Rising air pollution shrouds Kashmir skies

Environmentalists for harnessing renewable energy; health experts concerned over rise in respiratory cases
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), America’s civil space program and the global leader in space exploration has recently released a satellite picture of Kashmir Valley shrouded by haze.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), America’s civil space program and the global leader in space exploration has recently released a satellite picture of Kashmir Valley shrouded by haze.Twitter/ @Astromaterials

Srinagar: Rising air pollution levels in Kashmir are affecting its fragile ecosystem and taking a toll on the health of people of the valley.

With the onset of winter, High Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) levels have been detected in air in Kashmir especially in its summer capital Srinagar.

Experts blame rising air pollution in winter to various factors especially burning of biomass for coal making, smoke from brick kilns, cement factories, dusty roads, diesel vehicles and waste burning.

According to IQ Air, a real-time air quality information platform, the PM2.5 concentration in Srinagar’s air on January 9 was 28.2 µg/m³, which is 5.6 times over the World Health Organisation’s air quality values. The Air Quality Index was 83 at moderate level. On January 7, the PM 2.5 level reached an alarming 64.2 µg/m³ while the Air Quality Index in Srinagar touched 155 which is considered unhealthy. On an average, Kashmir has been witnessing moderate to high to moderate PM 2.5 and AQI levels with onset of winter.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), America’s civil space program and the global leader in space exploration has recently released a satellite picture of Kashmir Valley shrouded by haze.

“This crew photo taken at the @Space-Station was orbiting over South Asia, shows the Kashmir Valley an ancient, dried lake basin surrounded by ranges of the Himalayas Mountains,” NASA Astromaterials tweeted on its handle with a photograph of smog over Kashmir Valley.

“Temperature inversions often occur in the Kashmir Valley when cold, dense air flows down from the surrounding Himalayas and becomes trapped under warmer, comparably less dense air. Inversions are more common in winter, when the days are shorter and snow on the valley floor helps keep the air in the lower atmosphere from warming and mixing with upper level air,” NASA states on its website.

“A byproduct of temperature inversions in Kashmir Valley is a buildup of haze—an aerosol mixture composed of fine particles found in smog, smoke, and dust. The trapped aerosols absorb and scatter incoming sunlight, creating a layer of poor visibility. Haze has also been observed in the Kashmir Valley over the previous years by satellite sensors. The city of Srinagar is located underneath a region of haze near the center of the photograph. Srinagar is the largest municipality in the Kashmir Valley and a contributor of smog, smoke, and other human-caused aerosols,” it states.

Earth science scientist Prof Shakil Romshoo explains that during autumn, the particulate matter load in the Kashmir valley starts piling up incrementally

“It peaks as we advance into winter because of several factors like capping action, lower Planetary boundary layer (PBL) and Ventilation Coefficient along with the lower precipitation amount and frequency, which in turn does not allow proper ventilation, deposition and dispersion of the particulate matter from the valley,” he said.

Elaborating he said furthermore, due to the prevalent long dry spell and the above factors, the residence time of Particulate Matter in the Kashmir valley increases manifolds during these two seasons. “This is one of the main reasons for the occurrence of haze and high pollution episodes observed in the Kashmir valley during the cold seasons.”

Although, air quality in the Kashmir valley is relatively optimistic during summer and spring season but the geomorphic setup and meteorology contribute significantly to the high particulate pollution during autumn and winter which is a cause for concern. “For effective air pollution control in the Kashmir valley, particularly during winter and autumn, there should be strict check on emissions from the local sources like coal burning in offices for heating, fossil fuel usage by vehicular traffic, dusty road networks, massive biomass burning for charcoal making and brick kilns,’ Romshoo said.

Romshoo said the region has a tremendous potential for harnessing the vast renewable energy to overcome the energy shortages in the Kashmir valley. “This shall go a long way in significantly reducing the biomass and coal burning for meeting the energy requirements of the populace, particularly during harsh winters.

Dr Irfan Rashid, Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir explains that Kashmir Valley is bound by Pir Panjal and Greater Himalayan mountain ranges that do not allow the air masses to find an escape.

Rashid who has conducted extensive research of air pollution said the temperature inversion in late Autumn and Winter further restricts the vertical mixing of air and results in the build-up of haze primarily comprising dust (PM10 and PM2.5) and smoke (black carbon).

This is substantiated by a 2018 study titled “Winter burst of pristine Kashmir Valley air” published in Nature Scientific Reports journal jointly carried out by his team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune and University of Kashmir.

The study suggests that the air quality of the capital city Srinagar deteriorates significantly in particular during winter, where the level of PM2.5 touches a peak value of 348 µg/m³, six times more than the Indian permissible limit of 60 µg/m³.

“The build-up of haze not only reduces visibility and thus affects air traffic at times but also results in an increased frequency of respiratory allergies, especially in dry periods. The high concentration of dust and black carbon (in haze), if deposited on snow and/or glacier ice surfaces can also reduce the albedo exacerbating their melt which needs to be researched further,” he said.

Health experts have rang alarm bells over deteriorating air quality. “Rising air pollution is a big concern in Jammu and Kashmir. As per a study in Lancet, around 10, 000 deaths in J&K annually upto 2019 are attributed to air pollution,” Dr Parvez Koul, Director SKIMS told Greater Kashmir,

“Air Pollution levels are far higher than what is being reported in Kashmir. This has led to a massive increase in health complications including respiratory cases. Lungs are the first casualty as these get exposed to smoke and carbon emissions in air. Air Pollution can affect every organs and cause many diseases including diabetes,” said Dr Parvez who is also a Pulmonologist.

Central Pollution Control Board(CPCB) has also earmarked Rs 33 crore under City Action Plan(Part-2nd) for the year 2022-23 under National Clean Air Programme(NCAP) to further strengthen the measure to improve Air Quality Index in Srinagar district.

Officials said that Rs five crore Action Plan (Part Ist) is being implemented under NCAP for execution of various interventions including procurement of Road sweeping Vacuum cleaning machines for regular cleaning of City roads, procurement of Jetting Machines for water spraying of City roads, installation of nine fountains at major intersections. Also under the NCAP Air Quality Monitoring System is being installed in Srinagar to ensure strict implementation of mitigation measures for Prevention, Control and Abatement of Air Pollution in Srinagar District.

Officials claim that there has been a decrease in Index value (mass of pollutant particles) from 122 micrograms per cubic meter of air  to 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air in Srinagar.

To further improve the air quality, the Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, Mohammad Aijaz Asad, who is also the Chairman of District Implementation Committee of the NCAP has directed to ensure all hotspots related to air pollution are covered so that necessary measures are incorporated in the City Action Plan. After Srinagar, Central Kashmir’s Budgam district is one of the major contributors of air pollution due to mushrooming of brick kilns.

The Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Committee (JKPCC) which monitors air quality levels said various measures have been taken to prevent air pollution. “PM 2.5 and AQI levels increase in winter due to natural and man-made factors.

Measuring air quality depends on various factors like place, time and equipment. However, steps are being taken to minimise sources that pollute air. We are also organising an event to alert people to discarding burning of biomass during winter,” said a scientist at JKPCC.

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