Understanding The Air We Breathe Today

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In the first week of Dec. 2018, the air quality in some parts of Srinagar was almost as bad as Delhi in real time. -KO Photo

Akshay Kaul

About three Diwalis back in 2016; I got my Air Quality monitor to know how the weather, place, and anthropogenic activities determine the air quality index (AQI). Just the basic parameters Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 10 as determinants.

As soon as I received the monitor, I moved with it around my relatively quiet and green neighbourhood in South Delhi. I began to see clear patterns emerging. I realised that the open spaces within the small block of 250 odd houses had better air quality than just immediately outside on the street. No rocket science, but it was important data validation of severity. It helped me to understand which places to avoid during my daily walks and change my timings, route and inform others as well when to step out. The junction of three relatively harmless streets with a car count at peak hours of not more than 200 turned out twice as much toxic than the open space within the neighbourhood. I soon ordered my N99 mask for the walks.

I began to look at the monitor more closely and more frequently. I was trying to figure out any patterns that might emerge across the city in real-time. I was comparing my neighbourhood with other neighbourhoods across the city and then across the country. It soon became my second nature to carry the monitor and analyse the air quality in various cities that I would travel to in India. More patterns began to emerge, and more clarity has developed over the last three years about the air quality concerning streets, open space structure, vegetation, wind speed, humidity, vehicular movement and other anthropogenic aspects.

Lately, I have been observing the relationship between the change in weather and air quality. The day the tree leaves visibly flutter more the PM2.5 is also less, but PM10 reduction is comparatively not so much. When it rains and if it rains through the night, I wait for the sunrise in anticipation for my morning walk the next day. More or less I know the air quality would be satisfactory or good, where PM 10 would be less than 100.

In Delhi during this winter, I check the air quality through the day multiple times, almost by the hour or more frequently. This winter I have found a fascinating pattern, every day from 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm the air quality turns moderate from severe or sometimes good. It can easily be related to the movement of the heavy vehicles during the night, early morning traffic, morning moisture laden heavy air, afternoon sun and reduction in moisture and then the flow of evening vehicles and through the night. A study in Mexico City done over many years, also suggest vehicles as the main reason for deteriorating air quality.

The air quality in winters post-Diwali is severe in Delhi. I was curious to see how it might be in other cities. I checked it in the holy Varanasi, Prayagraj during Khumbh, paradise Kashmir, sleeping towns like Nagpur, hill town Dehradun, quaint Thrissur in Kerala or my remote projects sites across the country. Each time it was a revelation and the most stunning and astonishing was when I carried the monitor to Kashmir.

In Kashmir Valley, I took the reading at the various places as soon as I landed in Dec 2016 for the first time with the monitor. My first few readings were at Athwajan quarry area, near a small leaf burning site at Brari Nambal, near various SeekhTuej outlets along the Boulevard, the Makai Park and other places. I then measured it indoors in an office opposite Nehru Park, near diesel fired indoor heating units of hotels, in houses with hammams and then my worst fears came true. Kashmir was no exception, and people wouldn’t accept it.

For a long time, I did not talk about it thinking that it might hurt tourism potential. But how long can we live in ignorance, denial and without real data to understand this life-threatening issue. I found similar dismal readings outdoors in Chatrahama, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg and along with the entire route between Srinagar and these destinations.

For a long time, I did not talk about it thinking that it might hurt tourism potential. But how long can we live in ignorance, denial and without real data to understand this life-threatening issue. I found similar dismal readings outdoors in Chatrahama, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg and along with the entire route between Srinagar and these destinations. I stopped my car to take readings at landfill site; garbage dumps, garbage burning and various leaf burning sites. By observing these readings, I could clearly understand many patterns and co-relationships. Leaf burning, fossil fuel usage, fine clayey dust from earlier flood years and construction, from unprogressive quarrying practices, hammams, diesel and old vehicles, timber as used, Kangri, inadequate green cover and insufficient power supply in the winter added to the high levels PM 2.5 and PM 10.

When I post these AQ reading on social media, I am often asked so what? For starters, our elderly suffer the most and acquire the morbid and irreversible disease called Compulsive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPW) which I was unaware of until six years back. The patient becomes oxygen dependent and has to use a BIPAP. Slowly, the patient becomes breathless, has to be rushed to the hospital frequently, their lungs degenerate and eventually collapse. According, to one of Indias leading Pulmonologist, Dr Arvind Kumar, breathing in Delhi is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. What about Srinagar, Kashmir?

In the first week of Dec. 2018, the air quality in some parts of Srinagar was almost as bad as Delhi in real time.

In the first week of Dec. 2018, the air quality in some parts of Srinagar was almost as bad as Delhi in real time. In a recent case study published by National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM), on exposure to  PM2.5<26.74 ?g/m3, PM2.5?40.37 ?g/m3 Taiwanese men were found with an increased risk of oral cancer. In Delhi and other parts of the country including Srinagar, our exposure at times is more than ten times the above range, especially in winters.

Many cities, in the world, have gone through this experience, albeit, a few decades ago. It is said that decades ago the air quality in Mexico City was so bad that the birds fell dead. In 1989, Mexico City started with the first restrictions on driving on Saturdays, which yielded, 15% improvement in air quality. The restriction like in November 2017 experiment in Delhi was based on the licence plate number but much severe. However, in a study carried out between 2005-2012 in Mexico City, the ridership did not necessarily decrease. In the long term, people start to use a taxi or start owning multiple cars.

A combination of strong short term and long term moves, along with greater awareness and coordination between the government and civil society can only help reverse this trend. The air is moist and moves slowly in the cloudy winters of Kashmir. The Kashmir bowl is almost like Mexico City which itself is a crater of an extinct volcano, 2240 m above sea level.

At an individual level, people can retrofit their houses to have better insulation and become more energy efficient through incorporating radiant heating, south Trombe walls openable in summers and proving better-insulated roofs in the existing homes. Isolating wet and dry areas during house planning and design would reduce the heating load during winters. In new construction solar passive strategies including reviving adobe, sundried, cob and stabilised mud brick, double glazing would also improve insulation.  Avoiding thermal bridging and enabling thermal breaking in the construction would help in preventing heat flow and loss. In the traditional Dhajji Diwari technique of construction in Kashmir, the timber members not only improved in damping earthquakes but also helped in reducing thermal bridges in masonry. Cavity walls are yet another technique for breaking thermal bridging and providing insulation between walls and floors helps in preventing heat loss. A reduction in the use of steel and metal fasteners and other elements in construction including using alternate materials for steel reinforcement in concrete would help.

The municipality of Vitoria- Gasteiz, supported a house retrofitting program along with bio-diversity, urban landscape and a green belt program for improving air quality in Spain. Coupled with an improved public transport and mobility program reduced use of private vehicles in 2014 by 24%. Montreal’s emission levels fell by 54% in five years through a city-wide urban bio-diversity program. Planting of deciduous trees strategically in Kashmir would not only mean relatively faster vegetation but also 40% increased percolation of water in the ground. It would also help in erosion control, mitigating floods and reviving the lost springs.

Bringing any of these changes also means working with the people and their perception. Educating them and involving communities and focus groups like drivers, children and women. It would mean a lot more communication and trust building between the government and civil society. A survey in Mexico City showed that 30% of people’s perception was that the motive of the government in improving air quality was not necessarily selfless. Another, 40% could not identify any of the government’s programs in improving air quality. Only a small number pointed to the vehicles as a source of the problem which was 75% of the reason for the air quality deterioration. If we need to move forward in improving the air quality immediately, we need to work with our communities by befriending and working with them through effective communication and long-lasting programs irrespective of which party is in power. Institutions and universities can play a significant part and take leadership in this as substantial funding is available worldwide on climate change, carbon reduction and air quality improvement.

Akshay Kaul specializes in the field of ecological planning, landscape and sustainable architecture. He can be reached at: akaul98@gmail.com

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Akshay Kaul

Akshay Kaul specializes in the field of ecological planning, landscape and sustainable architecture. He can be reached at: akaul98@gmail.com

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