 Air Quality Management Action Plan for Kathmandu Valley. The transport sector further contributes 30 percent of PM10, second only to the construction sector, which emits 53 percent of the total PM10.
“We will have to begin with improving our vehicles which contribute significantly for emissions,” said Joshi. “Conversion of fossil fuel-run vehicles into electric ones, promotion of more electric vehicles, improving fuel quality, and stringent standards can greatly help in reducing the Valley’s air pollution.”
Participants at the discussion on the upcoming action plan, which will be the third one in as many years, also urged the environment department to consult other agencies before implementing the action plan as air pollution is a multisectoral issue.
The department had drafted an action plan in 2017, which never came into enforcement. “Nepal government had internationally committed to bringing down the rate of air pollution under control by 2025,” said Manjeet Dhakal, a climate change expert. “For achieving this target, the department needs to bring on board other stakeholders as well because sources of air pollution and measures to control them are overarching and requires combined efforts.”