Can Kathmandu tackle air pollution using Data?

Author: Sijal Pokharel (Environment Scientist) and Nikesh Balami (Data Science Aspirant)

Monsoon has drenched most parts of the county preparing its soil for rice plantation, which is not just a lifeline for the nation’s main source of income but also major staple diet. However, the glory of monsoon shower has a different meaning for inhabitants of Kathmandu. Monsoon has feeble relation to agriculture in the valley because of mushrooming infrastructural growth and concretization in the name of development. Kathmandu is one of the top ten fastest urbanizing cities of the world and its fate on the well-being of the people is detrimental. The urbanization strategy and pace is unplanned and unsustainable. The last hour developmental activity is taking place haphazardly and has been criticized as a “monsoon development” by the public. The unsustainable outcome of such a practice cannot be denied as the longevity of such developmental projects always remains a question. Road expansion and other drainage projects together with the onset of monsoon have turned the blacktopped road into muddy pool adding burden to pedestrians and vehicles. This consequence has added to the new chapter of difficulty in the early existing course of air pollution. On the positive side, Monsoon has made the sky and atmosphere of Kathmandu valley clean and a little bit safer, giving us an opportunity to breathe air without a mask. Although the claim made by Prime Minister KP Oli regarding the Kathmandu air pollution was not accepted by most, the monsoon seems to team up with him. Monsoon driven opportunity of breathing safe air will end as soon as the monsoon ends. Pollution concentration will soon gain its height as the monsoon rain ceases. Government has no hint of any promising initiative to address it either. Importing a dozen Brommer and cleaning the roads of the valley is not working and will never work as those tools also requires good roads to function well.

Kathmandu has seen, experienced and tolerated the episodic consequences of political and developmental decisions regarding air pollution. However, such decisions have either worsen or lessely impacted the ground. The ambient air loaded with toxic pollutants such as an admixture of dust and smoke from vehicles, criteria air pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter forms a potential contributor of greenhouse gases. The situation is becoming more threatening in response to the research finding which quotes, “Kathmandu air with a carcinogenic agent”, “Nepal as 7th most polluted city among 290” and “Children born today will have their lives cut short by almost 30 months”.

This is a high time to drive the decision by data based on evidence. As per the Environment Statistics of Nepal 2019, published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the increase in air pollution is relatively high in winter and spring as compared to summer and autumn. It is equally inevitable for the public to understand the basics of air pollution and its consequences on health and environment which can aware citizens themselves to act accordingly. For instance, myRepublica publishes daily air pollution levels which gives a general picture of increase and decrease in concentration of PM2.5 comparing it against World Health Organization and National guideline. People should understand the dire impact of the situation in health and well-being when the level rises higher. If we analyze and visualize the 2017 PM2.5 and PM10 data of Ratnapark station which is located in the heart of the city, this pollution seems to be decreased during monsoon (July — September).

Monthly Average PM₂.₅ in 2017 at Ratnapark
Monthly Average PM₁₀ in 2017 at Ratnapark

In winter and spring (December — April), the air seems to be more polluted and unhealthy. PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter and PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter. Human body like nose, mouth or throat can’t filter the PM2.5 and a large proportion of dust can enter deep into the thorax and cause health problems like asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular problems.

The problem is not just limited to human health, it is also with data availability and its dissemination. Generating air pollution data is resource intensive as it demands sophisticated instruments and trained human resource as an analyst. It is not that Government of Nepal lacks such capacity, its rather the lack of entry point for the decision makers, practitioners and researchers to use the data generated by already existing 17 air quality monitoring stations. People have to rely upon the limited data or data from the secondary sources like Drishti and US Embassy Kathmandu even while generating some remarkable decisions or knowledge products.

Many decisions are taken based on the data displayed by the Smart Solar Dustbins which is deployed in the roads across the city which reads temperature and pollution of the ambient air. The validity and accuracy of such reading is a question among experts and enthusiasts considering the maintenance of such hi-tech dustbin. It is a sole demotivation to learn that the screen has started to display the invalid information which directly leads to the misleading decision.

The Department of Environment publishes the real-time and weekly pollution data on its public website (http://pollution.gov.np) but the authority is reluctant to provide an archive of historic data. Easy access to such depository would enhance the participatory decision making process of formulating and implementing the policy and plans regarding air pollution. The entry point for researchers, practitioners, academicians and other enthusiast in the data access and analysis could brick the foundation of decisions by making it inclusive and open to ideas. Although the Right to Information Act 2064 guarantee that every Nepali citizen have a right to demand the information with all government bodies, this fundamental right seems to demean in the prospect of air pollution data. We cannot deny the fact that better data leads to better decisions and limiting the access of data limits the innovation.

Kathmandu can take data-driven approach and find innovative ways to tackle this critical issues taking the reference from Delhi’s approach. It is also a time of the partner organization like The Asian Development Bank and US Embassy Kathmandu, who have been providing technical support to push and encourage Nepal government to publish the collected data so that everyone can access and use it.

“Open data in air quality leads to awareness and engagement, turning insight into collaborative action.” — @BreatheBrighton

Interdisciplinary Stuffs - “Civic Entrepreneur, Open Data Advocate and Tech Researcher" / https://nikeshbalami.com.np