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3 May 2021 | Air and air quality

Clearing the air

Pema Gyamtsho

3 mins Read

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It is hard to think of the past month without being reminded of the air pollution that engulfed us here in Kathmandu. Several factors contributed to the extremely bad air quality in Kathmandu and many parts of the HKH region in late March and early April. The prolonged dry season over the winter months had already resulted in high levels of pollution in the region, which was only made worse by the forest fires that raged across much of the mid-hills and plains of Nepal and surrounding areas.

As we monitored the forest fires using the satellite-based tool which we helped to develop and implemented by our partners, it made for a scary sight. The scale of the map made it sometimes seem like the whole of Nepal and surrounding regions were on fire. There were days when even weather/meteorology satellites confused the smoke/haze with cloud cover over our region, while air quality index readings were reaching extremely hazardous levels.

We have been fortunate to have had some much-needed rain and high winds in the past week or so, which has helped alleviate the situation. While it is now easy to forget and not think about the episode, it is important that we understand that such situations could become more frequent and common in the years ahead. This is an alarming thought, and we need to be prepared for such a future.

Other than the direct health hazards which such levels of air pollution can result in, there are also much deeper and worrying costs. Let us not forget the ecological impacts of such forest fires on our biodiversity, from the more well-known and iconic species of flora and fauna to the lesser-known insects and micro-organisms, all of which are vital for our complex but fragile ecosystems. With increased attention on zoonotic diseases in the past year, such destruction of biodiversity and habitat would only make us more vulnerable in the years to come.

Then there are the associated economic costs. Forests are extremely valuable resources not just for the wellbeing and livelihoods of many communities but also as carbon sinks in helping us fight against climate change. On the one hand, there are efforts to expand afforestation and re-forestation programmes, while on the other, we seem to be failing to conserve the forests we already have. This paradox is something which has to be addressed with appropriate forest fire disaster plans, early warning systems, and supporting technologies to ensure that the fires can be contained and extinguished quickly. Most importantly, it has to be addressed through proper messaging and campaigning to make people aware about the proper protocols and to mobilize communities when it comes to fires in forests and their peripheral areas.

Forest fires are, however, only part of the problem when it comes to air pollution in our region. While forest fires usually contribute to the deterioration of air quality, especially between the months of March and May every year, their contributions are relatively minor when viewed on an annual basis. The main sources of air pollution in our region are from the domestic (cooking, household garbage and agriculture burning), industrial, and transport sectors. To ensure that the overall, year-round air quality is at healthy levels, we must have proper monitoring and interventions to address pollution generated from these sectors as well.

It is easy to think of air pollution as a localized issue. However, we know for a fact that its impacts and implications are far reaching, literally. Black carbon and other pollutants originating in downstream regions of the HKH usually end up being deposited high up on our mountains and glaciers, exacerbating their melting. There are now studies that show that pollutants originating in our region also end up further afield in places like the Arctic, thousands of kilometres away.

These are important and significant issues which are of concern not just for our region but from a global standpoint. At ICIMOD, our Atmosphere Programme will continue to monitor and study such phenomena and work with governments and a broad network of partners to help develop practical and meaningful ground-level solutions. For the time being, let us appreciate clean air and blue skies while continuing to contemplate the bigger picture – the importance and interconnectedness of clean air for all beings.

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