Living in Kathmandu: “Sometimes I feel as if my lungs are getting stuffed with dirt…. It’s suffocating”

Shiva Raj MishraBy Shiva Raj MishraPerth
26 September 2016


Shristi Bhochhibhoya lives in Kathmandu, home to some five million people. She has fond memories of her early days as she grew up in the historic city. Her “little town” has now turned into a juggle of concrete buildings that stretch all the way to the flanks of the surrounding hills where brick kilns and factories emit smoke day in and day out.

Nothing has changed more in the last few decades than the air quality in Kathmandu, the 20-something girl says. Now, she can hardly breathe during traffic jams when vehicles suddenly come to a grinding halt – the air is that thick, she complains! “Sometimes I feel as if my lungs are getting stuffed with dirt…. It’s suffocating,” Ms Bhochhibhoya exclaims!

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Using face mask would have been a solution, but it hardly helps when the air is that heavily polluted. Face masks may stop larger particles from entering the lungs but certainly cannot protect you micro-particles.

Dr Om Kurmi, a research scientist from Oxford University Respiratory Unit who writes on the effects of pollution on our respiratory health, says “…Kathmandu is an unliveable city now,” further adding, “Living in Kathmandu is a necessity for many as it is the only city where majority of colleges and the universities are, including available jobs”.

According to the Oxford-based scientist, poor living conditions in the cities, clumsy buildings and neighbourhood are further affected by outdoor and indoor air pollution.  A significant number of people living in poverty-ridden areas still use firewood (biomass) as cooking fuel and do not have a separate kitchen which exposes them to a higher level of indoor air pollution. Air pollution increases the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and many other respiratory diseases.

Dr Om Kurmi (to the left) has a PhD in respiratory and environmental epidemiology from the University of Aberdeen, UK. He is currently working as a senior scientist at the respiratory epidemiology unit in the Nuffield Department of Population Health in Oxford University | Photo: Supplied

In a report published by Guardian, Dr Andrew Lodge highlighted the health effects of air pollution in Kathmandu. Dr Lodge noted that COPD, a disease usually familiar among heavy smokers, is now commonly seen in people who don’t even have a history of smoking. He further reported that cases of asthma in hospitals were presented with symptoms of itchy eyes, another visible sign of deteriorating air quality in Kathmandu.

This explains an earlier study conducted by Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC) which reported a higher visitation for COPD, pneumonia and asthma among outpatient visitors. The pollution level (PM2.5) has exceeded national standards by many folds with peaks being recorded in the mornings and evenings. This indicates normal walking hours are hazardous to people, especially to patients of cardio-vascular diseases.

World Health Organization reports that 23% of 12.6 million deaths annually were environment-related, of these 3.7 million were related to pollution in ambient air. In children under five, up to 26% of such deaths were related to environment. The Global Burden of Disease Study estimates that 2.1 million air pollution deaths occur in Asia every year.

Dr Kurmi maintains that some of world’s worst polluted cities are in Kathmandu’s immediate neighbourhood: Delhi, Dhaka, Beijing, Shanghai and so on. He is worried Kathmandu­­ is in the footsteps of becoming one of them where pollution kills thousands of people every year, mostly from lower socioeconomic strata. While former cities had tremendous growth in industrial outputs creating jobs for the labour market (decreasing unemployment rate), the pollution in Kathmandu had nothing to do with industrial growth and reduction of unemployment. The topography of the valley, which is 930 km2 in area located at 900-1500 altitude range, could have further contributed to the accumulation of dusts and smoke. Some argue that the polluted air in Kathmandu gets entrapped, unlike cities built on even terrain, due to its bowl-like shape.

While threats of air pollution are clear from practical studies, there is still a lack of understanding among public and polity, says Dr Meghnath Dhimal from Nepal Health Research Council. On the positive side, he has lately seen national dailies running reports on the issue of air quality more frequently. “…Everyone is worried about the future of air quality in Kathmandu but the solution is not clearly visible”, he said.

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Dr Meghnath Dhimal, Senior Research Officer at Nepal Health Research Council | Photo: Supplied

Dr Dhimal, who holds a PhD in environmental health from Goethe University in Germany, has some recommendations for the government, the foremost being the tail pipe monitoring of all vehicles.  In the past, tail pipe monitoring had not been conducted with serious scrutiny. Green stickers which were given for vehicles under safe limits of pollution were easily bribed. According to the concerned environmentalist, when more than 80% of vehicles running on the roads are over 20 years of age (majority of them brought in 1990s), it is hard to replace them all with fresh ones given the resistance from the transport. The organized monopoly or the syndicate in the industry complicates the phasing out of these old vehicles. The maintenance of road and dust-control during construction of roads and re-construction of buildings damaged by the 2015 mega earthquake are equally important, Dr Dhimal adds.

The government is clearly losing the battle against the shrewd private transport sector. Dr Dhimal recounts an incident when private taxi drivers and owners’ strike affected the city for an entire week. They were protesting against the government’s decision to introduce new cabs. After a week, government was bound to withdraw the decision – clearly showing who was more powerful. “Government is losing foothold in monitoring the private sector”, he points out.

Fares are exorbitant even for short-distance travels. “There are more than adequate numbers of private buses, mini buses, tempo on the roads. However, people still have to wait long ahead, and then travel horrendously”, Ms Bhochhibhoya says. She is a former resident of Baneshwor area in Kathmandu who is now a graduate teaching assistant in the University of Oklahoma, USA. Besides pollution, female passengers face plenty of harassment while travelling in jam-packed vehicles, she laments. Also, vehicles that ply the streets of Kathmandu are not regularly maintained. Shristi deplores that she can hardly sleep at night unless it is weekends during which the traffic is less busy. “Small tempos and mini buses take more space on the road, and also pollute more when not maintained regularly”, Dr. Kurmi says, “Heavy buses are viable alternatives, which will also help to reduce the traffic problem”.

There are weaknesses on the government side that have caused escalation in the air pollution problem. The transition following the end of a decade long Maoist conflict has meant several governments have had their tenure last less than a year. When the governments are unstable, they virtually lack a focus and accountability. And even if they try to do so, their power remains limited amidst enormous pressure from outside. This ‘’pressure’’ often comes with strong backing from the so-called ‘transport syndicates” that want to stop ageing vehicles from being disbanded.

Transport laws should be strengthened under a stable government, Dr. Kurmi says. He hopes that the current and future governments would be bold enough to tighten tail pipe monitoring, just as Dr. Dhimal hopes. He also warns against pollution due to brick kilns in the outskirts of the city. These kilns use a technology which is nearly 100 year old – cheap and inefficient. Modern technology should be introduced and their location should be changed from the main residential areas.

The government recommends regular monitoring of emissions from industrial establishments. However, there has not been any effort to monitor it in recent times. Monitoring should be routine. Factories emitting higher than the recommended levels should be monitored, Dr Kurmi asserts.

Pollution during the day is further intensified by dust that escapes the construction activities from the ring road expansion project being funded by the Chinese government. Both the government and contracting company has not taken adequate steps to stop the dust wash-out from the construction site. Regular sprinkling of water helps to reduce wash-out.

Dr Kurmi fears that in the aftermath of 2015 earthquakes, the increased construction activities will pump additional smoke of sulphur and nitrogen into the environment. The ensuing damage will not be only to the physical environment, aquatic and land ecosystem will also suffer from this phenomenon. His fears about the changing air quality in post-earthquake Kathmandu accords the views of Dr Dhimal and many others in the field.

There is both political and public apathy when it comes to taking measures to control the very sources of emission. Pollution control is the only way to protect the health of millions who are currently under threat, largely because of a mismanaged transport sector. Household, transport and industrial sources of pollution must be brought under control. Stronger regulations on pollution control are warranted; that would require Nepal’s policy-makers to be serious about the sufferings of valley-dwellers and take timely measures. Let us hope that the new health minister, Gagan Thapa, will take some immediate steps to control pollution at both micro and macro levels, especially those contributed by transport sector and industrial establishments.

It is the right of every Nepalese citizen to be able to breathe in clean air, be in a dirt-free environment and live a healthy life. Clean air is as necessary as anything else in our daily life, and immensely important for disease-free life and wellbeing. Let’s make us healthier every day by protecting our lungs. Let’s act from today and control the pollution in the cities we live.

Shiva Raj Mishra is a columnist with southasia.com.au. He is a postgraduate student of Public Health at the University of Western Australia specializing in research methods. He writes on public health and regularly contributes to a number of publications. You can reach him through his twitter account @SRajTweets or email [email protected].

3 thoughts on “Living in Kathmandu: “Sometimes I feel as if my lungs are getting stuffed with dirt…. It’s suffocating”

  1. better if this concern is made by the person who is bound to live in kath.now a days it hss become a fashion to talk about nepals negative aspect from the people who lives abroad.yes we know the situation.

  2. I agree with Suresh Sijapati. Sitting abroad and giving interviews and writing columns is not going to help. Such experts should face the music here and then try to resolve the issues by taking it forward to concerned places.

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