Data from the National Environment Commission is showing worsening air quality standards in urban areas especially in Thimphu and Phuentsholing.
However, for many Bhutanese living in these two towns the NEC data will come as confirmation of what they already know and experience.
Anyone living in Thimphu need only note the thick pall of blue and gray smoke resting on the valley, visible clearly enough to morning walkers headed up the surrounding hills.
In winters the heavier cold air makes it worse as air pollution sticks to the valley floor along with the combination of forest fires and dusty conditions.
What is a matter of concern is that air pollution, which is already harmful, is increasingly exceeding dangerous levels on some days.
The NEC data and what is physically visible to the eye should come as a wakeup call to the government especially since a significant portion of Bhutanese population live in these areas.
Air pollution in Bhutan is visibly causing increasing cases of respiratory irritation and problems in Thimphu and Phuentsholing. The situation has reached such a level that one has to head up to the mountains to get unadulterated fresh air.
International scientific data shows that air pollution affects the lungs, eyes, ears, skin and other part of the body. Fine particle air pollution is linked to lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis, pre-mature death and also heart attacks.
Groups that are particularly vulnerable are pregnant women, old people and also children.
For something as vital as measuring air quality the NEC has a very basic measurement system without adequate data on the various types of air pollutants.
It is theorized that Bhutan’s main source of air pollution are vehicles, construction activities, bukharis, forest fires and economic activities like factories and mining.
These activities produce air pollutants like Carbon Monoxide, Particulate Matter, Nitrogen Dioxide, Ozone and in more extreme cases Sulfur Dioxide and Lead.
All of these air pollutants not only have short term health consequences but also long term or chronic effects that have an impact on large segments of the population.
The high air pollution can be blamed both on increasing number of polluters like vehicles, construction, mines and factories and also on poor monitoring by regulatory agencies of these pollution sources.
In Thimphu or Phuentsholing, it is not uncommon to see vehicles with non functioning filters belching out large amounts of smoke when transport rules should keep such vehicles off the road. The RSTA and traffic police apart from catching speeding vehicles should also watch for these heavy polluters.
Growing construction activities in the urban areas may have all the right clearances for the architectural drawings but the various municipalities should be mindful of where construction material is kept and how construction waste is dumped. Wind especially in winter often whips up particulate matter from such sites enveloping the surrounding areas in dust.
Mines some of which are being built increasingly closer to urban areas have virtually non-existent monitoring by mining inspectors from the Department of Geology and Mines. Mines generate phenomenal amounts of dust which by law should be suppressed using water sprayers and other techniques but this is not followed due to poor monitoring and enforcement.
Factories are monitored by the NEC, but not frequently and closely enough to ensure they meet air pollution standards. This is especially so since it costs money to keep functional air filters.
For a country that is considered as a green example to the world and for a government that strongly advocates GNH the above cases shows the gap in theory and practice.
The regulatory agencies suffer from a twin problem of lack of resources and also a lack of will to tackle such problems.
Bhutan as a nation prides itself on its high and exceptional environmental standards, but if the growing problem of air pollution is not addressed then our urban areas may soon enter the list of gasping international cities.