The dust bowlAmount of particulate matter in the Valley air is three times the permissible limit
Pollution Index 2016 has ranked Kathmandu as the third most polluted city in the world. Air pollution in this bowl-shaped Valley with an area of 569 square kilometres, due to exhaust from 1.1 million motor vehicles, resuspended dust and emission from factories, especially brick kilns, has increased threefold in less than two decades. Due to a large amount of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, organic compounds and chemicals in the atmosphere, Kathmandu’s air contains an estimated 400 micrograms of particulate matter of up to 10 micrometers in size per cubic metre (400µg/m3). Compare this with the maximum permissible limit set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards of 120µg/m3.
The Air Quality Monitoring Station at Ratna Park shows that all four parameters of air pollution—PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 and Total Suspended Particulate (TSP)—have recorded a continuous increment. The smog that shrouds the Valley in the form of greenhouse effect can be seen from the hilltop of Nagarkot. As a result, the number of patients suffering heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute respiratory infection has been swelling. An estimated 10,000 people die each year of diseases due to inhaling fine particulate matter which is the number one preventable cause of death.
Children aged less than five years exposed to air pollutants are the most vulnerable population group, and pneumonia and asthma have been identified as causes of death. Babies are also born with birth defects. A study conducted by SEI/University of York indicates that ‘early exposure to air pollution can also cause damaging changes in the brain like autism and schizophrenia, and also affect short-term memory, learning ability and impulsivity’. The situation demands that the Ministry of Health coordinate with the concerned ministries and departments and prod them to implement air pollution control measures.
Innovation, policy reform and effective mobilisation of the existing human resources to the fullest are imperative to radically control air pollution. The bureaucracy and line agencies should get out of their comfort zone and intensify cooperation across various jurisdictions to resolve this human made disaster. Each city has its own particular set of conditions and therefore an integrated package programme in a fast track and keep it simple and swift (KISS) mode can be developed and implemented on a short-, mid- and long-term basis.
In the short term, surveillance of streets including footpaths and surroundings should be done to ensure their timely and qualitative improvement, and maintenance should be a constant process. Hardware and construction materials shops, automobile repair workshops and gas stations should be shifted from busy roads to open places or the outskirts of the city. Likewise, eateries, restaurants and hotels operating on the roadsides in a disorganised manner should be governed by standard norms. Many of them spill over on to the footpath and street, making the city ugly, messy and dirty besides causing traffic congestion.
Particular hours should be fixed for heavy smoke-belching vehicles such as trucks and tippers, water tankers, highway buses, trucks and pick-up vans, say before 7 am and after 9 pm, to avoid traffic jams and cut pollution. Mounds of soil, debris and construction materials piled on the roadsides should be removed and the exposed space be covered with pavement and or green grass. Filling in potholes, rehabilitating and maintaining sidewalks, making the roads and streets dust-free and convenient should be a continuous process.
Likewise, trucks and tippers with muddy wheels should be cleaned before they are allowed to enter the city limits. Road widening and repair works including black topping of gravel or dirt roads in the Kathmandu Valley should be carried out around the clock and completed as soon as possible. The traffic police should fine vehicles that spew black smoke, and traffic management should be made more strict and scientific. The municipality should ensure that street cleaning and garbage removal is finished by 7 am.
In the mid- and long-term, the city government should plan to establish sky-trains, subways and overhead bridges to control traffic congestion and air pollution. Bicycle riding should be promoted by making it convenient and safe by building cycle lanes. Motor vehicles driven by fossil fuels can be replaced by electric vehicles to the extent possible. The Kathmandu Valley is close to exploding due to overcrowding as migrants from various districts are coming here. An estimated 7,000 new buildings are being erected in the Valley each year. In order to mitigate this problem, there should be real decentralisation, and socio-economic opportunities should be spread to other districts.
Glaring example of laxity
The political gridlock should not distract the bureaucracy which is an entity solely and perennially responsible to deliver services to the people. The state machinery and bureaucracy, including parliamentary committees, should understand the consequences of air pollution and give up their lethargic attitude and wage war against environmental degradation.
One glaring example of laxity should be taken as a lesson. More than 20,000 trees of various species were planted in Kathmandu during the 18th Saarc Summit at a cost of more than Rs180 million to make it a green city. The trees were forgotten after the grand conference, and almost all of them died for lack of care. This act of negligence should be investigated, and stern action should be taken against those responsible to ensure that such fiascos are not repeated in the future. Laws should be made so that victims of environmental pollution can claim compensation for their sufferings. There should also be legal provisions allowing victims to exercise their constitutional right to sue the concerned government department for damages in case of illness or death due to air pollution beyond permissible limits.
- Dixit is an expert in integrated development issues