Indian industry pollution blankets Terai in fog

28 June 2012 | Article

The dense fog over the Nepal Terai in the second and third weeks of December 2011 took a total of 40 lives because of the resultant cold wave it caused. The trend has followed for the past two decades as dense fog and cold wave claim several lives every year, with the poor always in the frontline.

However, as the government had not shown much concern over the annual death toll or the fatal change in weather conditions, the issue has been dragged to court for the first time in Nepal.

As the Supreme Court heard the writ of advocates Madhav Basnet, Lila Raj Koirala, and Surendra Prasad Badul through Judge Prakash Basti’s single bench, the court ordered the government to present details of the methods of addressing such incidents and the disbursing the designated fund for the purpose within a week.

According to Laxmi Dhakal, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), the Ministry, responding to the Court’s order, has sanctioned relief of Rs 25,000 per family of the deceased through the respective regional administrations. It has also issued official letters asking the local authorities to help with financial and physical support to bring the situation under control.

In Nepal’s context, senior climate expert Rajendra Shrestha says, “Earlier, the Ranas and rich people used to head down to the Terai to ward off the Kathmandu cold during winters. But the situation has now changed, as the weather now forces people from Chitwan to migrate to Kath-mandu.”

Commenting on the thick fog covering Nepal’s entire lowland region, he adds, “It’s been 25 years since the density of the fog in the Terai has increased to a great extent. Before, the fog used to be very thin and didn’t last too long.”

Climate experts say that the major reason behind the fog that has enveloped the Terai since the second week of December is the growing industrial pollution in India. The fog has not only affected Nepal but also the Indian capital Delhi and the border states of West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Indian media has also stated time and again that the rapidly increasing industrialization in India has been causing the fog to last for a longer time in Nepal.

Mani Ratna Shakya, Deputy Director General of Nepal’s Meteorological Forecasting Division, clarifies that though fog is a naturally occurring phenomenon, industrial pollution contributes to the increase in its density.

Previously, the fog used to be very thin and dissipated quickly. But now, due to dust and dirt particles in the polluted atmosphere, the fog keeps accumulating and becomes denser, compared to the normal fog, and it lasts longer.”

As Nepal’s Terai region stays blanketed in fog, increasing the number of people struck by cold, it has also affected air and road transportation. With the fog increasing the risks of accidents, domestic flights have been forced to operate only during the night.

It is normal for cold to increase during winter, as the pressure of the western wind blowing in through the northern Himalaya increases, and the temperature starts dropping in different parts of Nepal. While the lowest temperature in Kathmandu this winter was recorded between two to three degrees Celsius, during the past couple of days, the temperature in Jumla dropped to as low as minus 6.5 degrees Celsius. The forecast division has estimated that the temperature in Kathmandu can also drop to one degree Celsius.
In the mid-hilly regions, it is a little warmer during daytime. But as the temperature difference from dusk till dawn has widened to a great extent, the cold has increased tremendously. The difference in the highest and lowest temperature in many hilly districts, along with Kathmandu Valley, is more than 12 degrees Celsius.

With increasing industrial activities in nearby India contributing to prolonged fog in the Terai, the weather forecast division says they don’t see a possibility of the fog clearing up anytime soon.

The fog of 1997/98 is considered the first prolonged fog in the history of Nepal, as recorded since 1968. At the moment, the month-long fog in the Terai sky has started affecting the agricultural economy as well. According to Shakya, in the decades after industrial activities in India started increasing, the fog situation has become worse, and instead of dissipating quickly, it stays intact for several days.

Though the weather forecast division has been carrying out several surveys regarding the fog in Kathmandu since 1968, such research has not yet been done in the Terai. As fog movement is easier in the Terai landscape, it travels through India and comes to a standstill as it reaches the Chure Range of Nepal.

Besides big cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Lucknow, smaller urban areas along the Nepal-India border have also been contributing to air pollution to a large extent and has resulted in denser fogs in the Terai.
During winter, the temperature is naturally low even on the ground surface, and the northwest wind blowing in through the Himalaya has more moisture content. Due to evaporation, fog is formed at the ground level itself.

As the northwest wind speed is quite slow, it is hard to estimate how long it stays at the ground level. Meanwhile, the fog remains still and blocks the sunray, resulting in temperature drop of six to ten degrees Celsius during the day. Senior climatologist Suraj Kumar Vaidya says the still fog and northwest wind then cause cold wave in Nepal.

In such a state, the upper layer of the fog is warmer. For the fog to be cleared off, it either has to rain or dissipated by sunrays and strong cold winds in the uppermost layer.

As the westerly winds from the Mediterranean Sea starts blowing across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India and enters Nepal through the Himalayan region, it heralds the cold winter season. According to climate experts, the period between December and February is regarded as winter season in Nepal.

The lowest temperature recorded till date in Kathmandu was minus 3.6 degrees Celsius which was in January 1997. Whereas the rainfall of 15.1 milllimeters during December is considered to be an average rainfall in the valley, the rainfall of 51.0 millimeters on December 1, 1979 is the biggest winter prececipitation record to date.

Global contributors to air polution

Whereas Nepal contributes only 0.025 percent to the global greenhouse gas emission, India contributes 5.5 percent. China emits the most at 21.5 percent, America 20.2 percent, the European Union 13.8 percent, Russia 5.5 percent, and Japan 4.6 percent of the pollutants.

Bent on rapid economic advancement, both India and China don't show any signs of reducing their pollution rate. They claim they cannot be forced to slow down their industrial activies on grounds of pollution as western countries are now developed but their own economy still needs to grow.

Since 1990, though the pollution rate of regions like North America and European nations has increased steadily, in later times, China will outrun even America.

By Shyam Bhatta