April 18, 2023
KATHMANDU – For the past couple of days, Sundar Sharma has been suffering from wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Sharma, who is an under-secretary at the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority and also an expert on forest fires, blamed the deteriorating air quality, caused by massive forest fires, for his worsening asthma.
“This is not just my issue but of many people throughout the country,” Sharma said. “Ongoing forest fires will not only burn forests but also damage our ecology, affect wild and endangered animals and will severely impact human health.”
Nepal’s air quality has been deteriorating. According to IQAir, Kathmandu ranked the most polluted city in the world in the past two days—Saturday and Sunday—with smoke and haze covering the Valley. The Valley’s air quality reached very unhealthy levels on Sunday at 7:45 am, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) reading 216.
Very unhealthy air quality means health warnings of emergency conditions with the entire population likely to be affected and many may experience serious health effects.
Air pollution is known to cause various respiratory illnesses—pneumonia, bronchitis, conjunctivitis, skin allergies, stroke and heart problems, in the short term, and ulcers and cancer of the lungs and intestine, kidney disease and heart problems, in the long run.
Many people in Kathmandu Valley complain of dry and burning eyes, irritated nose and sinus, sore throat, wheezing cough and difficulty in breathing due to the polluted air.
Currently, cases of Covid-19 have also been on the rise. Health experts warn that worsening air quality could lead to an increase in hospitalisation cases and even deaths among people infected with the coronavirus.
“If patients suffering from a respiratory illness get infected with coronavirus, the chances of infection severity and deaths increase,” said Dr Niraj Bam, an associate professor at the Institute of Medicine. “We should be more cautious about our own health and the health of elderly people in our homes and take maximum precaution.”
Experts blamed incidents of massive forest fires for deteriorating air quality—smoke and haze throughout the country. As there is no visible system to cause rainfall to wash away the pollution, the condition of smoke and haze will continue in the coming days.
“The peak of the forest fire season is yet to come but almost half the [country’s] forests have already witnessed fires,” Sharma said. “The remaining forests will do so in the next two weeks.”
Experts say the peak time of forest fires is around April 25.
Around 600 incidents of daily forest fires have been occurring for the past several days. Most national parks as well as protected areas throughout the country have been burning, threatening wild and endangered species.
“Multiple areas of the Chitwan National Park are on fire at the moment,” said Ganesh Prasad Timalsina, information officer at the Park. “But the fire has not gone out of control.”
Authorities at the Chitwan National Park say there have been more incidents of fire in the community forests and the park authority has been trying its best to douse them with the help of the Army, locals and park staffers.
“We have made many fire lines and cleared them, which helped us to contain the fire from going out of control,” said Timalsina. “But the problem is that over 90 percent of the fire incidents are from human causes and we have not been able to make them aware of the negative consequences of burning forests.”
It’s not only the national parks, protected areas and jungles of Tarai region that have been witnessing fire but also the forests and national parks of mountainous regions, which concern experts.
“There were fires in several areas of the national parks until yesterday [Saturday],” said Pramod Bhattarai, chief conservation officer at Langtang National Park. “Incidents of fire in national parks and forests in mountainous regions have been rising compared to the previous years.”
Consequently, people at large are bearing the brunt of smoke that’s been smouldering for days and bracing for the accompanying health hazards with no immediate respite on the horizon.
Despite the problems, the authorities seem unfazed.
“No political party has raised the issue of air pollution and the increasing incidents of forest fires, either in the House meetings or outside,” said Bhusan Tuladhar, an environmentalist. “This shows how indifferent we are to a problem that has affected the entire country.”
Nepal’s valuable forests, which took more than six decades of restoration, face a worsening wildfire reality with scarce resources and nearly zero strategies to prevent or contain them.
“We didn’t get much time today to raise the issue in Parliament, as the House meeting adjourned rather quickly,” said Hit Raj Pandey, chief whip of CPN (Maoist Centre). “We will raise it in the next meeting.”
Park officials the Post spoke to said they cannot do much to contain the fires due to their limited resources.
“Last year, we were given Rs70 million budget to deal with fire incidents but the budget has been reduced to Rs5 million this year,” an official at the the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority told the Post, asking not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “How can we expect better results with a reduced budget?”
As seasons get unpredictable on a warming planet, resulting in extreme wet and dry conditions, scientists warn of worse days.
Several studies over the past decade have warned of how a warming climate can affect precipitation rates resulting in extremely wet conditions in some regions and dry conditions in others, or both in some areas, as is being witnessed in Nepal. A 2019 report by the Ministry of Forests and Environment also projects the mean temperature for all seasons in Nepal to increase by 1.7 degree centigrade to 3.6 degree centigrade by 2100.
Wildfires are common in Nepal in the dry season. They may happen naturally or through human activities and errors but hotter and drier conditions make them fierce and uncontrollable.
Human actions—discarding cigarette butts without stubbing them out, burning dry vegetation to clear farmlands, and deliberate burning by grazers and poachers—are considered the main reasons for forest fires.
Bhattarai, chief conservation officer at Langtang National Park, said the frequency of forest fires this year is unusual.
“Forest fires started in December last year in the absence of winter rainfall,” he said. “But how can you expect us to douse fires using twigs of green plants, which is all that we have?”