Toxic bubble – by Ajaya Dixit

Toxic bubble
How to turn public outrage about air pollution into action

Kathmandu is the centre of everything in Nepal: power, administration, public education, tourism, hospitals. Till the late 1970s, the Valley’s built-up areas coalesced around historical settlements. After the 1990, the cities saw exponential growth, a process accelerated by war and declining agriculture in the countryside. Lack of jobs drove Nepalis first to Kathmandu and then overseas. The remittances that workers abroad sent back in turn fuelled the Valley’s real estate boom.

Urbanisation, unplanned growth, lack of public transport and endemic corruption have enveloped Kathmandu Valley in a smog blanket most days. Nearly 38% of this air pollution is from vehicle emissions; other sources include dust from roads, excavations, debris of demolished buildings, construction sites, brick kilns, open burning of plastic and solid wastes, inefficient hospital incinerators, rice husk/coal/wood-burning industries, crushers and mixers, asphalt plants and metal and automobile repair units.

The World Health Organization says the mean annual and 24-hour concentration of PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter) in the air should be less than 10µg/m3 and 25µg/m3 respectively. In Kathmandu Valley, both parameters are much higher year-long, and the capital is among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world.

Air pollutants also blow in from north India, making the problem a transboundary one. Exhaust from commercial jets and short-haul aircraft contribute too, but is overlooked. Once inhaled, the fine particulates are carried via the bloodstream to our cells, where they can cause strokes, dementia, mental retardation, pulmonary disease and cancer.

The pollution is directly related to poor governance — procedural lapses, almost non-existent regulation and enforcement, and a system of national, provincial and municipal governments either incapable or too steeped in greed to deal with it.

The overall outcome has been the growth of a concrete jungle without any form, aesthetics or character, with polluted water, land and air as by-products. Not only does Kathmandu have a serious air pollution problem, but its summer days are now urban heat islands because open spaces have been built over.

Residents of the capital know they have a problem: they breathe it every day. Politicians and bureaucrats are also aware. Yet public outrage is not translating into action. The best way to end air pollution is to begin with its source. This year, Nepal’s petroleum import bill is likely to exceed Rs220 billion, double the amount three years ago.

A year ago, the government gave a positive signal by reducing customs on the import of electric cars and buses to 10% and 1% respectively. All electric vehicles are now also exempt from annual road tax. This is not enough. Despite the tax rebate, Kathmandu has no operating electric buses because of the high upfront cost, although they bring multiple, long-term benefits: zero emissions, improved health, use of indigenous hydro energy and lower fuel import bills.

More than 500 electric cars and 1,500 electric scooters now use the Valley’s roads. About 12,000 e-rickshaws ply in Tarai towns. Electric transport, including charging stations, must be part of the urban future, with pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes, open spaces and green belts as other key elements.

In the meantime, the government must proactively pursue low-hanging fruit, such as requiring interagency coordination to minimise roadside dust, banning the burning of plastic and solid waste, and working with households, the private sector and citizen groups to minimise air pollution. Other immediate actions should include rigorous pollution test of vehicles and fuel quality, improving the condition of roadside workshops and making brick kilns and incinerators more efficient.

These pursuits would require mapping of pollution sources, monitoring, data analysis, adaptive policies and demonstrable actions. Understanding the policies that neighbouring countries are implementing to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles is needed to avoid the risks of Nepal becoming their dumping ground.

As we take these measures, let us place images of our children in front of us, as a reminder that actions taken today will save their health and that of their children.

Article by: Ajaya Dixit


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