Bhutan has clean air, Thimphu does not

Since 2004, the concentration of PM 10 has more than doubled

In his TED talk earlier this year, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay famously stated that Bhutan is not only carbon neutral it is carbon negative. While it is true for the nation as a whole, urban centers like Thimphu have a different story to tell.

Surrounded by a lot of bare and frequently fire ravaged mountains, the capital is not the best ambassador of Bhutan’s clean and green championship. While not evident at first glance to visitors, residents have grown more than familiar with the pollution that surreptitiously hangs in the air. While the summer heat and rain cleanse or disperse most of the Particulate Matter (PM) pollutants, the dry wintry days are the worst.

Temperature inversion in winter whereby air closer to surface becomes cooler and denser traps smog close to the surface since layers above the manmade pollutants are warmer and lighter.

Though well within national ceilings of allowable PM of diameter 10 micrometers (μm) or PM 10 being within 60 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), which also conform to regional standards, the PM 10 in the Thimphu air has exceeded WHO’s lower limits of 20 micrograms per cubic meter  μg/m3 for the last seven years.  Since 2004, the concentration of PM 10 has more than doubled to over 42 μg/m3, the 2016 state of the environment report published by the National Environment Commission (NEC) shows. And that is just for the PM 10.

To see how well or bad Thimphu and other urban centers are really doing, other variables have to be studied. Measurements of PM 2.5, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ground level ozone concentrations are only now being started by the NEC.

“The biggest challenge we face is the lack of national capacity and the reliance on external experts. We also need to improve collaboration of NEC, the policy regulatory authority with other implementing bodies on the ground,” Thinley Namgyel, Chief of the Climate Change Division of NEC said.

Adding, “It is a growing concern for the country but lack of data hinders identifying the true extent of the problem. We plan on doing that before we get to a point where the problem becomes far too bad.”

NEC is working towards it by collaborating with research and educational institutes across the country to build a national network to collect and analyze data the conclusion of which will point towards what measures need to be put in place.

Currently the major contributing factor is the construction boom in urban centers. Without regulatory mandates, builders often dump fine or coarse construction aggregates like sand in the open and on roads without protection from winds. Wind borne dust, non-electrical heating methods at home, religious burning of incense and the ever rising number of vehicles are also major sources of the smog that one can see lying heavy over the Thimphu valley in the early mornings. Mining and quarries almost all of which are open air and unpaved roads add to the degradation.

Of the more than 83,000 vehicles, over 43,000 (53 percent) are registered in the Thimphu region alone. The Thimphu region includes the Dzongkhags of Paro, Haa, Punakha, Wangdi and Gasa where the vehicles ply most frequently.

The NEC, in its state of the environment report, recommends a host of measures that need to be undertaken to improve air quality.

The current national standards have to be revised, its implementation strengthened and data management system improved in tandem with changing socio-economic conditions. Further, coverage and parameters for monitoring air quality have to be expanded to cover at least primary pollutants and provide adequate geographical representation across the country.

The report stressed on the need for promoting vehicle emission and other policy control measures to reduce the number of combustion engine vehicles, keep only road worthy vehicles on the roads and promote environment friendly cars.

The government has recently imposed heavy customs and green taxes on the import of vehicles, exempting electric cars, but studies show that that has had minimal effect of buying patterns. At the same time the provision of vehicle quotas which exempts import and other taxes are working in direct contradiction with the fiscal measures put in place. From July 2014 to May 2016 a total of 11,157 vehicles were imported of which 3,649, or one third, were bought using quotas.

The Asian Brown Cloud, a blanket of smog that envelops the South East Asian region of northern India, Bangladesh and southern Nepal and Bhutan has had an effect on our air quality. A photo from NASA shows the haze entering into and through Bhutan’s valleys in a dendritic pattern, like rivers going the other way, almost reaching the northern border. While this phenomenon can be clearly seen in the smoggy haze of our southern Dzongkhags, its effects deep inside Bhutan are yet to be studied.

To battle this trans-border issues NEC has joined regional countries in organizations like the SACEP and ICIMOD which promote regional cooperation in controlling pollutions in the region.

While the exact extent of the problem is being studied and policies are being planned, temporary measures like sprinkling water over dusty roads and areas are the only recourse urban dwellers have at unadulterated air; that, or a move to our rural areas.

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  1. Get rid of all the vehicles that are emitting excess smoke. Encourage people to use electric heaters in winter instead of bhukharis. Discourage burning of trash. Initiate Sensitization programmes.

  2. Ugyen Lhendup

    Well Written!! Substantive!

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