Cleaner air, longer lives

Air pollution is reducing the lifespan of Nepalis, and we know how to clean it up


Last week, a report on Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) issued by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago revealed the shocking fact that particulate pollution in the air is reducing life expectancy by up to 4 years in Kathmandu Valley and 6.5 years in the Tarai.

But more shocking than that is the lack of political will to reduce air pollution. Politicians who do not act on increasing their own life spans cannot be expected to tackle Nepal’s other development problems.

Air quality in Kathmandu this week is the healthiest it will be this year before the onset of winter when thick toxic pollution makes the air unbreathable. This is the biggest public health crisis of our times, killing more people than smoking, alcohol, diabetes, malaria, road traffic accidents, natural disasters and other causes. 

The main domestic polluters are well known: vehicular emissions, garbage burning and soot particles from brick kilns. Trans-border pollution from India contributes to the bad air, especially along the Tarai. 

This week the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) issued a report directly linking climate change-induced heat waves to wildfires which in turn increased air pollution risk around the world. Wildfires and crop residue burning in India have been blamed for most of the pollution between November-April in northern India and Nepal.

Dirty air has become severe enough to be a factor in the outmigration of young Nepalis who seem to be literally fleeing for their lives.

We know what the problem is, we have the solutions. What we do not have is the political will to implement them.

Electrification of urban public transport and two-wheelers will clean the air, it will reduce Nepal’s trade deficit since petroleum makes up 23% of Nepal’s imports, higher than all exports combined. Reducing diesel use by just 10% will save the country Rs30 billion a year. This means investing in transmission lines on a war footing to ease distribution of surplus electricity. 

At the Nepal International EV Expo in Kathmandu last week, private sector investors, researchers and energy planners discussed how best to promote electric vehicles in Nepal. There was a resounding conclusion: focus first on the two-wheeler market.

Motorcycles and scooters make up 79% of all registered vehicles in Nepal. Kathmandu Valley alone has over 1.2 million of them. In contrast, local distributors imported only 1,500 battery-operated two-wheelers last year and better financing options would increase sales of battery-operated scooters.

Electric city buses would not just reduce diesel imports, but also improve air quality with their zero emission and by displacing private vehicles. But battery-powered buses are 5 times more expensive and need government subsidy.

Nepal’s new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Implementation Plan has provisions to promote clean energy, including allocating 25% of the pollution tax to expand electric vehicles in Nepal.

At local levels, wards and municipalities must get to work immediately to discourage open burning before winter sets in. Public awareness, strict punitive measures, and better solid waste management have to all go together.

Lalitpur has already taken the step to allow residents to formally file a complaint of neighbours and institutions burning garbage via its app LMC City Police. The sub-metropolis has also set up an Environmental Police Unit with a hotline.

Likewise, Kirtipur and Chandragiri are strictly enforcing vehicle emission tests in their jurisdictions to control air pollution. Indeed, if breath analyser tests can reduce drunk-driving cases by 80% in Kathmandu, why can vehicle emission checks not be enforced?  

Ghorahi municipality in Dang has started to turn trash including kitchen waste, farm residue and livestock dung into methane gas for cooking. They also reuse and recycle what they can and only a small portion is disposed of at a landfill site. This reduces LPG use and open garbage burning, improving air quality.

These local governments are leaps and bounds ahead of Kathmandu Metropolitan City where Mayor Balen Shah is more busy uploading incendiary posts on social media than fulfilling his electoral promise of reducing air pollution and garbage. 

We cannot wait for winter to set another record for the worst air quality, or for Kathmandu’s hospitals to be overwhelmed by patients with pneumonia, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

Proactive action by local and federal governments can reduce air pollution. Other cities have done it, we can too. If politicians wait too long, they may not be alive to solve the problem.

Sonia Awale