Clearing the air in Kathmandu

As one of the world's fastest urbanising countries, how can Nepal manage growing demand for transport and electricity, while ensuring clean air?

Smog over Kathamandu. Air pollution in Nepal's capital regularly breaches the World Health Organisation's safety guidelines (Kashish Das Shrestha)

Nepal has long been recognised as one of the world's most natural disaster and climate vulnerable Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Perhaps at no other time in recent history have these two vulnerabilities been exposed as powerfully as between April 2015 and 2016 when Nepal experienced a devastating earthquake, a severe winter drought and record breaking forest fires.

Air quality in Kathmandu valley, home to an estimated 3.5 million people and the capital city, Kathmandu, regularly surpassed 'Very unhealthy' levels and even reached 'Hazardous' in March and April 2016. 

Nepal is one of the least urbanised countries in South Asia, but it is also one of the fastest urbanising. Kathmandu is Nepal's largest urban centre with an annual growth rate of five per cent. How the valley restores its liveability and manages its continued growth can help shape Nepal's urban future. 

The crisis

"Air pollution in Nepal's urban centres, and especially Kathmandu, have become a public hazard," according to MP Gagan Thapa, an elected representative from Kathmandu and the chairman of the government's Agriculture and Energy Committee. He is also the father of two daughters below the age of five. 

"At this rate, not only will we miss our Sustainable Development Goal targets, but we risk undoing the gains we made in the Millennium Development Goals, particularly in relation to improved maternal health and ensuring sustainability," he said. 

Global studies have found pollution damages children's brain development, as well as increasing premature births, and cancer rates. According to the World Bank, "urban air pollution in Nepal caused nearly 7,000 premature deaths in 2005 and about 2,106 new cases of chronic bronchitis".

The pollution this spring was among the worst in recent memory. 

Bhushan Tuladhar, a technical advisor for South Asia, UN-Habitat, and a resident of Kathmandu, tweeted about the increasing air pollution levels, and their impact on children, on 31 May.  

An estimated 60 per cent of air pollution in Kathmandu is caused by traffic. This is not surprising, given the number of vehicles in the valley has increased by around 12 per cent a year in the last decade. 

At the same time, Kathmandu and other major urban centres have faced scheduled power cuts of 12 hours or more per day during the winter months. This has led to a rapid rise in privately owned power generators, largely using diesel. 

According to the World Bank, diesel generators provide the equivalent of 28 per cent of the total electricity consumption of the valley. When a scheduled power cut starts and generators are turned on, air quality in that area drops by an estimated 40 per cent. 

The Kathmandu Valley with the Himalayas in the distance. According to Yale University's Environment Performance Index 2014, Nepal ranks 177th out of 178 countries for poor air quality (Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha)

According to the World Bank (PDF), "urban air pollution in Nepal caused nearly 7,000 premature deaths in 2005 and about 2,106 new cases of chronic bronchitis".

Moving forward 

"Nepal is at a development crossroads," MP Thapa explained. "We have the option of leapfrogging straight to sustainable solutions. There is already a lot of proven technology we can adopt immediately. 

"However, our socio-economic circumstances are such that we cannot engage the public on broader issues of ecology or the environment. They are struggling with the daily basics, of which energy and transportation in urban centres top the list.

"The traditional approach has added clean air to that list of basics too. So we must fix the basics first, but in a way that it sets a benchmark for the future."

MP Thapa has worked on introducing two specific low-carbon options to help fix those basics: solar power and electric vehicles. In 2014 he helped usher in the long embattled net-metering policy. Then, in 2015, he helped push through a major urban solar incentive. 

Solar power also reduces Kathmandu's vulnerability to disasters: when the quake struck last April, the grid shut down, and the only lights in many parts of the valley were solar street lights.

Thapa has also advised the Finance Ministry to help make electric vehicles more feasible by placing an emphasis on mass transit, and to make Kathmandu's road expansion plan pedestrian-based and cycle-friendly. 

Nepal's new budget brought some good news. The government reduced electric vehicle taxes from 40 per cent to 10 per cent (import taxes on petroleum-based vehicles remain over 220 per cent). 

The new budget also formally mandates all new homes to incorporate solar power, building on the initial work of MP Thapa.

A net-metering policy makes it easier to install larger solar systems or community micro-grids that can send power to the central grid, reducing power cuts and the private use of generators. 

However, a 100 per cent import tax on lithium batteries remains in place, making a key component in the solar equation quite expensive. 

And the policy could have been more effective if the government had mandated commercial buildings and offices, including all government buildings, to transition to solar power, within a clear timeline.

A traffic jam in Kathmandu, Nepal. Sixty per cent of air pollution in Kathmandu is caused by traffic (Photo: Rachel, Creative Commons, via Flickr)By this time next year, we will know how effectively these new policies have been implemented and enforced.

"Globally, Nepal is committed to the SDGs which specifically talk about good health and well-being, affordable and clean energy, and sustainable cities and communities. Yet, energy and mobility needs have made the very act of breathing quite risky here. Those two things are growing in demand in all of our urban centres," Thapa explained. 

"Nationally, speaking as a policymaker who helped draft the country's new constitution, it is natural to work towards delivering our constitutional rights and these include the fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment. 

"And purely on grounds of common sense for common good, with science to back it up, I think we have no option but to move towards adopting distributed clean energy and shared clean mobility so that we can address our development needs sustainably and ensure cleaner air too."

Kashish Das Shrestha (kashishdshrestha@gmail.com) is an independent sustainable development policy analyst and an international research collaborator to Stanford University (2014-2015). He is NITI Foundation's 2012 renewable energy policy fellow and advises the chairman of the Agriculture and Energy Committee Hon. MP Gagan Thapa. His writings have also appeared on the New York Times – Dot Earth. On 13 June, a dialogue event will discuss how the SDGs present challenges and opportunities for the LDCs.