• The Himalayas: Upstream but Downwind

    Ramesh Tiwari
    June 4, 2014
    The Himalayas: Upstream but Downwind

    By Arnico Panday —————————-

    The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region has received much attention as the source of rivers that supply water to 1.3 billion people downstream. It has received far less attention for its role as the recipient of the air pollution originating in the plains.

    Across northern South Asia during the dry season, individual plumes from hundreds of millions of cooking fires, tens of millions of diesel vehicles, generators and pump sets, as well as tens of thousands of brick kilns merge together into one thick brown haze layer that extends across international borders from Pakistani Punjab to Bangladesh, penetrating deep into Himalayan valleys. A major constituent of this haze is black carbon.

    Black carbon is a carcinogen and has major impacts on people’s health. It is also a ‘short-lived climate pollutant’ (SLCP) – an air pollutant that has significant impacts on local and regional climate. Unlike the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), which, once emitted, stays in the atmosphere for centuries impacting global climate, SLCPs have atmospheric lifetimes of days to months.

    The good news is that shutting down the sources of SLCPs reduces their climate impact within days to months. Their short lifetime also means that they do not have time to mix uniformly around the globe, and that their greatest impact is near their sources. The bad news is that the HKH region is near a major source region for black carbon: the Indo-Gangetic Plains, where more than half a billion people live along the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers and their tributaries. While globally black carbon has the second biggest impact on climate after CO2, its impact in northern South Asia is much bigger than its global average.

    Black carbon contributes to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields, warms the atmosphere at higher elevations and cools it at lower elevations, affecting atmospheric circulation patterns. It also reduces visibility to the point where snowy peaks are no longer visible from places whose livelihoods depend on selling mountain views to tourists. In addition, it contributes to changes in monsoon clouds and in the timing and intensity of rainfall, with potentially significant impacts on droughts, floods, landslides, hydropower, agriculture and drinking water availability.

    While air pollution is severe in some of the larger cities in the plains, such as Delhi, Agra, and Dhaka, it can be as bad or worse in smaller cities within the HKH region, such as Kathmandu, Nepal. The mountains surrounding the Kathmandu Valley, and the airflow they create, confine its local emissions within the valley from early evening until late morning. Field studies during the first half of 2013 found concentrations of air pollutants several times above WHO’s and Nepal’s own air quality standards for extended periods of time.

    Emissions within the Kathmandu Valley are not the only source of its air pollution problem. There are also inputs from cooking fires, agricultural fires, and forest fires in the surrounding valleys and mountains, and more importantly, an inflow of air pollution up the Bagmati Valley from the south. While sewage from mountain cities flows down the rivers into the plains and across borders, a reverse flow of air pollution comes back up the mountain valleys. There are around 120 brick kilns within the Kathmandu Valley, less than 800 in all of Nepal, mostly in southern Nepal, but almost 23,000 in the two neighbouring Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone.

    Air pollution crosses borders daily. Shutting down all of Nepal’s brick kilns will not stop the pollution arriving from the ones south of the border. Bhutan has no brick kilns. It imports its bricks as well as black carbon from brick kilns.

    Creating effective air pollution policies to reduce people’s exposure to high levels of air pollution and to reduce its impacts on climate requires detailed scientific understanding of the links between sources and impacts, as well as regionally coordinated science-based policies. What fraction of the black carbon arriving on Yala Glacier in Langtang is from nearby households, from Kathmandu, from the Nepali Terai, or from India or beyond?

    Effective policy making at the local and national levels requires detailed maps of emissions sources, atmospheric modeling systems that simulate the fate of emitted pollutants, connecting sources to impacts, as well as a network of measurement stations that provide real-time data to the public and policy makers and inputs to atmospheric models. It also requires free flow of data across borders, and regionally coordinated responses to high air pollution episodes. Ultimately, cleaning up air pollution in northern South Asia and reducing its impacts on the HKH region requires a strong push towards cleaner, less polluting technologies, include clean cooking, clean brick production and clean transportation.

    Arnico Panday [arnico.panday@icimod.org] is ICIMOD’s Senior Atmospheric Scientist and the coordinator of ICIMOD’s Atmosphere Initiative.

    June 4 , 2014

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      2017 in review -Top stories

      January 1 : New year nightclub attack leaves 39 dead in Istanbul
      January 20 : Republican billionaire Donald Trump sworn in as 45th US president
      January 23 : Syria peace talks begin in Kazakh capital Astana
      March 29 :United Kingdom officially launches the Brexit process
      April 4 :Syria launches chemical attack killing 90 people
      April 6 : US cruise missiles destroy Syrian air base
      April 9 : Bombings at two churches in Egypt kill dozens
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      April 16 :Turkey says YES to presidential system
      May 6 :Emmanuel Macron elected French president defeating Marine Le Pen
      May 19 :Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani wins re-election
      May 22 : Terrorist attack kills 22 at Manchester concert
      June 5 : Gulf nations severe ties with Qatar
      June 7 :Suicide bombers attack Iranian parliament killing 13 people
      June 14 :London fire kills 71 in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower
      July 4 :North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s missile ambitions
      July 28 : Pakistan’s top court disqualifies Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office
      August 5 :US withdraws from Paris climate change pact
      August 17 :Storms cause record damage in Caribbean and southern United States
      August 25 :Muslim Rohingya start fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar
      September 15 : NASA’s 13-year Saturn mission ends
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      September 24 : Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wins fourth term
      September 26 : Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving
      October 1 : Gunman opens fire on Las Vegas music festival killing 59 people
      October 14 : Massive bombing in Somalia’s capital Modadishu kill more than 500 people
      October 24 : China confirms the elevation of President Xi Jinping to the same status as the nation’s founder, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping, by enshrining ‘Xi Jinping thought’ in the party’s constitution at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China
      October 27 : Catalonia declares independence from Spain
      November 4 : S audi Arabia detains 11 princes, four ministers and ten former ministers in a corruption probe
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      November 15 : Argentine navy submarine disappears with 44 crew on board
      November 21 : Robert Mugabe resigns as Zimbabwe’s president after 37 years in power. His former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa will become president.
      November 22 : Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic convicted of genocide in Srebrenica during the 1990s Bosnian War
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      Between January and August 2017, destinations worldwide welcomed 901 million international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors), 56 million more than in the same period of 2016 .The top ten most visited cities are:
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      HONG KONG26.6 million
      BANGKOK 21.2 million
      LONDON19.2 million
      SINGAPORE16.6 million
      MACAU15.4 million
      DUBAI14.9 million
      PARIS14.4 million
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      Source: Euromonitor International

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