Most Kathmanduites complained of having strange sensations on January 4, Monday. On the unusually dark and foggy day, social media was filled with people’s woes about a burning sensation in their eyes. Some also reported breathing difficulties and experienced symptoms typical of dust allergies even though they had never left their homes that day.
It was only 4:45 in the evening and this scribe had to drive home with his lights on. The visibility was abysmal.
That evening, Laxmi Maharjan, a septuagenarian, was sitting at his grocery store in Dhapasi with a concerned look on his face. The usually busy store was completely empty and under layers of clothing and sporting a big mask, its owner looked like he was prepared to climb a mountain. “I have seen many winters and experienced all kinds of fogs, mists and storms. But this is nothing like them. This is scary,” he says.
Like Maharjan, most people in the area had an agitated countenance as they looked around, trying to find the source of the thick smog that was creeping into their homes. The vegetable stands and street hawkers in inner roads had deserted their posts early, adding to the gloominess of the environment. The few people who remained on the street speculated that the smoke could be coming from a wildfire in the jungles on the valley’s outskirts while others complained of people burning garbage somewhere in the neighborhood.
Kathmandu saw a record level of air pollution on the day, with some places crossing the Air Quality Index (AQI) of 600 at one point. In the process, it became the most polluted city in the world, beating New Delhi and Dhaka for the top spot.
According to measurements at the US Embassy measuring station at Phohara Durbar, that day, the index was above 500 from 10pm to 5am; it had fallen to 480 at 7 am the next day. Internationally, an AQI between 101-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. AQI of 301 or higher is considered hazardous, which puts everyone at risk, and the state is generally held responsible of enforcing a public health emergency. (Reference: The US Environmental Protection Agency.)
A provision in Kathmandu Valley’s Air Pollution Management Action Plan allows the authorities to declare a public health emergency when AQI readings exceed 300. But, in this case, the government decided to do sit idle, even as the health and wellbeing of millions were on the line. The city’s air quality got better in the following days, yet environmentalists and health professionals continued to warn of severe consequences.
Dr. Anup Bastola, chief consultant for tropical medicine at the Ministry of Health and Population, is concerned about the adverse impact of low-quality air on general population. “The chemicals in the polluted air could harm everyone, especially children, elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions,” Bastola says. “This can induce allergies and asthma in children and will badly affect those recovering from pneumonia or similar respiratory diseases.”
As for Covid-19 patients, Bastola says that although vigilance is required, the polluted air is unlikely to have a major effect on those with the coronavirus but without respiratory problems. Things could be more complicated for patients suffering from Covid-induced pneumonia.
ENT surgeon Dr Samyam Parajuli has similar fears. The polluted air is causing various kinds of allergy-induced pharyngitis and sinusitis. In the long run, this could result in asthma, tuberculosis and even lung cancer. “Polluted air also creates occupational hazards for certain professions,” Parajuli adds. “In these situations, to mitigate the dangers, we have to avoid outdoor activities as much as possible, use masks, take steam, and do warm-water gargles.”
Bad evenings, worse mornings
Environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar lays out possible reasons behind record-breaking air pollution in Kathmandu. “Kathmandu’s bowl-shaped geography when capped by dense clouds makes for a noxious atmosphere,” Tuladhar says. Normally, either the polluted air rises high in atmosphere and gets replaced by fresher air. Or the air’s west-to-east movement cleans Kathmandu’s air. “But as dense clouds covered Kathmandu on January 4, the polluted air could not be replaced, resulting in record levels of pollution.”
What concerns Tuladhar more is that the pollutants floating in the air that day were from Kathmandu itself. The air in the densely-populated city was already polluted, and was made truly unbreathable on the day by a few other factors. “As its peak winter, people are lighting up fires to stay warm. There is also a lot of garbage-burning happening in Kathmandu. These are new sources of air pollution,” Tuladhar says. “Along with that, I think we were also affected by wildfires in Kaski, Dhading and Langtang regions.”
The weather appears clearer at present and the AQI has been reduced to 185 (10:45, Jan 7, IQAir), yet the problem of air pollution in Kathmandu persists. A reading of 185 is still unhealthy and if the government does not intervene, the problem will get worse. Even now, the mornings are marked by heavy mist and fog, as the air thickens with pollutants. “The air is cleaner around 12- or 1 pm in the afternoon. But when the temperature drops in the evening, the unhealthy smog is back,” Tuladhar says. He also attributes this winter’s high air pollution to lack of rain.
“There are certain short term measures the government can take,” Tuladhar says. “If the government wants, it can start with a crack-down on garbage-burning. Every ward has a mechanism to do so.” Also, he adds, the vehicles that emit large amounts of toxic gases can be identified and removed from the roads immediately.
For the long run, the government has plans awaiting implementation, Tuladhar informs. “Only a month ago, the cabinet passed a work-plan on cleaning Kathmandu’s air. That plan incorporates everything from transport-related air pollution to waste management,” he says. “If it’s implemented well, Kathmandu’s air will definitely be cleaner.”
A pilot with a local airline, who refused to reveal his identity for professional reasons, says flying in this weather is a big risk. “Kathmandu’s airport does not have a proper device to measure visibility,” he says. “The required visibility is 1,600 meters. The control tower uses a building as a landmark to measure this. When they see the building clearly, the visibility is considered high. When they don’t it, visibility is considered low. That’s how it is being done here and that’s risky.”
Recalling a January 4 flight, the pilot narrates how his flight had to face a dense layer of smog as he tried to enter Kathmandu from above. Visibility was almost zero, he says. In these weather conditions, flying in Nepal is a big risk. But the pilots and air traffic controllers are under pressure from airline companies to keep working even in the most trying circumstances.