Earth Day 2023: Critical call to ‘invest in our planet’ as pollution envelops Hindu Kush Himalaya

Air quality in Nepal’s capital, along with Delhi, Dhaka, Lahore and other cities in Asia, often exceeds safe levels. Particulate matter in Kathmandu in the past week were recorded at 10 times higher than World Health Organization’s guidelines.

Pema Gyamtsho

  • Read Time 3 min.

As the Nepali New Year dawned, the sun’s rays shone weakly through the dense Kathmandu haze, and the city was shrouded in smog. Air quality in Nepal’s capital, along with Delhi, Dhaka, Lahore and other cities in Asia, often exceeds safe levels. Particulate matter in Kathmandu in the past week were recorded at 10 times higher than World Health Organization’s guidelines. Today, 22 April, is Earth Day—an annual event to demonstrate environmental protection, and a fitting reminder for the whole of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) to come together to take urgent action on air pollution.

This year’s Earth Day theme is ‘Invest in Our Planet’, a timely call for all—governments, businesses and individuals—to pledge money, time, resources and expertise to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. This includes air pollution, which also significantly impacts human and environmental health. According to WHO, on a global scale the combined effects of ambient air pollution and household air pollution are associated with 7 million premature deaths annually—that’s more than the number of people who have died from Covid-19 to date. In the HKH especially, poor air quality impacts the entire region, as the geo-climatic conditions can transport pollution such as black carbon over long distances. This means emissions from vehicles in a crowded city might impact farmers in remote parts of a neighboring country, or smoke from crop residues burnt after harvest or from forest fires is shared in urban centers across national boundaries.

Air pollution also affects the cryosphere—frozen water at the earth’s surface which includes glacier ice, snow, permafrost, and lake, river and sea ice. This is one of ICIMOD’s key areas of study, as the status of the cryosphere has major impacts on the lives and livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountain communities and 1.65 billion more living downstream. We have developed transformative strategies for managing cryosphere hazards such as glacial lake outburst floods, landslides, rockfalls, and ice and snow avalanches. Along with warming from greenhouse gases, air pollution, such as black carbon and dust traps excess heat causing the climate to warm, and accelerates the melting of glaciers.

This demonstrates once more how the HKH is bearing the brunt of climate change. As indicated in the ICIMOD-led comprehensive assessment of the HKH region, if global warming exceeds 2°C, it will result in losing 50 percent of the glaciers in the region, destabilize river systems in Asia, and affect billions of people living downstream. This will lead to irreversible damage to the ecosystem, loss of biodiversity, and loss of watershed function, causing food and water insecurity. Even a 1.5°C rise in temperature is unsuitable for the region due to elevation-dependent warming, which increases the risk of extreme weather events, flash floods, changes in agriculture, and long-term instability.

Here at ICIMOD, we have carried out targeted research on the causes, factors and impacts of air pollution in the HKH, with a wide body of published scientific knowledge. It is imperative that we now collaborate with partners, funders, ICIMOD colleagues past and present, and with our eight regional member countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan—to devise urgent and lasting solutions to our plummeting air quality.

In concrete terms, and inspired by this year’s Earth Day theme, I encourage our community to invest in our planet. Actions that we can all do as individuals include: not burning rubbish, minimizing use of motorized vehicles where possible and taking care not to start forest fires, for example with lit cigarette butts, matches or leaving broken glass in forests or fields.

At the governmental/institutional level, we recommend:

  1. Implementing a mass awareness campaign on the effects of poor air quality on our health and environment, and the actions everyone can do to minimize air pollution. As a first step for younger readers, check out the books The World of Smoke and Chanchle’s Journey, publicly available on our database HimalDoc.
  2. Collaborating with policymakers across the eight HKH countries to develop, reform, implement and maintain policies that directly minimize emissions.
  3. Engaging with our investment framework ‘Mountains of Opportunity Investment Framework’ to stimulate action for clean air.
  4. Strengthening capacity at national and regional levels to address environmental and climate change issues including air pollution, adapting to climate change and building resilience in the HKH.

Here at the top of the world, changes happen before they happen anywhere else. In line with our new Strategy—Moving Mountains—we aim to harness this moment of great change to carry out evidence-based action through ambitious partnerships that address the region’s needs. As the HKH’s knowledge sharing center, it is our duty to provide up-to-date information, research and recommendations on how to stop our region choking from toxic air. As an intergovernmental organization, we must act as convener and mediator to make this happen. We invite everyone to join in our mission to transition towards a greener, more inclusive, and climate-resilient HKH.

Pema Gyamtsho is Director General at International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).