Necessity To Improve Air Quality

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Air pollution is a global issue now. It is everywhere around the world. There are several factors responsible for stoking air pollution. Both anthropogenic and natural factors are to blame for air pollution. Residential pollution caused by burning biomass and fossil fuels for cooking, heating and lighting purposes contributes to indoor air pollution. Use of fossil fuels to generate electricity and for use on transport; burning of waste; agricultural practices that generate methane and ammonia; and effluents from chemical and mining industries are some of the major sources of ambient air pollution. Natural sources of air pollution include windblown dust, volcanic eruptions, sea spray, soil dust and lightning. Windblown dust affects countries close to deserts in Africa and West Asia. Bombardment of cities, towns or villages that demolishes buildings and other structures is responsible for generating dust pollution. 

There is a close nexus between air pollution and climate change. All major pollutants have a profuse effect on climate. Most air pollutants share commons sources with greenhouse gas emissions, which induce climate change. Air pollution has a serious impact on human health. It causes cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and even cancer. The deadliest illnesses are linked to PM 2.5 air pollution. Stroke, heart disease, lung disease, pneumonia and cancer may be induced by such air pollution. Fifteen per cent of deaths in 2019 were caused by PM 2.5 air pollution.  Around four million people died in 2019 from exposure to such air pollution. The highest number of deaths was recorded in East Asia and Central Europe. One in nine deaths occurs globally because of air pollution. Exposure to PM 2.5 air pollution reduced the global life expectancy by one year in 2019. 

Global phenomenon

High levels of fine particles can affect diabetic patients and cognitive development in children, besides causing mental health problems.  Air pollutants can travel across borders, affecting neighbouring countries. For example, the dust from India affected Nepal some years ago. Air pollution can threaten food security and render human settlements uninhabitable. Even though air pollution is a global phenomenon, it disproportionately affects countries around the world. As compared to developed countries, developing countries are greatly affected by air pollution. In developing countries, solid fuels such as coal, and kerosene are extensively used for cooking, heating and lighting purposes. Further, vulnerable groups – women, children and the elderly – are disproportionately affected by air pollution. 

The incidence of air pollution-induced diseases is also disproportionate. For example, 20 per cent of deaths from ischaemic heart disease occur globally, but the percentage is 30 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa. When it comes to neonate deaths, 20 per cent of the deaths occur because of air pollution.  Air pollution is considered the biggest environmental risk factor for premature deaths globally. Annually, 6.7 million premature deaths occur from air pollution. 

The Kathmandu Valley is also bearing the brunt of air pollution. In recent time, Kathmandu has been regularly featured in the Air Quality Index as the most or the second most polluted city in the world. On the one hand, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City has been making efforts to make Kathmandu one of the cleanest cities in the world, while on the other the capital city has earned a bad reputation for being one of the most polluted cities in the world. 

The Kathmandu Valley is shaped like a bowl, trapping pollutants for a long time. The major sources of air pollution in the Valley are exhaust fumes from vehicles, open burning of organic material, burning of waste or garbage and dust from construction and digging works. Kathmandu is one of the rapidly growing cities in South Asia. The population is growing day by day owing to migration from rural and remote areas. Construction works, especially digging, are going on all the year round owing to delays in completing the works in time. Some days ago, the Valley was affected by the forest fires taking across the country to some extent. However, most of the fires have been doused by rains, giving respite to the country. Some unscrupulous people deliberately set fire to forests. The government has also arrested some of such arsonists.   

Concessions for EVs

There is no gainsaying that improved air quality produces beneficial effects not only on human health but also on the environment. The introduction of electric vehicles as a replacement for fossil fuel-based vehicles is a step towards reducing air pollution. There are hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley. The exhaust fumes spewed forth by the vehicles are largely responsible for degrading air pollution. Although the use of electric vehicles is gradually increasing, the government has failed to provide attractive concessions in the import duties of the vehicles. Had adequate concessions been given, the use of the vehicles would have increased further. That charging stations are being built in various places of the country is good news.  

Dust is one of the major sources of air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley. Construction works are not completed in time. Streets and roads are dug and sometimes they are left unfilled for a long time. Even if they are filled up, they are not pitched in time. The underground cabling works of the Nepal Electricity Authority have been going on for the last several years. This has also contributed to dust pollution. Proper maintenance of roads will free the city from dust pollution. Dust pollution induces eye irritation and respiratory problems. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s pledge to make Kathmandu a dust-free city within this fiscal year has all gone phut. It is not surprising that the government has instructed the city dwellers to wear facemasks as a safeguard against dust pollution. Instead, the government should have initiated concrete measures to improve air quality.

(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)

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