If environmentalists are to be believed we are sitting on a time-bomb and waiting silently for it to go off. Rizvi Syed Iliyas highlights the key environmental issues that need to be addressed on priority
Modern society is vulnerable to the environmental degradation in general and the human health in particular. The forests are shrinking, deserts are expanding, soils are eroding, levels of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases in the atmosphere are escalating. A narrow gap separates supply and demand for the food worldwide. And, many of our strategies for resolving food problems in the future include implicit assumptions about the climatic stability.
Thus, it is critical to understand some aspects of environmental health issues in our Kashmir – in order to study the potential effects of “Environmental activities on Human Health”. Planning land use, projecting food production, and assessing human effect on climate – all depends, on understanding the major control on environmental variability.
Climate Change and Human Health in Kashmir
Kashmir has been experiencing the changing patterns in temperature and precipitation for the last few years. And, droughts and unseasonal rainfall have posed a threat to crops nearing maturity. Also, physical access to food has been endangered by such changes, while economic access has been eroded due to damage to ‘livelihood security’. Crop production has been under stress especially in the under-irrigated areas of the valley. It means ‘lower caloric intake’ for Kashmir’s rural population.
There have been the growing evidences that the climate change is having a profound effect on the human health in Kashmir. Excessive rainfall and high humidity has enhanced the mosquito breeding for a few summers now. We are concerned that changing climate pattern may lead to the ‘temperature related infections’. While we may have water borne diseases like malaria, jaundice, cholera etc as a common phenomenon in the state. On the other hand, reduced food production will lead to hunger and malnutrition. The percentage of the world population affected by weather disasters has doubled during the last 3 decades and the WHO (World Health Organisation) estimates that the climate change of the last 30 years already claims 150,000 lives annually.
Sustainable Food Security involves physical, economical, and social access to a balanced diet and clean drinking water to every child, woman and man in the state. For achieving physical access, production and productivity of major crops should go up, so that there is proper match between demand and supply.
The climate of Kashmir is facing new environmental threat – black carbon, produced through diesel combustion and biomass burning. Emissions from transport, brick kilns, etc regularly contaminate the air. Chemically it is such that it stays in the atmosphere for only a short time. However, it is capable of causing rapid environmental damage in the short period of time. Especially black carbon poses more danger to Kashmir glaciers than carbon dioxide.
A recent report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals the presence of black carbon over highly reflective surfaces, such as snow and ice, or clouds, may cause a significant positive irradiative force. Temperature trend is the proposed causal factor for the accelerating retreat of Himalayan glaciers, which threatens fresh water supplies and food security in Kashmir.
Water Related Environmental Diseases
For the last few years, we have seen the tremendous pressure on our ‘Vyeth’ or River Jhelum. The slums like constructions and the waste disposal into it degrade its water quality. Even if we are not yet the industrialized state, the river systems are in alarming danger levels of pollution. The areas, near the water bodies have a poor drainage system, which has added to their woes. Water from kitchens and bathrooms has nowhere to go. Garbage has accumulated in the drains with human waste, blocking them at many places.
Waters from different Nallahs of Srinagar like Nallah Amer Khan, Tailbal Nallah and others are proving to be a major cause of diseases. Located in the suburbs of Srinagar city, a major part of population here has developed health problems due to consumption of contaminated water of the Nallahs. Piles of garbage in and around the Nallahs as well as in the localities have deteriorated the water quality, putting the health of inhabitants at risk like the enteric and skin infections.
The danger of spread of diseases increases as summers approach. According to gastroenterologists, the risk of catching waterborne diseases as well as other diseases becomes higher in the absence of proper sanitation. Cholera and diarrhoea are the most deadly. Officials pay deaf ear to the problems the people face on the ground. And, for the last couple of years nobody has bothered to clean any drains that get blocked. Very few dustbins are installed in the city. Most garbage carrier dustbins are either overturned on the roadsides and near Nallahs, which have turned into ‘dog seats’.
Another problem is the setting up of hand pumps in the areas in a bid to provide clean drinking water. But the step has not had much of impact as water from these hands pumps is still unsafe for drinking.
Garbage as a Source of Diseases
While the main roads are littered with garbage, some areas in uptown city present a sorry picture. It is not only the foul smell, but the stray dogs lured by the unattended waste. In 2011-12, Srinagar city with a population of 1.2 million had 575 garbage collection centres before being dumped at Achen Syed Landfill – only site in Srinagar City spread over 600 Kanals.
But the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) had placed only 120 dumper bins to collect more than 380 metric tons (MT) of solid waste generated every day from 68 wards. The remaining garbage collection places were in open and accessible to stray cattle and canines. With only one dumping site, there were only 2100 sweepers to keep the city clean. The government has failed in scientific waste disposal with regard to waste management—though at some places, “blue and green colour dustbins” were installed to make a distinction between bio-degradable and non bio-degradable materials. But a garbage collection centres in city give insight into the poor solid waste management. The waste is dumped in open and usually the passers-by have to cover their noses to avoid the stink. SMC is silent on the issue, even if it is busy in the ‘Green Srinagar Campaign’!
The other side of the coin is our ‘social habit of spitting and urinating in public places’ which has turned into a nuisance now. In the whole city, we come across the tag lines on the walls of houses and gardens written with “Yahan par peeshab karnah sakth manah hai” and “yahan par qudah faiqnah sakth manah hai”. Our heads turn down in the shame when our people themselves cannot cooperate. We even remain silent at how we throw the Wazwan in an unhygienic manner after we spend lakhs on marriages. Why can’t we learn how to behave as a society?
Hospital Waste as a big threat
In Srinagar, inside every hospital, we find four coloured dustbins – Red, Yellow, Blue and Black with a poster above each giving guidelines for the segregation of different forms of hospital waste. The guidelines are being followed strictly but only by the patients and their attendants. Once outside, this hospital wastage is dumped together. As there is no incinerator at most of the hospitals, there is no proper biological treatment plant in Srinagar where this biological and other waste material could be disinfected.
As per the guidelines it is mandatory for every hospital and healthcare centre to have four colour-coded dustbins to collect different kind of waste for proper disposal. Yellow is for biological solid waste material, Red for plastic material, Blue for surgical material and Black for food, paper and other common waste. Though the colour-coded dustbins have been placed in the hospitals but the wastage is not disposed off as per the guidelines. The health experts warn that improper disposal and not a proper decomposition of the hospital waste can lead to serious health problems for the people.
Air Quality and the Respiratory diseases
Most of the gaseous and particulate air pollutants are products of fuels. Nitrogen oxides and Carbon monoxides are highly toxic and impair Oxygen Carrying Capacity (OCC) of blood. Gases like NO2 causes Bronchitis and Broncho-pneumonia. In the exposure of direct sunlight, it reacts with hydrocarbons to produce ozone – a highly toxic gas, known to cause Asthma.
Particulate Matter (PM) is another concern for human health. The particles less than 10 mm in diameter are called ‘Respiratory Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM)’ can enter into human nasal tract and particles less than 2.5 mm can reach further inside up to the terminal bronchi and alveoli in the lungs. It may cause lung diseases or in advance stages may lead to tumours and even cancer.
Srinagar city is fast turning into the “Dust Capital”, which is consequently surging the respiratory related disorders. The Sae’re Bath’ae (brick kilns) in the Kashmir region in general and that of Budgam in particular, have seen the spiked trend.
According to conservative estimates, an average Bath’ae burns 20 tonnes of fuel annually, meaning together they all burn around 7,480 tons of fuel. In addition, lowest quality coal and rubber tyres are being burnt to save fuel costs. Besides, these Bath’ae are among the major emitters of black carbon.
There has been the increase in the Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI) in Kashmir in recent years, as per various studies. Cough and dry throat have become common symptoms among the population who live near to the source. The dust and the smoke from the chimneys from the Bath’ae are very harmful to the humans and even carcinogenic if black carbon is inhaled in excess.
Indoor Infections in winters
Indoor inhalation of the gases from different sources like use of Kanger (earthen pot) in winters is carcinogenic due to the continuous exposure of skin to heat and the smoke we inhale. There is increasing trend in the cancers in Kashmir among few the “Environmental Induced Carcinomas”.
Noise and Traffic related Stress
Sound beyond 80 dB (Decibel) is regarded as pollution as it harms the hearing system. WHO has fixed 45 dB as the safe noise level in a city but our Srinagar city is going through ‘chaos by noise’ where the noise levels are alarming beyond WHO safety standards. The noise by the overuse of the horns has an impact on us. The populations which reside on the main roads are more prone to ‘Traffic Stress’ and ‘Dust and Noise Related Health disorders’.
There is need of comprehensive research and analysis by academia in the University and the health expects in the Medical Schools in Kashmir to focus on the impacts of the environmental degradation on the human health in Kashmir.
(Author is a Researcher working on Environmental Health and Climate Change)