Mayoral airs

Sonia Awale

As winter sets in and air quality deteriorates, most of Kathmandu Valley’s 18 mayors gathered on Thursday in Patan to listen to experts and discuss a strategy to reduce air pollution.

The Mayors’ Summit on Air Pollution heard from scientists that Kathmandu ranks 261 among the world’s 3,000 most polluted cities. And that a third of the Valley’s pollution is caused by vehicular emissions, 28% from road dust, 23% from garbage burning and 15% from brick kilns. In winter, local air quality is worsened by industrial pollution and crop burning smoke blown in from India

“People are cursing us because we have not acted to reduce pollution, this forum gives us an opportunity for the Valley’s municipalities to work together to address this public health menace collectively,” said Lalitpur mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan (pictured above, left sitting with Kathmandu Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya).

One of the Valley’s most pro-active mayors, Madan Sundar Shrestha of Thimi has been building bicycle lanes and widening sidewalks, and advised fellow mayors that there was now enough awareness, and they should move into implementing remedial measures. The Mayor’s Forum will soon decide on steps to be taken to improve the Valley’s air quality.

The Mayors’ Summit was jointly organised by Kathmandu and Lalitpur Municipalities with Clean Energy Nepal and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Bhusan Tuladhar of Clean Energy Nepal pointed out that 20% of Kathmandu’s vehicles caused half the Valley’s pollution, and urged national and local governments to improve fuel quality and enforce green emission stickers.

“It is time for the municipalities to act, and Kathmandu could learn from Mexico City which has curbed air pollution,” Tuladhar added.

Read also: Mexico City's lessons for Kathmandu, Arnico Panday

Mexico’s Ambassador to Nepal Melba Pria presented a checklist of measures undertaken after Mexico City was declared the most polluted city in the world in 1992, and used to have only eight days of good air quality in a year. By 2015, it had 248 days of good air.

Pria said the trick was to take measurable step-by-step approach to ensure clean fuel, introduce catalytic converters, efficient public transport, and move out industries. 

“Mexico City and Kathmandu are both situated in bowl-shaped valleys, but Kathmandu is where Mexico City was 30 years ago. We can offer lessons on how to clean the air. Don’t wait till the birds start falling dead from the sky, like what happened in Mexico City,” Pria told Kathmandu Valley mayors.

The mayors discussed how policy changes to improve air quality like better fuel and vehicle standards were necessary to be passed by the national government, but other measures like pedestrianisation, bicycle lanes, and public transport could be municipality priorities. But it was vital to have the political will to remove air pollution and improve public health.

Said ICIMOD director General David Molden: “Our organisation is based in Kathmandu Valley, and our research into air pollution can make a difference if it is used by national and local governments for policy interventions.”

Mexico City’s lessons for Kathmandu

Melba Pria spoke to Nepali Times about what Kathmandu can learn from Mexcio City about improving air quality.

Nepali Times: You are based in Delhi and have set an example by riding an auto-rickshaw with a Mexican flag. How has that gone down? 

Melba Pria: At first everyone was very surprised that an ambassador would choose a small vehicle like that. But then, millions of Indians use it every day. The first thing we have to do is change our behaviour to be less polluting. I’m just using a vehicle that is much better for the environment. After all, I lived in Mexico City that was once the most polluted in the world. We are still fighting against pollution, and cannot say we have won the battle.

Kathmandu Valley and Mexico City have similar topography that traps pollution. How do you improve air quality when the source of pollution is so diverse?

There is no one source. For many years, crop burning was rife in Mexico City. We have to re-educate the farmers, provide them with machinery, and the government has to help them. We have to look at the fuel we use. Our cars need to have catalytic converters. Industrial areas need to be far away from residential areas.

How important was upgrading public transport in cleaning up Mexico City’s air?

There is no magical fix, that is what you have to understand in Nepal. But public transportation is very important. We limited the use of private vehicles, and this encouraged people to buy fewer cars but when they did they bought energy efficient ones. We also have bicycle and bus lanes, as well as a large underground metro system.

You are here to attend a Summit of Kathmandu Valley Mayors, how important is political will?

Two wills are very important: that of the leaders and that of the people. They have to push each other. Mayors need policies that go across from national to local levels, and it does not matter what party you are. The population has to be aware that it is a health hazard for us and our children, and you and I have to change our ways.

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.

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