[Commentary] Blanketing the Himalayan valleys, smog knows no national boundaries

The higher ridges of the Himalayas stand out above a blanket of smothering smog. Photo by Kunda Dixit.

  • With the taller ridges of the Himalayas constituting the northern boundary for the subcontinental smog, the valleys in Nepal have been concentrating polluted air.
  • In addition to the air pollution that Nepal creates for itself, it is also affected by transboundary pollution.
  • Ironically, many from Nepal come to Delhi for medical treatment for pollution-related health problems.
  • China has started cleaning up its air pollution problem. South Asian countries should do the same by mustering political will.

In this season’s episodes of the popular Nepali tele-serial Singha Durbar which is patterned after Yes, Prime Minister, a fictitious female prime minister of Nepal grapples with all kinds of crises. But the one that is giving her the biggest headache is air pollution, as she battles the vehicle and petroleum lobby.

Nepal’s mainstream press and social media are full of references to the growing air pollution problem. There is now widespread awareness about dirty air affecting people’s health and cutting the lifespan of Kathmandu residents by four years.

But awareness has not yet translated into public outrage, pushing the government to act. National leaders and local mayors have made token moves on electric public transport, but the efforts are too little and too ad hoc. People cope the best they can, even as hospitals register a dramatic rise in patients with pulmonary ailments, acute respiratory infections, or asthma. Face masks have become a mandatory part of the wardrobe as residents cope with some of the highest levels of pollution in the region.

For the past two winters Kathmandu has been blanketed by dust raised by post-earthquake reconstruction, endless road widening and pipe-laying work for new water supply and sewage networks. Brick kilns and open burning of garbage have contributed to the high concentration of particulates in the air. There are now nearly 800,000 motorcycles and another 500,000 cars and trucks in the Valley, and vehicular emissions contribute to PM2.5 particulates as well as toxic gases.

Smog smothers the valleys

On a recent morning, the flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi was delayed. This is not unusual, winter inversion in Kathmandu Valley traps overnight pollution spewed out by this metropolis of 3.5 million. Urban sprawl surrounds Nepal’s only international airport, and poor visibility causes chronic flight disruptions.

Finally, the sun burns off some of the smog and the plane takes off, breaking through the pollution layer into bright sunshine and blue skies at about 9,000 feet. As the plane circles over Kathmandu, the ground is not visible through the thick smog. But it is also apparent that the pollution is not just covering Kathmandu’s bowl-shaped valley – it stretches like a dirty grey blanket right to the southern horizon. To the north, the upper level of this regional haze laps at the base of the Central Himalayas like an ocean.

The mountains themselves are largely devoid of snow, and there is a lot of exposed rock. The plane reaches cruising altitude south of the tourist town of Pokhara and Mt Machapuchre comes into view. This iconic peak is 6,995m high, yet the south face of the pyramid is almost completely black.

The glacier at the base has long since melted, and even the winter snow is gone. Along the base of the Annapurna, Himalchuli, Ganesh and Langtang massifs, the snowline has receded up the mountain. Scientists who have been measuring glacier retreat say that most of it is because of global warming, but some of the accelerated melting is caused by soot particles in the pollution being deposited on the snows, causing them lose their reflectivity and melt faster.

A satellite image of the smog across the subcontinent on January 19. Satellite image from NASA Worldview.

Larger, deeper glacial lakes

From Garhwal to Bhutan and into southern Tibet, glacial retreat and shrinking is so pervasive that new lakes are emerging all the time. Existing glacial lakes are growing in area as the ice calves.

The Imja Glacier below Mt Lhotse now has a lake 2 km long, 1 km wide and more than 100 m deep. There is no lake there in trekking maps from the 1980s. Debris-covered glaciers like the Khumbu below Mt Everest have receded 30 metres/year for the past 20 years. It does not have a large lake, but the area of melt pools and supraglacial ponds on the Khumbu Glacier has increased by 70% in the past decade, the ice cliffs and caves accelerate melting, and while the boulders and sand insulate the ice beneath if they are thick, mostly the darker debris cover makes the ice melt faster. Mt Everest Base Camp is now located 50 m below its elevation when Hillary and Tenzing climbed the world’s highest mountain in 1953.

There are a dozen lakes in Nepal and many more upstream in Tibet that could burst simultaneously during a future earthquake unleashing catastrophic floods in the valleys below. We were lucky that in the two big 7.8 and 7.3 magnitude earthquakes of 2015 the Thulagi and Tso Rolpa glacial lakes, which are located very close to the epicentres, did not suffer moraine failures. If they had, there would have been Himalayan tsunamis crashing down the valleys of the Marsyangdi and the Tama Kosi rivers, taking away settlements, highways, and hydropower plants.

Although the blame for global warming lies in historical emissions from fossil fuel burning in rich countries after the industrial revolution, and growing carbon use today in China, India, countries in the region could start working to reduce pollution. China has now started cleaning up its act, and the horrendous pollution in Beijing and other cities in China’s northeast and the Chengdu Basin have come down dramatically. Measures like this are more effective in command economies like China. However, Pakistan, India and Nepal could do the same if they could muster the political will.

A glacial lake in the Himalayas. By special arrangement.

Economic argument needed to deal with air pollution

The problem is that even though the poor air quality affects everyone, and there is awareness about how serious it is, what its sources are, and what can be done about it there is not enough public pressure on governments to act. Activists have used various tactics like pushing the environmental argument for reducing carbon emissions, but it is difficult to get people to switch to renewables when the threat of the adverse effects are long term in the future, the alternative renewable systems are more expensive, or clean transport is not available. Activists have also used the health argument, citing scientific evidence that people are dying earlier because of the pollution. But even this has had minimal impact on public policy and action.

What might work better is the economic argument to turn fossil economies into renewable ones. Most South Asian countries have enormous petroleum import bills, and this is growing year by year. Nepal’s petroleum imports from India grew threefold in the past six years, widening the trade deficit. A big push to hydro, solar and wind, and using electricity for public transport would be the answer. This, however, needs statesmanship and for politicians to put their popularity on the line.

As the flight nears New Delhi and begins its descent, the plane enters the thick blanket of smog, the sun disappears and the runway is visible only at the last moment in the murky air. In 2018, air quality in the Indo-Gangetic plains from Lahore to Dhaka have been so poor that it has been many times higher than the maximum level deemed safe for human health. Air pollution in the cities of Punjab on both sides of the India-Pakistan border this year was consistently above 500. Kathmandu hit the hazardous AQI 300 during some mornings. Kolkata and Dhaka were at 400.

Much of the suspended particulates in the air was made up of those smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are really dangerous because they can cross the air-blood barrier in the lungs. Several days in January, the AQI in New Delhi was 999, which means it was off the charts because the monitoring devices cannot measure more than three digits.

The source of all this smog is the increase in vehicular traffic in cities in Pakistan and India, the addition of coal-fired thermal power stations, factories, brick kilns, and this year rampant burning of crop residue after paddy harvests.

A map of air quality index across multiple locations recorded on January 19. Map from

Can we follow the Chinese and Mexican models?

A NASA Worldview image of northern India shows a toxic blue haze covering the plains, and snaking up Himalayan river valleys in Garhwal, Kumaon and Nepal. Westerly winds wash this pollution down to Bangladesh and blows them into the Bay of Bengal.

China offers an example of how air quality can improve with state intervention. But more relevant for Nepal and India may be what Mexico City has done to clean up with notorious air quality, which was once so bad that birds fell dead from the air. Mexico took longer, but the sequence of policy interventions has worked.

Mexico City and Kathmandu Valley are very similar both in terms of seismic risk and air pollution. During the 1990s, Mexico City was declared the most polluted metropolis in the world, and used to have only eight days of good air quality in a year. By 2015, it had 248 days of good air.

How did Mexico City do it? It first shut down and relocated factories and refineries in its outskirts, it switched to cleaner diesel and petrol. It invested in an efficient public transport system, banned open air burning of garbage and vegetation.

On the recent flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi there were several patients suffering from COPD, who had been referred by Nepali doctors to hospitals in the Indian capital. The irony of it was lost on everyone: patients who had fallen sick because of air pollution in Kathmandu were going for treatment to a city where the air quality is three times worse.

[Kunda Dixit is editor, Nepali Times and author of Dateline Earth: Journalism as if the planet mattered].


Banner image: The high ridges of the Himalayas stand out above a blanket of smog. Photo by Kunda Dixit.

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