Maheswar Rupakheti, PhD (Atmospheric Science) from Dalhousie University in Canada, is Scientific Leader at IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam, Germany. He is regarded as one of the leading atmospheric scientists who have studied air pollution in Kathmandu. He says his research interests include designing cleaner solutions rooted in sound science and carefully examining the local context (technology, policy, regulation, finance, culture), especially in the Himalayan region. “I am particularly interested in black carbon measurement and its climate impact from global to regional to local scale,” he says. Onlinekhabar’s Abhaya Raj Joshi recently talked to Rupakheti on air pollution in Kathmandu and possible solutions.
Let’s talk about the scientific community’s understanding of pollution in Kathmandu Valley. From when did pollution emerge as a problem in Kathmandu?
It was around 1997 that a World Bank report pointed out that air pollution was becoming a problem in Kathmandu. After that, a handful of Masters and PhD students conducted small-scale studies on the issue. It was only around 2001-2002 that that government established pollution monitoring stations in six locations across the valley. The stations provided data on PM 10 until 2008 and data from the stations were only long-term data we had to analyse the level of pollution in Kathmandu. Even during those days, it was found that the pollution level in Kathmandu was below the national standard of 120 microgram only for around five-ten days in a year.
Even though the monitoring stations ceased to function, one could easily see that the level of pollution in Kathmandu was high. First, the people living in Kathmandu felt pollution was increasing, and second, most cities around South Asia saw a rise in pollution levels. Around 2012, under my leadership, we started a project to conduct a scientific study of the pollution in Kathmandu. This was important because there was a lack of a study conducted under international standards. The study was called ‘International Pollution Monitoring Campaign’. It was not a long-term study, we wanted to get a snapshot of what was going on. The campaign was successful in its mission, and until now more than 30 papers have been written using data from the campaign.
Could you tell us about your major findings?
The level of air pollution in Kathmandu is bad. Through our studies on the level of pollution traffic police are exposed to, we found that the level of pollution in the city is on average five times more than the WHO-prescribed guidelines. Similarly, on busy intersections of the city, the level of PM2.5 easily goes past 100 times the WHO norm. It is believed that for every increase in 40 micrograms of PM 2.5, the population’s chance of hospitalisation increases by 1.5 per cent. You can easily do the maths for levels that are 100 times the WHO norm.
To put things into perspective, we have seen that the amount of PM2.5 in the air on Berlin’s worst days in terms of air pollution is comparable to the clearest days in Kathmandu.
One of the surprising results of the study came from our monitoring of Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), which is a known carcinogen. We found out that the level of PAH in a small city like Kathmandu is comparable to that in New Delhi and Beijing, two cities that have received global attention for being highly polluted.
Gaseous pollution was also found to be high. The level of ozone, a pollutant harmful to both humans and plants was found to be high around the Nagarkot area in Kathmandu.
What are the major sources of air pollution in Kathmandu?
To list the sources of air pollution in Kathmandu, I would mention brick kilns, open incineration of garbage and agro residue. But, around 60 per cent of the air pollution in Kathmandu is related to traffic. This includes both the emissions and the dust associated with traffic. In addition to that during the brick kiln season, around 40 per cent of the PM2.5 in the valley can be attributed to the kilns.
“Around 60 per cent of the air pollution in Kathmandu is related to traffic. This includes both the emissions and the dust associated with traffic.”
What is the academia’s understanding of the effects of air pollution in Nepal as a whole?
A recent study published in the Lancet says that over 32,000 Nepalis die every year due to air pollution. Most of the deaths that can be attributed to air pollution is preventable. According to a 2016 study by the World Bank, around 4.6 per cent of Nepal’s GDP goes towards health-related costs incurred due to air pollution.
The World Health Organisation, in 2014, declared that any form of air pollution ultimately causes cancer. So there is no ‘safe’ level for pollution.
We have seen that the level of PM 2.5 in Kathmandu increases during the winter. Kathmandu’s geological situation makes it even more challenging to reduce pollution.
Yes, in winter, there are times when the air remains stagnant in Kathmandu for over 17-18 hours and pollutants emitted during that period remain suspended near the surface. Early morning, the temperature falls and people and polluting particles remain suspended in the air (around 250 m above the surface). There are only a handful wind entry points in Kathmandu: Nagdhunga, Mudkhu Bhanjyang, Bhimdhunga and the banks of the Bagmati. In addition to that, the floor of the valley is very low and wind from Kathmandu cannot easily escape.
“Yes, in winter, there are times when the air remains stagnant in Kathmandu for over 17-18 hours and pollutants emitted during that period remain suspended near the surface.”
During winter, the level of pollution increases as the day progresses when people start burning garbage and agriculture residue and traffic starts to flow on the road. The pollution soon reaches its peak and then when traffic eases, the cold is already back in the evening. That is why I do not recommend morning walks in the city–even walking during the day is also not good for health.
If we look at the data, we can see that the situation is indeed alarming. At a personal level, what can we do to reduce pollution?
At a personal level, there are two things that can be done. First, don’t burn garbage and second, conduct periodic maintenance of your vehicle. Studies have shown that periodic maintenance of vehicles can reduce emissions by up to 8-10 times.
To reduce exposure, avoid morning walks and wear a good mask whenever you go out. Masks that are labelled N95 or N99 can reduce the intake of PM2.5. Cloth masks don’t help at all.
What is your assessment of government efforts to control air pollution?
Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister’s Office organised a meeting of stakeholders to discuss how the money collected through the pollution tax could be used. Similarly, several plans have been made to control air pollution. I believe that given the level of pollution we are faced with, we do not need to wait for a detailed scientific study. We can reduce pollution significantly by taking any form of action, although we do not yet have a clean air law.
I believe that although the current laws are not sufficient to tackle air pollution in Nepal, but we can still use them to drive pollution down considerably. After doing so, we will reach a point where further lowering becomes difficult, that is when we will need the clean air regulation.
There are some positive steps that have been taken, but the steps are not adequate given the large scale of the problem. The government plans to install more than three dozen emission testing facilities and that is a step in the right direction.
The government’s plans also include the use of electric vehicles. Can EVs help reduce the pollution problem in Kathmandu?
Well, I can’t exactly say how much effect EVs will have on air pollution. But after the recent road expansion drive in Kathmandu, we have seen that wider roads do not necessarily equate to lower pollution. We need mass transit buses and electric buses that can replace the small passenger vehicles on the road. I also think that local authorities should promote cycling.
“Switching to EVs is one of the ultimate solutions to controlling air pollution. In Germany, only electric cars will be sold after a few years; similar is the case with Norway. That is the direction we need to head towards.”
Switching to EVs is one of the ultimate solutions to controlling air pollution. In Germany, only electric cars will be sold after a few years; similar is the case with Norway. That is the direction we need to head towards.
We don’t manufacture cars in Nepal, and it has to be imported. I think that the government should provide encouragement to EV owners–some incentives are already in place. But people are still not interested in buying EVs. We must look at the next 15-20 years to make the switch given the golden opportunity our hydropower projects present to us.
In the recent years, there has been a lot of talk about long-range transport of pollutants. Do you think Nepal should also take the issue up with other countries in the region?
I have always said that controlling pollution locally is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We need to focus our attention towards controlling pollution at home and at the same time talk to our neighbours about it.
This interview is part of a series on E-mobility in Nepal and India produced under a grant from Clean Energy Wire (CLEW), Germany.