Colombo Running Out of Quality Air

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 1 2021
Focus Colombo Running Out of Quality Air

By Eunice Ruth

Air is an essential basic need of all of living beings. Since it is abundantly available, it has not been given the same importance as land and water. However, air pollution has now been identified as a growing issue in Sri Lanka and has turned out to be an increasing problem due to rapid expansion in the industrial and commercial sectors and increasing living standards as a result of the country’s economic growth. Air pollution has exceeded to such an extent that it has flouted WHO standards as well. 

The Director of Air Resource Management and National Ozone Unit, Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, Sugath Dharmakeerthi said, currently they are unable to get accurate and timely results of air quality due to the shortage of the air quality monitoring system. He said that just in Colombo, the transport sector was responsible for around 55-60% of air pollution, while thermal power plants and other industrial activities carried out within the Colombo Metropolitan Area have a direct link to this issue. Air pollution in Kandy City has significantly increased in recent times, which needs special attention. Other cities such as Kurunegala, Nuwara Eliya, Anuradhapura and Galle also can be added to the list in the future, due to the increasing vehicle population and industrial development activities taking place within the areas, he added. 

In addition, according to the research data of the National Building Research Organisation’s (NBRO) Air Quality Monitoring Centres, it is reported that apart from the Southern part of Sri Lanka, most of the other parts are affected by increasing air pollution. The amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere has doubled in the last few days. The reason behind this is the unexpected, sudden changes in air quality level which could be linked with the variation of the wind pattern around the island.

Air Quality Monitoring in Sri Lanka

Dharmakeerthi said, currently air quality monitoring in the country was weak and the installed equipment were few and had minimum features to measure air quality, where we cannot expect accurate results. In the densely populated and rapidly urbanising Colombo City there is only one station which consistently monitors air quality. Monitoring in other regional cities such as Kandy, Anuradhapura, Puttalam and Kurunegala is limited.

Comprehensive Air Quality Monitoring System 

There is an urgent requirement to establish comprehensive Air Quality Monitoring System for Sri Lanka. It will provide a comprehensive data base to verify the effectiveness of the measures taken in air quality management. It is also needed to establish information system on ambient air quality and to collect data from trans-boundary air pollution.

He added that the air quality monitoring in Sri Lanka has focused mainly on Colombo City, where most of the economic and urbanisation systems are centred. Air quality monitoring in other regional cities such as Kandy, Anuradhapura, Puttalam and Kurunegala are limited or has been carried out for specific reasons, research purposes and others. Ambient Air Quality Monitoring, Sensors and Passive Sampling are the three major methods which are currently available in Sri Lanka to measure the air pollution rate.

“The indoor air quality, open burning of waste and related impacts need more attention. Indoor air quality monitoring is limited when compared with the urban (ambient) air quality monitoring in Sri Lanka. Even though Lead has been eliminated from gasoline in 2003, presence of Lead in paints is still a cause for indoor air pollution. In addition, the use of bio-mass for cooking in poorly ventilated kitchens, open burning of waste/plastics and polythene at household level continues to be a major factor in domestic and indoor air pollution,” said Dharmakeerthi.

Ambient Air Quality Monitoring in Sri Lanka

Ambient Air Quality Monitoring is an important part of the air quality management which Air Resource Management and Monitoring Unit (ARM&MU) holds and mainly contributes. Two automated ambient air quality monitoring stations which are currently located in Battaramulla and Kandy with complying national citing criteria that established with objectives of determination of real time ambient air quality data focusing on air quality management, public awareness, guiding health concerns, trends and status analysis and sharing data and Information with decision markers, researches and intellectuals. Proper monitoring is a limelight to control and regulate industrial air pollution and other source to maintain the air quality at least up to the regulated standards. It provides background air quality data much needed for right industrial citing and towns planning, as well.

Passive samplers

Development of a monitoring network using high cost methodologies such as automated, active sampling and others is not economically achievable and affordable in Sri Lanka, as only the installation of equipment costs more than 40 million. Therefore, low cost passive techniques are useful technique to achieve these targets along with the existing automated monitoring system. This paper discusses the outcome of the results of air quality monitoring network developed by using passive sampling technique in and around the City of Colombo to analyse the severity of the problem and to identify the critical and sinking areas.

Passive samples were installed at a height of about 3M from the ground level to monitor exposure levels of NO2 at all locations and sampling were collected weekly and monthly basis. The samples were analysed by wet chemical and colorimetric methods.


Another method which is currently in use to measuring of air pollution level is sensors. Installations of these sensors are affordable for us, he added. However, it cannot give accurate results and currently in Sri Lanka 14 sensors have been installed in different parts of the country. However, there are issues regarding the results given by those sensors. Using this we can identify the locations where the air pollution is high and accordingly, Maradana, Fort and Borella, are areas which are highly affected,” he said. Occasionally, the sensors have identified a high air pollution rate within some parts of the country. It is expected that the main reason behind this event must be a monsoonal changes.

Government Plan

To address these issues the Government has introduced an action plan ‘Clean Air 2025’ to reduce urban, industrial and indoor air pollution and maintain air quality at desirable levels minimizing emission of harmful air pollutants. This is to be achieved through an effective stakeholder participatory mechanism and ensuring source identification, quantification and monitoring of harmful air pollutants along with an appropriate regulatory framework. Further it recognises the need for research and development and capacity building in Air Quality Management (AQM) assisted by sub-regional, regional and global linkages. Also it is important to create awareness among public on air pollution, its health and other impacts and action taken to address-related issues. 

“Air Resource Management Centre (AirMAC) is the main coordinating institution of all AQM activities in Sri Lanka and it has the enormous responsibility of carrying forward the tasks identified in this Action Plan and monitoring the progress. Developing and establishing a national multi-stakeholder platform for the formulation and coordination of all air quality improvement and management programmes, ensuring source identification, quantification, monitoring and reduction of harmful air pollutants through implementation of identified programmes in association with all stakeholders, formulating, strengthening and implementing an appropriate regulatory framework for ensuring effective air quality management, undertaking research and development and capacity building programmes for Air Quality Management, establishing linkages with sub-regional, regional and global air quality management initiatives”.

Dharamakeerthi added that the mission of the Air Resource Management Centre is to provide leadership to manage the air resources by mitigating air pollution to improve the health of the public and quality of environment as a whole. The thrust areas identified for the Air Resource Management Centre to operate including policy co-ordination, ambient air quality monitoring, emission monitoring and modelling, standards setting, public sensitisation programme, Capacity building and training, and research and information

 “The high level of air pollution may cause some breathing difficulties for sensitive groups such as children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with respiratory illnesses. Studies shows that more than 800,000 people die prematurely every year due to illnesses caused by outdoor air pollution worldwide. Root cause for variety of illnesses happened to be air pollution. These illnesses include cancers, respiratory diseases such as bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis and cardio vascular diseases such as heart attacks and hypertension,” said Dharmakeerthi.

The Government along with other authorities has planned to use these three methods to measure and reduce the air pollution rate in the country by installing more equipment and updating its features. Also, they have planned to import electric vehicles which can drastically reduce emission and improve air quality. A Cabinet proposal will be submitted to import these vehicles where a lower tax will be imposed.  

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 1 2021

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