Growing ‘black hole’ in Sri Lanka’s air quality data


By Eunice Ruth

In recent decades, the combination of growth of major cities across the country has increased the presence of vehicles and rapid industrialisation. However, the deficiencies in both planning and environmental regulations have led to increasing air pollution levels, posing dangers to human health. The quality of the air we breathe determines not just the health of our lungs but other organs in our bodies. 

Globally nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. According to a World Health Organisation report, around eight million deaths, globally, have been attributed to air pollution with 4.3 million deaths arising from indoor air pollution. The latter arises mainly due to biomass burning in kitchens without adequate ventilation. In Sri Lanka, the firewood used for cooking accounts for about 78 per cent of households and this produces highly toxic air pollutants affecting the health of people even in rural areas where there is no significant outdoor air pollution.

Meanwhile, it has become impossible to obtain proper and accurate data regarding air pollution in Sri Lanka at the moment, due to the inaction of ambient air quality monitoring stations in the country. 

A key organisation in Sri Lanka, Central Environment Authority (CEA) has been running an urban air quality monitoring programme across the country since 2014 under the financial sponsorship of the Vehicle Emission Trust Fund of the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT). Air quality stations provide 24-hour continuous monitoring for seven days.

The major objective of these stations is to determine the real-time ambient air quality data focusing on air quality management, public awareness, guiding health concerns, trends, and status analysis. Proper monitoring is crucial in controlling and regulating industrial air pollution and other sources in order to maintain air quality at least up to the regulated standards. All collected data from air quality monitoring stations will be converted into digital form by using WINCOLLECT software.

Present Condition of Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations

Director of Air, Water, Noise, Vibration and Environmental monitoring unit, Coordinator of Environmental Studies and Services Division (ESSD) and Senior Scientist Air Quality Studies at the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO), H.D.S. Premasiri said that two Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations were set up in December 1996 in the Colombo Municipal Council area under World Bank-funded project. One of these monitoring stations is located at the Colombo Fort Railway Station and another one was located at the Meteorological Department. Meanwhile, another two automated ambient air quality monitoring stations are located in Battaramulla and Kandy.

The monitoring station at the Meteorology Department operated from 1997 to 2000, whereas the one at Colombo Fort has been in operation since 1997. However, it is revealed that the other two automated ambient air quality monitoring stations in Battaramulla and Kandy operated by the CEA had been defunct since last year, as funds were not allocated to purchase spare parts and gas. 

He further said that according to the recently collected information, the air pollution level in the country is staying under the normal line and it has not increased in the recent past.

Why they went offline

The CEA’s Environmental Pollution Control Division Deputy Director-General, Dr. R.M.S.K. Rathnayaka noted that funds to operate and maintain the ambient air quality monitoring stations have not been allocated by the Vehicle Emission Trust Fund of DMT in the last two years. 

He said that annually, a separate sum is allocated for the operations and maintenance of the monitoring stations, but this has not been allocated for several reasons in recent years. The machines cost around 40 million and more than 13 million is needed to operate and maintain them. He said that another reason for the issue is because the CEA was unable to import the needed spare parts on time due to some international border disputes. 

However, this problem has not impacted any sector and the air pollution levels have not increased in the past few days. Though reports say that the air pollution levels have increased in the country, it has not been recorded anywhere. In general, the air pollution level in Colombo is higher than the other regions in the country. However, when compared to Colombo, Kandy and Battaramulla have recorded low levels of air pollution in the last few days. 

 He further said there have been discussions with the relevant authorities and decisions have been taken to allocate the funds. “It is expected that all the existing issues with the spare parts and gas will be resolved by the end of April 2022 and we hope there will be no such issue in the future”.