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Pollution a passing reference in Capital’s mayoral race

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Pollution a passing reference in Capital’s mayoral race

The mention of pollution of various kinds in election manifestos offers no solace when not accompanied by concrete solutions | Photo: Pratik Rayamajhi/ApEx

Clean environment is enshrined in the 2015 constitution as a fundamental right. Article 30 of the constitution says: “Every citizen shall have the right to live in a clean and healthy environment.” The victims, it further states, “shall have the right to obtain compensation for any injury caused from environmental pollution or degradation.” 

In other words, the constitution essentially allows citizens to file a case against the government if he/she feels pollution has harmed their health. Yet environmental degradation is still rampant in Nepal—and hardly anyone seems bothered.

Pollution in Kathmandu valley in particular is getting from bad to worse. In the last week of March this year, Kathmandu was ranked the world’s most polluted city, ahead of New Delhi and Beijing. Though the valley’s pollution is a public health emergency, it does not figure prominently in the agendas of political parties.

As the country heads to local level elections, ApEx studied the election manifestos of major political parties as well as those of some popular independent contenders from Kathmandu. While the mayoral candidates have mentioned the issue of pollution in their manifestos, no one seems to have a good plan.  

When the incumbent mayor of Kathmandu Bidya Sundar Shakya was elected to office in 2017 he had pledged to curb the city's pollution. But he has mostly disappointed. He did purchase some ‘broomer machines’ to sweep the city streets, but they were seldom put to use. Those machines were seen in action only when some foreign dignitaries were scheduled to visit the capital city.   

Mayor Shakya has also drawn flak for failing to manage solid waste. During his term, uncollected household waste piling up on roadsides and neighborhoods was a common sight.   

Kathmandu is now set to elect a new mayor. Will Shakya ’s replacement fare any better in pollution-control? 

Unlikely, says Ram Bahadur Budathoki, a former government official and resident of Baneshwor, Kathmandu.

“We have been talking about cleaning up the environment for years now. But what has happened?,” he asks. “We are still avoiding morning walks and outdoor exercises because of pollution.”

The 65-year-old Budathoki suffers from diabetes and hypertension. He says people like him who need to regularly exercise have suffered the most from pollution.  

Balen Shah, a popular independent mayoral candidate, has vowed to take measures to minimize air pollution in Kathmandu by ‘isolating’ construction sites emitting pollutants, establishing vehicle washing centers at all entry points of Kathmandu Valley, and installing incinerators to safely dispose bio-medical waste. 

He has also pledged to manage waste with ‘the use of technology’, while remaining vague about the exact kind of technology. Shah has promised to segregate waste, which is something that policy-makers have long suggested.

Nepali Congress mayoral candidate Srijana Singh, meanwhile, has pledged to transform Kathmandu into a zero-waste city. 

Institutional, legal, and structural arrangements will be in place to ensure clean air in Kathmandu, she says. But, again, with no particular plan of action, her pledge sounds hollow.  

Samikshya Baskota, a candidate from Sajha Bibeksheel Party, seems to have taken a similar tack. Her election manifesto mentions ‘an air quality management work plan’, but that’s about it. There is no further explanation. Other than this, she too has prioritized waste segregation and a permanent landfill site to manage Kathmandu’s waste, again offering little information on how she will make this happen.  

CPN-UML candidate Keshav Staphit does not offer anything concrete to tackle pollution. Measures will be taken to curb air pollution and waste management, is all he says. 

Bhupendra Das, air quality and clean energy expert, says the failure of prominent mayoral candidates to make pollution a big electoral agenda is most unfortunate.

“In other big cities like New Delhi, it gets the highest political priority. But in our case, the politicians seem unaware of the issue’s gravity,” he says. 

He adds though some young candidates have tried to tackle environmental pollution, it is the mainstream parties and their candidates who should be at the forefront of the effort. 

Much of the pollution in Kathmandu is caused by household waste, vehicles, and industry/bricks kilns. There are no indications of improvement in these areas. Waste management remains a chronic problem in Kathmandu valley due to the absence of a permanent landfill site. 

Though mayoral candidates have pledged to solve this problem, their pledges, again, sound unrealistic. In fact, there is no quick solution to Kathmandu’s waste problem. 

“Over the past 10 years, there have been many commitments to manage Kathmandu’s waste,” Das says. “But, if anything, the situation is getting worse.”  

The Ministry of Environment aims to create an enabling environment for both public and private sectors to treat industrial and municipal waste, including fecal sludge, by 2030. The process includes waste segregation, recycling, and waste-to-energy programs in at least 100 municipalities. To this end, the ministry has promoted ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ approach to waste management, along with source segregation and management of degradable and non-degradable waste. But experts say implementation is nowhere near effective enough to meet the 2030 goal.

Vehicles are another big contributor to poor air quality. Transitioning to a sustainable transport system and phasing out fossil-fuel vehicles has long been the plan. But the government as well as the private sector are doing little to make this switch.  

Environmental experts say investment on a sustainable transport system with a focus on public transport should be a priority of local governments. They suggest adding incentives on import of electric vehicles. They have also emphasized promoting cycling culture and investing in cycle lanes. 

The Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) submitted by the Nepal government at the United Nations says sales of electric vehicles in 2025 will be 25 percent of all private passenger vehicle sales (including two-wheelers) and 20 percent of all four-wheeler passenger vehicle sales in 2025.  

Environment-friendly technology is also vital. Nepal lags in this too. Traditional brick factories are chief contributors to poor air quality in Kathmandu and other parts of the country, but there is no plan to replace them with cleaner and more sustainable technology.

Das says environmental regulations for factories have long been in the works but are yet to come on steam.

Other factories and industries in Nepal also appear reluctant to adopt new technology and equipment to reduce their emissions. 

Then there is the household contributing to air pollution. The NDC pledges to ensure electric stoves as the primary mode of cooking in 25 percent of households by 2030. It has also set a target of installing 500,000 improved cooking stoves, particularly in rural areas, by 2025.

These are achievable goals, say environmental experts, for which the government needs to promote the use of electricity by adjusting power tariffs. 

A 2019 World Health Organization study found that Nepal’s annual average air pollution concentration was five times above its air quality guidelines, posing grave health risks for hundreds of thousands of people—the most common air pollution-related diseases being ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and acute lower respiratory infections. 

According to the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), as many as 35,000 Nepalis die from air pollution every year. The State of Global Air Report 2020 ranks Nepal as a country with the highest outdoor PM2.5 level in the world. Ambient PM2.5 comes from vehicle emissions, coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, and other human and natural sources.

For the record, the 10 countries with the highest PM2.5 levels are India, Nepal, Niger, Qatar, Nigeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Cameroon, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, according to the report. 

Many studies place Nepal among the most vulnerable countries to environmental pollution. But this has never registered with the country’s political parties and their leaderships. Environmental experts say pollution warrants more than a passing reference from the country’s leaders. It demands an urgent action, which doesn’t seem to be happening—not even from our aspiring future leaders. 

“Even if the parties talk about controlling pollution during their election campaigns, they abandon this agenda as soon as they get elected,” says Das.