Nepalis do not have to breathe dirty air

Let us make our voices heard in the November elections for cleaner politics and cleaner air

Nepal often ranks high on international reports for all the wrong reasons. The latest one puts Nepal in ‘first’ position (which means worst) in a study on Global Burden of Disease which showed this country having the highest death due to lung disease in the world. A quarter of those deaths were caused by breathing dirty air.

Another report last month, the latest State of Global Air 2022 on Air Quality and the Health of Cities, showed that more than 5,000 deaths in 2019 in Kathmandu alone were due to air pollution. This added up to 42,100 additional deaths in 2019 due to poor air quality.

Yale University’s Environment Performance Index ranked Nepal as the third most polluted country in terms of air quality, with only India and Pakistan performing worse. Put together these recent reports show that air pollution is a clear and present danger, and a question of life or death for Nepalis.

Besides health damage, dirty air also comes with high cost of health care. Air pollution contributes to seven of the ten most common causes of death worldwide: COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), ischemic heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, stroke, lower respiratory infections, and neo- natal death. It is responsible for 12% of all deaths worldwide, and 20% of deaths in Nepal.

A World Bank estimate puts the cost of air pollution to Nepal at $3.1 billion, 10.2% of the country’s  GDP. Of this, $1.7 billion was caused by smoky indoor fires, and the rest was due to ambient air pollution. Another study showed that the health damage suffered by Nepalis from brick kiln smoke alone amounted to $46 million per year.

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The level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Kathmandu is three times higher than the standard set by WHO – mainly due to vehicular emission. The number of two-wheelers in Kathmandu Valley now exceeds 1.2 million, and Nepal imported fuel worth Rs383.92 billion in the last fiscal year, a dramatic increase of 79% from the previous year.

Fossil fuel imports now constitute 22% of Nepal’s total imports – and its value is more than all exports combined. This has led to a sharp drop in foreign exchange reserves to pay for only 6 months of imports.

Kathmandu’s notoriety as a polluted valley has also affected tourism, with many visitors cancelling plans as word spreads of the bad air. Even the pristine trekking areas are now affected by trans-border pollution from the Subcontinent, or wildfires within Nepal.

It is clear that spending money on cleaning up the air will have a high return on investment. And it is not that Nepal does not have the resources to do so. The law allows the government to levy a pollution tax of Rs 1.50 per litre on petrol and diesel sold in Nepal. Since 2008, when this provision was implemented, the government has collected Rs12.81 billion in pollution control fees.

Nearly Rs3.4 billion of that amount was collected in fiscal year 2020-21 alone, but none of this money has been invested in pollution control.

The Office of the Auditor General urged the government to spend some of the accumulated fee to address air pollution, and also in July the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling. But the government appears to be unable to spend this money, even as it tries to tap into international mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund to adapt to the climate crisis.

As the government prepares for the 27th Conference of Parties (COP 27) being held 6-18 November in Egypt, it will once again by lobbying for increased international funding for climate action.

Sure, international funding for both mitigation and adaptation to the climate crisis is urgently needed, but how about Nepal first spending the money it has at its disposal to clean up the air – especially since there is such a guaranteed return on investment.

The private sector can also jump in. Despite the see-sawing tax policy on electric vehicles, the market for battery-operated cars has jumped five-fold just in the past one year. With the increased import of EV, we will soon see an increased demand for infrastructure such as charging stations, repair and maintenance, and hopefully, even electric public transport.

This is where the investment from the private sector may be crucial. While individual consumers are buying EVs in droves without proper infrastructure, the industry will struggle.

Read more: Agroecology, Nepal’s answer to climate change, Zachary Barton

Similarly, investment in green construction material can help reduce pollution from the brick kiln sector and enforcing proper waste management can reduce toxic smoke from open waste burning all over Nepal.

If the last election cycle has taught us anything, it is that Nepali voters are willing to bet on change. So, it is time to once again make our voices heard on the ballot – for clean politics and clean air. Let us vote for candidates who will prioritise environmental issues and show commitment to change. Elections may be a slow process that comes around only every five years, but each vote is an opportunity to create lasting change.

As consumers, we can also make ourselves heard through our purchases of smarter, cleaner and greener  alternatives. The simplest and most profitable switch, can be to abandon LPG for the electric cook stove. In the past year, after my family bought an induction stove and rice cooker, we have saved on not having to buy LPG at Rs1,800 per cylinder. One induction cooker costs the same as two LPG cylinders, and the money is easily recouped.

Another clean alternative is an electric vehicle. For shorter distances, walk. If you are building a home, buy  Compressed Stabilised Earth Bricks, instead of traditional fired bricks that pollute the Valley’s air.

Every little effort counts, and on International Day of Clean Air on 7 September, let us work for change simply by becoming more conscious consumers.

Read more: Mustn't blame everything on climate change, Editorial

Shreesha Nankhwa is an environmentalist currently engaged with FHI 360 as a Social and Behaviour Change Communication Officer.

Shreesha Nankhwa