Epicentre of pollution

Shocking fact: Polluted air reduces life expectancy by up to 4 years in Kathmandu and 6.5 years in the Tarai


The deadly flood season is coming to a close, and soon Nepalis will be exposed to the season of lethal air pollution. Their government has done precious little to protect them from both calamities. 

Air pollution kills more people than just about every other natural and human-made calamity afflicting Nepalis. Toxic air cuts 4.6 years off the average Nepali’s lifespan, the figure is higher for people in the Tarai who live nearly 7 years less because of transboundary pollution. 

In comparison, tobacco use reduces life expectancy by 2.8 years and high blood pressure by 1.7 years. Furthermore, all of Nepal’s 30 million people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline of 5µg/m3. From 1998 to 2021, the average annual particulate pollution in Nepal increased by 75.2%.

These and even more alarming statistics are highlighted in the latest Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) issued this week by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago.

The study shows that hazardous levels of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) in the air has overtaken malaria, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unsafe drinking water, road traffic accidents and alcohol use to emerge as the biggest public health threat of the 21st century worldwide. 

Read also: Cleaner Air = Longer Lives, Nepali Times

Epicentre of pollution NT

“Bad air is getting worse, I’m not really surprised. The AQLI report reinforces what we already knew,” says environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar. “But the Tarai has gotten progressively worse both because of its own local emissions from industries, garbage and open burning as well as due to cross-border pollution from India.”

More specifically, the national annual average for PM2.5 has hovered around 50µg/m3 since 2018. In Kathmandu, the annual average has fluctuated in the vicinity of 35-50µg/m3, explains Christa Hasenkopf, the director of AQLI and air quality programs at EPIC. These figures are several times higher than WHO recommendations

Inversely, if Nepal were to clean up its dirty air, people in the mid and eastern Tarai region where 53% of the country's population lives would gain 6.5 years of life expectancy. Similarly, Kathmandu residents would live 3.5 years longer.

Madhes Province is the most polluted followed by Lumbini, while Karnali and Gandaki have the clearest air. The report reveals that PM2.5 is the biggest threat to life expectancy in Nepal ahead of cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory illnesses, tobacco consumption and blood pressure.

Vehicular emission, soot particles from brick kilns, open burning of trash as well as industries are the biggest contributors to air pollution in Nepal.

Read also: Breathing can kill you, Sonia Awale

Epicentre of pollution NT

The AQLI report calls South Asia the global epicentre for pollution, home to the world’s four most polluted countries and nearly a quarter of the global population. The region also accounts for 52.8% of the total life years lost globally due to high pollution, residents in the region are expected to lose about 5 years of life expectancy on average.

“Pollution in South Asia has been increasing over the past two decades, with PM2.5 annual average concentrations 1.5 times that of those at the turn of the century,” confirms Hasenkopf, one of the two authors of the report.

She adds: “While our study isn't equipped to precisely identify sources, generally speaking, the rising levels are likely due to a combination of economic development, population increase, and stubble burning across some parts of South Asia.”

But this shared problem of air pollution in the region should be an opportunity to collaborate instead of blaming each other, says Bhushan Tuladhar. “The emission sources are the same in South Asia, our economies are similar for the most part, we need to learn from each other, and bring our governments together to resolve the problem.” 

Read also: How weather elevates air pollution in Kathmandu, Jagdishwor Karmacharya and Shanti Kandel

Epicentre of pollution NT

Within Nepal, electrification of transport and cooking are low-hanging fruit to reduce air pollution. Nepal now has surplus power generation at nearly 3,000MW with an additional 3,300MW under construction. Reducing petroleum imports by just 10% will save Nepal at least Rs30 billion a year. An electric transition will reduce the trade deficit with India.

“The government needs to do three things immediately to hit the ground running: subsidise big buses to reduce financial risks for private operators, build charging infrastructure on a large scale and overhaul the whole public transport sector,” says Tuladhar.

Combating air pollution requires the government and private sector to invest in renewable and clean energy. Access to open air quality data can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts, says AQLI’s Hasenkopf. 

Read also: Why is the air in Bhaktapur so bad?, Sushila Budathoki

Epicentre of pollution NT

This data is not just conveyed as an air quality index appearing on a website, but rather information provided in a programmatic way, like an Application Programming Interface.

“Data on its own is not sufficient for creating change, but it is one of the basic building blocks necessary to allow change,” Hasenkopf adds. “Timely, publicly accessible fully open air quality data produced by governments, in particular, is essential for transparently gauging effectiveness of air quality policies, fostering public accountability, and building awareness and solutions that sustain social will on the issue.”

In the meantime, China has proven that the energy transition can be achieved together with economic growth as long as there is political will. China is driving down wind and solar costs and creating economic opportunities in green manufacturing. Renewable sources now make up nearly 51% of China’s generation capacity. 

Read also: Solution to pollution, Pallavi Pant and Anobha Gurung

EV or not EV

Epicentre of pollution NT

The International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies is on 7 September, and it is well timed for the start of the season of dirty air in Kathmandu and the region. 

Vehicular pollution, soot particles from brick kilns as well as emission from garbage burning turns Kathmandu into an uninhabitable bowl of dust and smoke every winter. Some brick kilns are using biomass pellets instead of coal. People are starting to use compressed hollow bricks instead of the polluting variants. These newer technologies need to be upscaled.

Garbage burning is a major polluter, and local governments must crackdown on this with hefty fines. Emission checks can penalise polluting vehicles. Battery powered private and public transport need a boost. 

As a part of the International Day of Clean Air, Nepal International EV Expo is opening from 1-3 September in Bhrikuti Mandap which will primarily feature start-ups and entrepreneurs working to promote electric two-wheelers in Nepal.

There will also be panel discussions on public vehicles and charging infrastructure, battery-operated two-wheelers and on the transport sector: plans and policies moving forward.

“Our main target is the youth. We want to connect them to  entrepreneurs and the policy-makers,” says environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar.

Read also: Cleaner air with greener buses, Bhushan Tuladhar

Over the last five years, successive governments have flip-flopped tax rates on battery-powered vehicles and it is confusing to figure out the rebate formula. The latest decision to increase tax on cheaper EVs and battery powered buses does not correspond to the government pledge to increase private electric vehicles to 25% by 2025 and 90% by 2030. 

The target is to make 20% of all public transport electric by 2025 and 60% by 2030. But there is no way that will be met with current policies.

“Even so, Nepal is doing well in terms of larger electric private cars but taxing entry-level four-wheelers higher is discouraging many,” adds Tuladhar. “But two-wheelers make up 79% of all our registered vehicles, and that is where most of our effort should be.”

Popular two-wheeler brands in Nepal such as Honda, Bajaj and Yamaha however are not yet importing electric variants. Newer brands do not aspire as much confidence in first-time buyers.

What can drive the market is public procurement of electric two-wheelers. Institutional procurement for delivery services, banks, among others can also help.

It is, however, electric public transport that needs the biggest boost. Big buses carry the most people, reduce traffic and emissions but they are also very expensive, many times over their diesel counterparts. In India by contrast, the government provides the private sector with subsidies to operationalise them.\

“The government has to help with the capital cost of these big buses, and provide some kind of incentive. But equally important is charging infrastructure for public buses,” adds Tuladhar. “But most of all, we need to overhaul the mess that is the mismanagement of our public transport system.”

Read also: The road to electric transportation in Nepal, Diya Rijal

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.