These monitoring stations were installed by the Department of Environment (DoE) under the Ministry of Forest and Environment, with assistance from various donor agencies, which costs around Rs 10-20m each. “But there is no regular maintenance after installation,” says Madhukar Upadhyay, an environmentalist.
He adds that changing the damaged parts or maintaining the stations doesn’t require a lot of expertise. Still, the government hasn’t been able to maintain them. “They are installing monitoring stations just for show. They know we will not get any benefit from them,” he says.
Shanot Adhikari, an environmental expert, says the operational cost and tedious procurement process for installing and maintaining these stations might also be the reason why most of them are not in working condition. “The government is too dependent on donor agencies for maintenance,” he adds.
On the other hand, Govinda Lamichhane, environmental inspector, DoE, says the government is doing its best to repair the damaged stations and get them up and running. Currently, they are working on the ones located in Kirtipur and Lumbini. Lamichhane says they will be operational soon.
Although the government says there is no problem with budget allocation, Lamichhane believes they are slightly dependent on the non-governmental agencies to help out with the repairs. “Some stations are being repaired using our own resources, but for others, we need external help,” he adds. Lamichhane mentions that the process of selecting and acquiring parts needed for the repairs has also been tedious and time-consuming.
“Outsourcing wouldn’t be a problem if the government regularly followed up with the external agencies on the progress,” says Binod Bhatta, environmental expert. It’s the government’s responsibility to keep track of regular maintenance and repair, even if it’s tasked to other agencies. “But our government has taken it lightly,” he adds.
This, Adhikari says, can be traced back to 2002-03 when the government first installed air quality monitoring stations, and outsourced the responsibility of maintenance. The stations ran smoothly until 2006, after which the responsible agency couldn’t handle it anymore. “We have no data whatsoever on air pollution from 2007 to 2016,” he adds, “With the increasing dependency of the government on donor agencies, I fear history might repeat itself.” DoE, however, says there is no need for concern as they have been using their resources to repair the damaged stations.
Furthermore, Lamichhane believes that improper power distribution is also one of the reasons behind the monitoring stations’ malfunction. “The power voltage is not consistent and that results in mechanical issues,” he says.
Air quality monitoring stations analyze the air in the area where they are installed for particulate matter (PM) and gaseous pollutants. They separate pollutants into three categories: PM 1 (ultrafine particles that are less than one micrometers in aerodynamic diameter), PM 2.5 (fine inhalable particles that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller in diameter), and PM 10 (inhalable particles, that are 10 micrometers and smaller in diameter), and measure them in micrograms per cubic meter.
An analysis of data collected from 10 monitoring stations currently in operation shows that only the air quality in Rara and Mahendranagar is satisfactory, while air quality in Pokhara and Hetauda is moderate. However, the PM 2.5 levels in Jhumka, Shankha Park, Khumaltar, Ratnapark, and Dhankuta, are all unhealthy for children, elderly, and those with respiratory diseases, with readings ranging from 119 to 195. The 100-150 readings are considered unhealthy for those groups, and all age groups may experience health problems if the PM 2.5 level is between 150 and 200.
But this alone cannot determine the air quality of the overall country, says Upadhyay. “The problem with not having enough monitoring stations is that the data on air pollution aren’t as reliable as they could be,” he adds. Since the stations can only monitor air up to a certain radius, it’s difficult to get real-time data of the areas that the stations can’t cover.
For instance, in Kathmandu valley, out of the seven monitoring stations in Ratnapark, Shankha Park, Bhaisepati, Bhaktapur, Pulchowk, Khumaltar, and Kirtipur, only the ones in Ratnapark, Shankha Park, and Khumaltar are functional. “This is problematic because the data received are not accurate since they fail to cover several areas within the valley,” adds Upadhyay.
Lamichhane, on the other hand, disagrees. He believes that though 17 monitoring stations are currently not functional, there still are data that could be analyzed and used as a basis for formulating necessary action plans to mitigate air pollution in specific regions. “The government has been using these data to make changes even at policy level,” he says.
But Bhatta says the action plan will be based on less accurate data. “It would be better if those functioning stations were scattered all across Nepal, covering almost every region although the radius might differ,” he says. But most of the working stations are clustered in one region, and there are other regions with no monitoring stations at all. “The action plan made for one region might not work for others,” he says.
However, the government still thinks of this as progress. “If we look at the situation before 2016, we had nothing. But now we, at least, have some data to understand air quality in Nepal,” adds Lamichhane. He mentions that these public data are not only beneficial for researchers and the government to make necessary changes and formulate action plans, but they also work as a way of making the public aware of the reality of air pollution. “Although the progress is slow, we need to understand that changes take time,” he says, “The government will work on the remaining stations.”