himalaya emissions health
A herder woman from Upper Dolpho in the remote Himalayas of Nepal. Photo: Sonam Choekyi.

In the Himalayas, black carbon is deteriorating the health of indigenous people

Before the fire illuminates the pitch dark room, 67- year old Namdak Rokaya makes an effort to blow the fire for quite some time, to prepare dinner. By then the whole room is hurling clouds with heavy smoke from the wood. Namdak rubs her teary eyes, and opens the tiny window.  

Despite the alternative of advanced stoves, Namdak still uses a three leg stove, just like most of the women in her remote Himalayan region of Dolpo, in western Nepal. As she prepares for her cooking session, she is huffing and puffing furiously, breathing in smoke from the soot that might degrade her health. She has been diagnosed with Asthma. 

Like Namdak, many other women in the nearby communities complain about teary eyes, milder cough, lung problems and other undiagnosed respiratory problems. Burning wood or yak dung is one of the widely used fuels for cooking and heating in this region, close to Tibet. 

For generations the Buddhist communities lived a trans-nomadic lifestyle depending on yak dung and limited woods for fuels. But the lifestyle comes with a cost. The region has one of the worst indoor air pollution, the soot of the burning wood and yak dung releases black carbon, a big contributor to climate change. 

Few studies have conducted research on the emission levels of indoor air pollutants and how women are predominately impacted by the air consumption that leads to respiratory health hazards.    

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) around 3 billion people use cooking and stoves fueled by kerosene, biomass such as wood, animal dung and coal suffers from respiratory health issues. Women and children bear the brunt of the change, who are highly exposed to the indoor air, says the WHO report. 

A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) regards Black Carbon —which is released by the soot of the dung and wood— as a big contributor to climate change.

himalaya health carbon
Using three legs stoves in the remote himalays of Dolpo, Nepal. Photo: Sonam Choekyi.

Carbon in the air

Black carbon is a type of fine particulate air pollution (PM 2.5), which has significant direct and indirect impacts on the cryosphere (snow and ice), the atmosphere and human health according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition

Particles below 10m diameter (pm10) can penetrate deeply into lungs and have great potential for health damage. A 2015 study recorded this type of health impacts from biomass cooking in other Nepalese rural communities.  Teary eyes, difficulty in breathing, and coughing were reported to be major health problems.

The traditionally in-closed architectural house in these mountain communities has little or no ventilation at all which causes air to trap inside the house. Women who rarely smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer, and other undiagnosed respiratory problems.

Namdak explains that coughing, teary eyes are common. “Working in fire, from collecting wood to cooking, is a daily activity here for most women. Single older women who cannot afford proper cooking stoves are more prone to such symptoms,” she says.

Himalaya health smoke
Texture of smokes dusts and particles formed inside a herder tent. Photo: Sonam Choeakyi.

There is a lack of research and data on the impacts of burning indoor woods and yak dung in the health of women in Dolpo. 

But a study from Tibet found PM 2.5, about 0.4-1.7 Gg of additional Black Carbon is emitted by yak dung combustion each year.  

The case might be similar to the villages in Dolpo, a close bordering neighbor says, ward chairperson of Namdo, Dolpo.

The district hospital of Dolpa recorded a rising number of people in the area suffering from COPD, a type of pulmonary disease. In 2020, 114 women and 91 men were affected. 

“Women who come for check up here from Dolpo having Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by excessive indoor air pollution(IAP) while here in the city, people  are impacted by outdoor air pollution mostly,” says Dr. Sameer, Stupa Community Hospital, who had treated Dolpo patients for a long Time.

health himalaya air pollution
A hurling smokes that surrounds the inside tent with little ventation. Photo: Sonam Choekyi.

In response

The reason for enclosed homes in these mountain communities is to escape extreme cold and harsh winters. Even when there are alternative possibilities to let ventilations open, and let air escape, the communities still have to undergo harsh winter for a complete six months.

However, this allows air pollution to get stuck indoors, says climate and energy expert Manjeet Dhakal, from the scientific organization Climate Analytics. “Indoor air pollution is a poison inside a home. The polluted emission that goes out is in the air but what remains inside in the home is 100 times riskier than smoking,” he said.

Without dismissing the culture, yet limiting the emissions of carbon, solutions to this problem are linked with culture and identity, says Dhakal. “It is a challenge, but the communities also have to be aware about the impact of black carbon emission on their health,” says Dhakal. 

Nepal submitted it’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in December 2020, setting an aim to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2020. To achieve this, the country committed to ensure 25% of households use electric stoves as a primary source of cooking by 2030, 5% more than the ones that use it today. By 2025, the country also pledged to install 500.000 improved cook stoves specifically in rural areas.

“The NDC target for 500,000 stoves is not ambitious enough. Indoor air pollution is something that is not understood internationally. We are looking for an international target and attention this year, we can do much more than that,” says Manjeet Dhakal who is also a technical assistant for the NDC.

Dhakal thinks that a possible solution to this problem is switching to cleaner ways of heating homes, such as solar cooking and advanced cooking with electricity.

But Dolpo falls behind in terms of development. Nepal’s largest region not linked by road, no electricity. It will be long before it gets here.