Breathing can kill you

Vehicles are one of the biggest emitters of PM2.5 and other pollutants in Kathmandu. Photos: AMIT MACHAMASI

It is that time of the year again when smog makes Kathmandu’s air hazardous to health. Hospitals are swamped not with Covid, but COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

Once more, there is a flurry of media headlines about the dangerous concentration of suspended particles smaller than 2.5 microns from diesel exhaust.

Read also: Happy New Air, Sonia Awale

Public awareness about air pollution is at an all-time high, the average life expectancy of Kathmandu’s residents is reduced by at least four years. Yet, nothing happens. Why?

“The awareness and knowledge have not translated into corrective action,” explains environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar. “We know about vehicle emission tests but we ignore it, open burning is bad but we don’t stop, we have the opportunity to reduce air pollution with electric mass transport but we don’t invest in it.”

Air pollution was directly linked to at least 42,100 deaths in Nepal in 2019. Almost half of that was due to breathing in particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter which can cross the air blood barrier in the lung capillaries. Most of those particles come from vehicle emission.

From 1990 to 2015, the number of vehicless in Nepal grew by 1,995,404 — most of them in Kathmandu Valley. In five years, that figure doubled to 3,987,267.

This figure doesn’t include the exploding demand for cars and motorcycles after the end of the Covid second wave in mid-2021. Nepal spent Rs543 billion in importing vehicles, transport equipment and spare parts in four months from mid-July to mid-October, against Rs357 billion and Rs418 billion for the same periods in 2020 and 2019.

“There has been an unexpectedly high demand for private vehicles in Nepal after the pandemic, especially two wheelers given the public’s hesitancy to use buses due to coronavirus fears,” says Dhruba Thapa of the National Automotive Dealers Association.

Total vehicles in Nepal


Raju Chettri, CEO of the MAW Enterprises that imports Yamaha bikes in Nepal has a similar observation. He saw a decline in the annual sales of two wheelers from about 250,000 units to 190,000 right after the pandemic. But this year, the sales went up to 350,000 units.

“There are two reasons behind this: pent-up demand and reduced use of public transport because of Covid fears,” Chettri says.

There are more than 3.1 million two-wheeers in Nepal, over one million of them in Kathmandu. They are adding to the capital’s foul air, as they are up to 10 times more polluting per passenger kilometre than buses and cars.

Total Motorbikes in Nepal


Two-wheelers also emit invisible toxic gases like carbon monoxide, benzene and nitrous oxides, and increase the concentration of street-level ozone. Motorcycle exhaust may not be as visible as diesel exhaust, but they are highly poisonous — especially when there are so many of them. Besides exacerbating respiratory diseases, the gases are carcinogenic, causing cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s.

The solution is to shift rapidly to cleaner electric vehicles, not just for healthier air but also to meet Nepal’s net-zero pledge in Glasgow and to reduce the country’s burgeoning petroleum import bill.

“The priority has to be on electric public transport and supporting infrastructure,” says environmentalist Tuladhar. “Electric buses are more expensive than diesel ones, so the government has to help with capital, and better manage Kathmandu’s public transport.”

This week, Nepal opened its first electric charging station powered by solar panels for the Lumbini Development Trust. Similar charging stations can be set up for public and private vehicles in existing bus parks across Nepal and along highways. Sajha Yatayat which is procuring 40 electric buses is also trying to turn the former trolley bus terminal into a charging station.

Shilshila Acharya of the Avni Center for Sustainability agrees that the priority should be on electrifying public transport and encouraging bicycle lanes. She says, “Replacing cars with more cars even if electric only promotes consumerism. We have to give people reliable alternatives.”

Kathmandu Valley Air Quality Management Action Plan held its first implementation committee meeting this week, during which it discussed lunching of a USAID-funded project for air pollution and a forecasting system with technical support from ICIMOD.

“The problem of air pollution will take some time to be solved but we have started our homework,” says Indu Joshi of the Department of Environment. “At the moment, our biggest challenge is controlling open burning.”

Apart from transport, garbage burning and biomass fuel for household heating and cooking are also contributors to Kathmandu’s dirty air. The problem is made worse in winter due to the Valley’s topography that traps surface pollution in an inversion layer.

Improper solid waste management in Kathmandu means locals burn garbage by the riverbanks near residential areas — while, as studies show, segregation of waste at homes can reduce the city’s garbage volume by up to 80%.

There is no other problem that is so directly linked with the health and economy of the country as urban air pollution. The Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 is proof that Kathmandu can be cleaned up, it just needs the right leadership and the political will to back it up.

Says Shilashila Acharya: “Our policies on mobility and air pollution have to be people- and culture-centric, instead of focusing only on technology. We must build public pressure to force the politicians into action.”

A public opinion poll in this paper just before the 2017 elections showed that a majority of Nepalis were concerned about the health impact of pollution. Since 2022 will be dominated by campaigning for the next election, this could be turned into the main criteria for candidates to win votes.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.