Policymakers should make better efforts to monitor compliance with environmental laws.
BY Shasta Kansakar
The average air quality of Kathmandu this April, according to the Air Quality Index (AQI), was 153.4, which is deemed unhealthy for the general public and hazardous for sensitive groups. During the month, there were only four days of moderate air quality in Kathmandu, in contrast to 26 days of extremely unhealthy air quality. High levels of particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10), which are small inhalable particles in the air, cause lung cancer, acute respiratory infections, asthma, irritation, and cardiovascular diseases. In fact, Kathmandu frequently tops the AQI city rankings for poor air quality, alarming organisations like ICIMOD and deteriorating the health of citizens. In 1990, the World Bank reported that Kathmandu's PM10 levels caused 506 cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,847 cases of bronchitis in children, and 18,863 asthma attacks. Currently, Kathmandu's air is fatal enough to kill individuals. In 2019, 5,000 deaths in the city were attributed to air pollution. The effects of air pollution are especially potent for vulnerable citizens: growing children, senior citizens, and people with preexisting conditions. Working-class individuals who live in congested spaces and have no access to private vehicles are also more likely to be exposed to pollutants. So, how did we get to this point of ubiquitous air pollution, and what are some solutions that policymakers can adopt?
How did we get to this point? Kathmandu is situated at an elevation of 1,350 metres above sea level, while the surrounding hills stand at over 1,950 metres. This geographical structure restricts air circulation, causing much of the pollution to get trapped within the valley. During the non-monsoon seasons, particularly starting from October, the valley experiences dry conditions, which further worsen the PM 2.5 levels. The structure of the valley itself naturally exacerbates air pollution. One of the contributing factors to this problem is the increase in vehicles due to urbanisation and population growth. There has been a significant population increase in Kathmandu, rising from 104,000 people in 1950 to 965,000 in 2010, and reaching 1.4 million in 2020. This rapid population growth has resulted in heavy vehicular pollution from both commercial and personal vehicles. The total number of vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley increased from 24,003 in 2000/01 to 119,956 in 2016/17, leading to increased traffic congestion and pollution. There is an increased movement of vehicles, particularly diesel trucks used for transporting goods, to and from Kathmandu Valley. Diesel emissions are considered more hazardous to health than petrol emissions because they release high levels of PM 2.5 particles that can deeply penetrate our bodies. Poor quality diesel also contains high levels of sulphur. In addition to population growth, the lack of reliable public transportation has contributed to a disproportionate number of private vehicles in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, the city's infrastructure is ill-equipped to accommodate such a high volume of vehicles. Apart from vehicles, the presence of brick kilns in the southern and eastern parts of Kathmandu also contributes to air pollution. Furthermore, prolonged road expansions have resulted in dusty roads, aggravating vehicular pollution. Ironically, there is a strong emphasis on road expansions as part of urban development plans, even though it is not a sustainable solution. Expanding road networks primarily to accommodate private vehicles displaces local residents and makes the city less walkable. Apart from the environmental concerns, this issue also has social implications.
Not everyone has access to private vehicles, and many rely on buses or walk to their destinations. For these people, it becomes an additional burden to navigate through or wait in polluted areas due to heavy traffic and ongoing road expansions. Progress at present and in the future Progress has been made in establishing laws to limit vehicular pollution in Nepal, but the effective execution of these measures remains limited. Nepal introduced vehicle emissions standards and an emissions testing system in 1995. Subsequently, efforts were made to supply unleaded fuel, remove highly polluting three-wheeler vehicles, and implement green sticker systems to monitor vehicle emissions. In 2004, 20-year-old taxis were removed from Kathmandu, and more recently Euro VI fuel, known for its cleaner composition, has been in use. However, the lack of Euro VI-compliant vehicles poses a challenge. In fact, a majority of vehicles within Kathmandu do not adhere to government emission standards. Currently, a fine ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 1500 is imposed on vehicles emitting significant amounts of pollutants. However, this incentive alone is not substantial enough to bring noticeable changes. Ananda Manandhar, an urban development practitioner, says that the Kathmandu Metropolitan City should enforce better execution of laws and regulations. “It should ensure faster completion of road constructions and stronger monitoring of green stickers. Government incentives such as fines or subsidised parking for electric vehicles need to be brought and enforced,” Manandhar said. Most importantly, Manandhar endorses sustainable mobility. Sustainable mobility approaches transportation in a way that benefits the environment. In terms of Kathmandu, demotivating the use of private vehicles, improving public transit and creating awareness are some ways of being sustainable. While electric vehicles are a cleaner option in comparison to conventional vehicles, it is an elitist solution. So, public transport should be prioritised. Bus rapid transit, a bus system that offers quality in terms of punctuality and capacity would be the most appropriate mass public transport for Kathmandu. Connecting Ring Road and Araniko Highway with Kathmandu may be a route for the said transit service. Other public transportation systems like trams and metros are some alternatives. However, budgetary constraints and lack of infrastructure and institutional capacity make these options less viable. But cycle lanes can be viable if implemented properly.
Few places in the valley have cycle lanes but they are rarely in use and often overcrowded by private cars or bikes. Since cycles are also not seen as a serious mode of transport by many, more advocacy may be needed in that realm. It is obvious that Kathmandu’s air pollution is detrimental to all citizens, especially vulnerable or working-class people. Policymakers, therefore, should explore sustainable solutions to promote efficient public transport and better efforts need to be put to monitor compliance with environmental laws. Kansakar is Policy Researcher at Nepal Institute for Policy Research (NIPORE).