The theme of World Environment Day 2019 on Wednesday 5 June is air pollution, and how to reduce it. This is not just a health issue for individuals, but one that affects the planet we live on.

Research has shown that air pollution is so bad in parts of northern India, eastern China and the Kathmandu Valley that it reduces the lifespan of people by an average of four years. Even if action is taken immediately, and greenhouse gas emissions are capped, in the best-case scenario one-third of the remaining glaciers in the Himalaya will be gone this century.

Whatever we do to stave off the climate crisis will take many years (beyond the lifetimes of those living today) to show results. However, action taken today to tackle air pollution can have immediate impact. Removing suspended soot particles can even reduce melting of the ice and snow in the Himalaya. The black carbon increases glacier melting by up to 20% because dirty snow absorbs more sunlight.

But more importantly, cleaning up the air will make it safer to breathe, improve quality of life and reduce the cost burden on families and countries of medical treatment. The toxic miasma that used to blanket the Kathmandu Valley on winter mornings is now a year-round, 24-hour phenomenon.

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One Atmosphere, Arnico Pandey

How to clean up Kathmandu’s air, Anil Chitrakar

A recent survey of 200 Kathmandu residents on their perception of pollution (page 6-7) found that every respondent felt that dirty air had impacted their lives. They were aware of where the pollution was coming from: traffic, road dust, brick kilns and open garbage burning. Respondents also knew what needed to be done: improving public transport, completing road construction on time and placing emission controls on cars and brick factories.

Residents also know that public transport and public health are linked, the survey found. Politicians sometimes acknowledge that they are aware of the seriousness of the issue. So, we know what the problem is and we know the solution. Nepal just lacks the political will and an understanding of the urgency of the emergency in order to curb air pollution. In fact, Kathmandu’s dirty air is the most vivid proof available of governance failure, lack of accountability and corruption.

We thought local government elections would solve the problem because elected mayors and ward committees would be more accountable. Alas, no such luck. Nearly two years after winning polls and assuming office, local governments have been busy feathering their own nests, making recklessly unrealistic promises and lurching from one blunder to the next.

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Bad Air

Solution to pollution, Pallavi Pant and Anobha Gurung

Kathmandu Valley’s five mayors came together last year for a conference organised by ICIMOD to hear from Mexico’s ambassador to Nepal, Melba Pria. She gave them a checklist of how Mexico City cleaned up its air: a strategic shift to reliable public transport, control of all open burning, improving the quality of fuel, use of catalytic converters, strict vehicular emission controls and moving smokestack industries away from the city core.

The solution, therefore, has to be structural, not piecemeal. It needs vision and a plan to be responsive to the need to protect the people’s health. When greed and selfishness become part of the job description of politicians, it may be unrealistic to expect the public interest to suddenly take precedence. But we do not even have the luxury of waiting to clean up our politics to clean up the air. It is the air we are breathing right now, and it cannot wait.

Elsewhere, politicians only woke up to pollution crises when they found out they were also affected. For example, when London’s Thames River had turned into a sewer 100 years ago, politicians acted only because the stink made it impossible for Parliament to sit at Westminster. And it was only when elderly politicians started dying of respiratory failure caused by pollution from coal burning that British legislators finally passed the Clean Air Act.

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Air pollution is more dangerous than smoking, Sonia Awale

Toxic bubble, Ajaya Dixit

In Kathmandu, we are already at a point where the air is so bad it could shorten the lifespan of politicians. That is when they may act, but don’t bet on it. Enlightened self-interest was never a hallmark of our rulers. As Arnico Panday argues on page 9, emissions of short-lived carbon pollutants like soot particles can be tackled locally. This will improve public health, save money by making more efficient use of energy and even reduce glacial melting.

As we see from the survey in this issue, Kathmandu’s air pollution could now have an impact on land prices as people move to less polluted areas. It is already driving people out – some respondents say they may leave Kathmandu or even emigrate because of the bad air.

The national budget presented to Parliament on Wednesday is based on classical economics; it does not take into account ecosystem services, and the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. Air pollution in Kathmandu is a representation of this skewed policy in which the government is so dependent on vehicular taxes that it has ignored public health costs.

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Green sticker = green light to pollute, Sonam Choekyi Lama

10 years ago this week

Kathmandu was rocked by bombings by a Maoist faction this week, while exactly 10 years ago Hindu extremists set off a bomb inside Assumption Church in Jawalakhel, killing three people. Our editorial in edition #453 of 29 May-4 June 2009:

‘The perpetrators of last week’s fatal blast at the Assumption Church in Dhobighat were terrorists, pure and simple. No religion preaches violence. No interpretation of Hinduism can justify such brutal slaughter of innocent human beings.

Nepal’s Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and other religious leaders showed unprecedented solidarity by arriving together at the church in Jawalakhel within hours of the blast. Nepal’s 10-year class war is in danger of being transformed into ethno-religious violence. Not because the people want it, not because there are genuine grievances but because certain political power centres want to use religion as an excuse to foment anarchy and violence.

The lack of governance and the absence of the state is often the root cause of communal, ethnic and religious violence. That is where the treatment should begin.’