Just over a month ago, The Guardian ran this article by Dr. Andrew Lodge, a Kathmandu doctor and teacher: Has air pollution made Kathmandu unliveable? Excerpt and then a comment:
Nepal generally evokes images of a pristine mountain nation on top of the world. The thick cloud of pollution that threatens to suffocate Nepal’s largest city, however, provides a stark contrast to this reputation.
While there are several environmental crises converging here – severe water shortages, for instance, have become status quo – none is as dire as air quality. In the past 10 years, the number of vehicles on Kathmandu’s streets has risen threefold. The problem has become so acute that many of its 1.74 million residents are left wondering: at what point will their city become unliveable?
Nepal’s air quality ranks 177th out of 178 countries, according to Yale’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), better only than Bangladesh. As a physician working in one of Kathmandu’s main teaching hospitals, I see a disproportionate amount of patients with respiratory ailments who are admitted to the wards on a daily basis, the victims of dirty air. Walking to and from work along the crowded, exhaust-choked streets, I sometimes wonder how more people are not sick.
The view from my Kathmandu rooftop certainly seems to bear the EPI findings out. On many days, the relatively close Himalayan mountains are obscured by smog, the brick apartment buildings that form Kathmandu’s skyline shrouded in an oppressive cloud. Those new to Kathmandu frequently complain of sore throats and itchy eyes within a few days of arrival.
“I see rapid changes each time I return,” says Anobha Gurung, a Kathmandu-born doctoral candidate at Yale who is studying the air quality in her home city. “Now it is a common sight to see a gray haze for the valley, especially during the winter months, and city residents venturing out of homes wearing masks.”
Gurung and her colleagues have found that during surges in Kathmandu traffic congestion, the level of small particulate matter can measure over 500 micrograms per cubic metre, or 20 times the World Health Organisation’s safe upper limit. By comparison, the recent smog alarm that led Paris to ban cars peaked at just over a fifth of that level: 110 micrograms per cubic metre.
Mexico City's air in 1957 was still very good, but I still recall how absolutely crystalline it was on the morning after the big July earthquake. The likely reason was the sharp reduction in vehicle traffic. Like Kathmandu, Mexico City sits in a high-altitude valley with mountains all around it, trapping smog under an inversion layer. I hope we can learn of the Nepal quake's effect on air quality as well.