Struggling for air

The paper says a plan to clean Nepal's air should focus both on indoor and outdoor causes of pollution.


The paper says a plan to clean Nepal's air should focus both on indoor and outdoor causes of pollution. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

September 4, 2023

KATHMANDU – The air we inhale keeps us alive, but the way it has become toxic over time is also putting our very survival in jeopardy. A recent Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report that examines the impact of air pollution on life expectancy paints a bleak picture: Nepalis are losing 4.6 years of their life to air pollution. While residents of the country’s southern plains who share a border with India’s polluted northern states are the major victims of poor air, even populous cities like Kathmandu with their smog-filled skies are struggling.

In Mahottari, Rautahat, Dhanusa, Siraha and Saptari and Rupandehi districts, poor air is cutting life expectancy by 7.5 years, 7.4 years, 7.2 years, 6.7 years and 6.2 years, respectively. According to the AQLI report, 30.5 million people in Nepal live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution exceeds the World Health Organisation’s guideline of five micrograms per cubic metre. Worse, in 2019, we had the world’s highest age-standardised death rates for chronic lung disease caused by air pollution. Similarly, as per other reports, indoor air pollution kills 24,000 people a year in Nepal. These figures show how serious the deterioration of air has become, necessitating immediate action.

With every breath we take, we take in air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide, etc., which are emitted largely due to human activities. Human-induced forest fires, burning of toxic materials like plastics and waste, use of old vehicles that emit foul air, and emission of harmful gases and pollutants from factories are responsible for air pollution. Biomass used for cooking also causes great damage to human health. But given the emphasis on outdoor air pollution, this issue is often overlooked and less prioritised.

Unfortunately, Nepal is bearing the brunt of air pollution in South Asia, which packs in nearly a quarter of global pollution. Bangladesh ranks first in the list of the world’s most polluted countries, and India, the second most polluted, alone is responsible for about 59 percent of the world’s increase in pollution since 2013. The annual average particulate pollution in Delhi is 126.5 micrograms per cubic metre, more than 25 times the WHO guideline. Given that, Nepal cannot solve this problem on its own; it needs regional support and cooperation. As South Asian countries grapple more and more with air pollution, concerted efforts through regional organisations like the SAARC and the BIMSTEC and discussions on air pollution and its impacts could be beneficial.

Domestically, Nepal must promote clean energy like solar power, electric vehicles, improved cook stoves, biogas systems and cut vehicle emissions. The federal government should collaborate with local governments in rural areas to reduce the burden of indoor air pollution that mostly comes from biomass and give them alternatives and subsidies for cleaner cooking technologies. The WHO in 2020 reported that indoor air pollution took a toll on the lives of 3.2 million worldwide, so it needs attention.

Given its high health burden, Nepal must focus more on this urgent issue. The country needs a national standard for annual average particulate matter (PM 2.5), which it still lacks. As the government moves towards planning for a green economy and green cities, reducing air pollution should be among its top priorities. People should be made aware and responsible for cleaning their environment; and the government should help them do so every step of the way. Getting back our clear skies and breathable air appears difficult but it is far from an impossible goal.

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