Horrible to cleaner air quality in Nepal

Dr. Maheswar Rupakhetiresize_image

An open letter to PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal

Dear Right Honorable Prime Minster,

I am writing you an open letter with a request of your and your government’s immediate attention and actions to address dangerously high level of air pollution and its harmful impact in Nepal.

Your Excellency,

The science of air pollution is loud and clear – air pollution is causing an adverse impact on human health, food and water security, climate, economy and national development goals around the world.

Scientists have built a strong evidence-based case that cannot be ignored anymore. We all must act now to reduce harmful impact of air pollution in Nepal and elsewhere. We can.

Recent scientific evidences and new analyses on air pollution, including assessment reports published in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), and the World Bank (WB) have all demonstrated that air pollution is a major challenge to economies, societies, national development goals, and several global agreements such as the sustainable development goals (SDGs), around the world. It is one of the most serious environmental challenges and societal problems of our time.

Air pollution has emerged as the world’s largest environmental risk to public health and wellbeing. Over 92 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality breaches limits set by the World Health Organization. It causes nearly 7 million premature deaths every year (1 in 9 deaths worldwide) of which around 600,000 are children under the age of five, mostly (94 percent) in low- and middle-income countries. In addition to health impacts, air pollution can cause crop damage and thus affect food security. It also pays important role in change in weather systems (monsoon circulations, rainfall and snowfall, storms), climate change (with black carbon, a component of soot particles, being the second largest contributor to global warming), and accelerated melting of ice and snowfields in the Arctic and the Himalayas. Air pollution-related cost to economies is already as much as 0.3 percent of global GDP (in 2013), and rising. The majority of air pollutants arises from human activities, primarily from how we produce and use energy by burning fossil fuel and biomass. In the absence of additional and more stringent policies, increasing economic activities and energy demands are expected to lead to a significant increase in global emissions of air pollutants and their impact is projected to become more severe in the coming decades.

There is good news as well. Air pollution mitigation measures are available. They are currently in use in different regions around the world. The fast and large-scale implementation of these proven emission reduction measures would result in immediate and substantial multiple benefits – save lives, increase crop yields, protect climate, and improve socioeconomic conditions. However, many key challenges still remain with such widespread interventions. We need to identify solutions grounded in sound science and carefully examined local specifics so that they are the best local options to ensure cleaner air. Therefore, scaling up clean air solutions would require substantial strategic investments, i.e., an innovative combination of existing policies, new policies, off-the-shelf available existing technologies, new technologies, resources (human, financial, institutional etc.), non-technological measures, including individual and collective behavior change to choosing less polluting options, and most of all coordination and cooperation among government agencies, development partners, private entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations, and the general public.

Air pollution has received global attention. For instance, in order to keep the urgent pollution issues including air pollution high on national agenda, pollution is the focus of this year’s UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in December.

Rt. Honorable Prime Minister,

In Nepal, we are breathing dirty and toxic air. Air pollution levels are dangerously high in many ever-growing but poorly planned cities, such as the Kathmandu Valley, due to the concentration of people, economic activities, motor vehicles, industries, and increasing energy demands for them. Poor air quality is not limited to urban areas only. Rural areas are often not any better. Indoor smoke from burning solid biomass for cooking and kerosene for cooking and lighting continue to take a toll on the health of many rural communities in Nepal, notably the most vulnerable population – women, children and the older adults. According to a new analysis of the global burden of diseases (GDB) by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), one of the most scientific and systematic analysis, air pollution causes nearly 32,000 premature deaths every year in Nepal (as of 2015), of which indoor and outdoor air pollution contributes about 50 percent each. This makes air pollution the largest threat to human health in Nepal. The amount of air pollution-related crop losses every year in Nepal is enough to feed several hundred thousand Nepalis for a year. The economic burden of air pollution in Nepal is huge. For example, according to a new report published in 2016 by the World Bank the total welfare loss due to air pollution in Nepal in 2013 was 4.7 percent ($ 2.8 billion) of the national GDP.

Until recently the main causes of this enormous problem and the relative roles of various pollution sources in Nepal were largely unknown. Scientific studies carried out over the last four years by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies IASS), Germany and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in collaboration with other research partners, as well as the air quality data from the monitoring stations recently installed in Kathmandu, Dhulikhel, Chitwan, and Lumbini by the Department of Environment show that key air pollutants like particulate matter and ozone frequently exceed the WHO-recommended limits and Nepal’s own ambient air quality standards, often reaching to hazardous levels. The concentrations of these two air pollutants and several other chemical species, notably black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (chemicals known to cause cancer) and mercury in particles, and toxic volatile organic compounds in the Kathmandu Valley are as high as in megacities like Beijing and Delhi. Even Lumbini, a UNESCO world heritage site of universal value as the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, suffers from poor air quality similar to that in Kathmandu Valley. Key emission sources that pollute Kathmandu Valley’s air are motor vehicles (tail-pipe exhaust and road dust), industries (mainly brick factories), and open burning of garbage. Small diesel power generators were another major source of air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley; however thanks to recent alleviation of chronic power cuts, the use of the generators has been drastically reduced in the Valley (but it still remains as a key source elsewhere in the country). Agro-residue burning after harvesting crops in different parts of Nepal, forest fires, and transport of air pollution from across the national border are other major sources of air pollution in Nepal.

Your Excellency,

The situation is truly alarming. We are overwhelmed with air pollution problems. In order to get way out of this crisis, we must put air pollution in Nepal high on our national agenda. These scientific studies have provided basic scientific knowledge of air pollutants and their major sources that is sufficient for initiating aggressive actions to reduce air pollution in Nepal. Therefore, this is an opportune time for the government which can help leverage the value of these scientific findings to address the challenges facing our houses, cities and nation, demonstrating that environmental protection and development can go hand in hand.

Rt. Honorable Prime Minister,

Air pollution is a complex problem. Therefore, reducing air pollution will require a multitude of commitments and carefully planned actions by a team of scientists, engineers, policy makers and decision makers, politicians, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and committed citizenry at various levels, from government to households, and local communities to individuals. Now, due to increasing scientific evidences on air pollution there is greater awareness amongst the citizens of the air pollution problems in Nepal. This is an ideal time for the government to set policies and roll out actions immediately to address the problem on a national scale. Therefore, I suggest thirteen key actions as follows, which is neither an exhaustive nor restrictive list, for the government’s consideration to implement them within the next six months, one year and five years (and beyond). They provide the necessary fundamental foundation needed for governance of atmospheric environment, including air quality management, in Nepal.

·     Immediate actions (within next 6 months):

1.      We must strengthen existing structures and bodies at the earliest.

1.1 Strengthen the Department of Environment. We need a powerful and resourceful regulatory agency. Therefore, in order to build such an agency we need to start immediately strengthening the capacity of the Department of Environment – which is only 4.5-year-old now – so that it is equipped well with necessary institutional infrastructure, human resources, state-of-the-art scientific instruments, financial resources, and necessary legal and regulatory tools it needs in the federal set up we are embarking on. This will empower and make the department more proactive in carrying out its legislative mandates of effectively implementing the government’s regulations, strategies and plans (for example, monitoring air quality across the country, enforcement of emission permits etc.), and also taking rapid actions on the spot when any situation of violation of regulations arises.

1.2 Activate the Environment Protection Council. The council is a high-level body chaired by the Prime Minister to provide coordination, guidance and direction for formulation and implementation of environment-related policies. It has not been active for almost two decades. Activating it again would have an immediate effect. Make the council complete if term-limited members are to be filled in, and let the council carry out its functions as per its mandate.

2.      Set a long-term vision and a working plan on it. A full-scale governance of the atmospheric environment, including air quality management, requires a comprehensive understanding of the issues intricately linked with it. For this, it would be well-timed if the Council of Ministers or the Environment Protection Council considers to constitute a commission comprising of key stakeholders and experts such as atmospheric scientists, engineers, urban/rural development planners, energy experts, policy experts, lawyers, social scientists, economists with a mandate to produce a comprehensive scientific assessment report within a year that analyzes in a more holistic way the current state and future directions of different aspects of atmospheric issues in Nepal, and provides recommendations for necessary actions (for example, research needs, policy needs) to be undertaken in an organized manner at systemic level. Co-generation of recommendations with involvement of key stakeholders is necessary because it would ensure their ownership and they will also subscribe to consequent measures aimed at addressing air pollution. This report will be a landmark report that sets the fundamental foundation and key strategic guidelines for governance of atmospheric environment in Nepal, including a clear vision and strategic actions.

3.      Take a few immediate measures to get direct relief from the horrible air pollution in different parts of Nepal, particularly in the Kathmandu Valley. For at least immediate short-term relief, we can adopt these solutions:

3.1 Transport sector:

a.   Mandatory use of water sprinklers  and vacuum broom at road construction sites (other construction sites too) and maintaining slow speed of vehicles on the roads under construction to suppress dust emission,

b.   Mandatory use of cover while transporting aggregates and goods,

c.   Wall-to-wall pavement of the roads under construction,

d.   Enforce the decisions to remove the vehicles older than 20 years from the road and phasing out small vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley starting from March 2017 as planned,

e.   Compulsory regular inspection and maintenance of vehicles, and carry out on-the-spot emission test of vehicles and take necessary actions if the vehicles failed, including seizing the green sticker (need to clearly spell out who does what among the traffic police, Department of Environment, and Department of Transport Management)

3.2 Industries:

a.   Start enforcing existing emission standards for industrial emission reductions,

b.   Facilitate and support ongoing momentum on retrofitting traditional brick kilns or switching to cleaner practices [introduced after the 2015 earthquake by ICIMOD with financial support from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC)] using the financial support recently agreed with the UK Department for International Development (DFID);

3.3 Open burning of municipal waste: enforce a complete ban on open burning of solid waste in public or private places in the Kathmandu Valley (and other regions too), effective immediately.


·     Short-term actions (within 1 year):

4.      Introduce strong and ambitious policy instruments for sustaining interventions to achieve clear goals following the strategic directions set by the comprehensive assessment report.

4.1 Introduce Clean Air Act. The long-term regulatory instrument that would help achieve long-term vision should be an introduction and enforcement of the Clean Air Act, which Nepal is yet to have. Therefore, formulate and introduce the Clean Air Act within a year and implement it effectively. Until a Clean Air Act is put in place, introduce some interim policy instruments: air pollution control strategies and action plans, and also amend the existing Environment Protection Act -1997 and Environment Protection Rules-1997 to make air pollution-control provisions in them more powerful and ambitious, and implement them as interim policy instruments.

4.2 Coordinate and integrate policies across sectors. When the Clean Air Act and other air pollution-control policies are formed we need to make sure to integrate these policies with other cross-sectoral policies such as climate change policies, energy policies including alternative energy policies, urban development policies, public health policies, national development policies and goals, as well as with Nepal’s international commitments such as Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

5.      Launch a national air quality improvement (NAQ-improvement) mission backed by robust policies, regulations and practical action plans.

5.1 Once the policies, acts, rules and regulations are put in place, launch an aggressive NAQ-improvement mission under the leadership of the Department of Environment to raise awareness and implement those policies for air pollution mitigation with cross sectoral coordination, i.e., involving ministries and departments dealing with public health, transport, industries, construction, agriculture, urban development, alternative energy, and environment, as well as NGOs and general public. Let’s consider calling the NAQ-improvement mission WAPASE (Wayu Pradushan Sewa, i.e., air pollution service), with modality, to a certain degree similar to MAPASE (Madak Padartha Sewan, i.e., drink-driving), in which violators of the rules, whether it is a vehicle or an industry or an individual burning garbage, gets fined on the spot.

5.2 There is no doubt that public health should be given the highest priority. Therefore, consider air pollution as a priority environmental health risk and societal issue, and declare immediately (don’t need to wait for a year for this) air pollution as a national health issue and consequently mobilize the vertical and horizontal structures and resources of the Ministry of Health, in coordination with the Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE) and other concerned ministries and departments, with nationwide programs to raise public awareness all the way to the grassroots on reducing harmful effects of air pollution.

6.      Further strengthen and scale up the sectoral solutions.

6.1 Transport Sector:

a.   In addition to measures mentioned above, start works toward introducing new norms such as low sulfur fuel (less than 50 parts per million in diesel) within a given time frame and make use of tail-pipe controls like diesel particle filter (DPF) and selective catalytic convertor mandatory for vehicles,

b.   Make a phase-wise plan to introduce vehicles with fuel and emission technologies and appropriate tail-pipe emission controls (e.g., EURO IV, V and VI standards),

c.   Involve researchers and students from universities in Nepal for quality data collection, analysis and interpretation of emission testing (this is important for research and local capacity building);

6.2 Industries: facilitate the polluting industries such as brick factories, cement factories and other polluting factories to either retrofit with pollution-control devices or switch to cleaner technologies or relocate from sensitive locations, for example, Kathmandu Valley and Lumbini, within a given deadline;

6.3 Residential sector:

a.   Design aggressive programs to rapidly distribute large numbers of clean-cooking solutions such as improved cook stoves with higher thermal and emission efficiencies (one with a forced draft fan) and biogas digesters,

b.   Switch to cleaner fuels (LPG and electricity);

6.4 Open burning of agro-residue: develop viable business models to manage agro-residues, including use of agro-residue to generate electricity for rural power supply, biomass pellets for cooking etc., as an alternative to burning them on the farms.

7.      Strengthen international engagement. There has been an unprecedented interest more recently in mitigation of air pollution around the world. Many international organizations, including UN agencies, and development communities such as the World Bank either run programs on air pollution or provide financial supports for reduction of air pollution. Furthermore, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is the only global effort that unites governments, civil society and private sector, committed to synergizing efforts for improving air quality and protecting the climate in the next few decades by reducing air pollution across sectors, focusing on short-lived climate-forcing pollutants (SLCP). With the formulation of enabling policies at home, Nepal should seize this opportunity to engage the international community, for instance by joining the CCAC and through bilateral and multilateral discussions, and use air pollution as one of the cooperation-agenda issue, so that Nepal would stand a good chance of joining appropriate schemes to receive global support in terms of the financial, technical, and capacity-building requirements essential for swift and widespread implementation of clean solutions, for instance, doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030.

8.      Spend the funds collected as pollution tax wisely on air pollution control. Nearly $40 million in funds have been collected as pollution tax raised from every liter of petroleum products sold in Nepal, but it has remained unspent. The government would be well-advised to develop an efficient procedure and plan for utilizing this fund, for example, for strengthening the capacity of the Department of Environment, installation of air quality monitoring stations, commissioning a comprehensive scientific assessment report, national air quality-improvement awareness programs, support for scientific research activities, and implementation of mitigation measures.

9.      Our policies must be informed by science. Therefore, it is of great value to continue to promote, since the beginning, scientific research involving Nepali scientists and students in understanding air pollution physical and chemical processes, impacts on public health, agriculture and socioeconomic development systems, and mitigation. Substantial support for this has been and will continue to be offered by international expert organizations, such as the IASS, ICIMOD, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Indian Institute for Science Education and Research (IISER), Aryabhatta Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), EV-K2-CNR Italy, Seoul National University, NASA AERONET, among many others. In order to evaluate the efficacy of policies it is crucial to continue working on the science of air-quality monitoring, development of emission inventories and modeling using atmospheric models. This is important for educating and engaging potential future leaders in studying air pollution, retaining qualified graduates in the country, and encouraging Nepali scientists abroad to collaborate with local scientists and even return to Nepal. Please ensure that enough resources are allocated for scientific research at universities and research institutions in Nepal.


·     Long-term actions (within 5 years and beyond):

10. Continue aforementioned sectoral measures and further strengthen them: Switching to clean fuel and efficient technologies. Switching to hydroelectricity will play one of the biggest roles in reducing air pollution in the future in Nepal. Therefore, we need to prepare plausible but yet ambitious strategies to rapidly expand the access to hydroelectricity to households in both rural areas (where solid biomass is commonly used) and urban areas (where LPG and kerosene are used), industries, and transport sector currently reliant on biomass and fossil fuel. In regards to the transport sector, revival of trolley buses, in combination with introduction of bus-based mass transit system with designated lanes, and designated bicycle lanes in cities should be considered as an integral part of the environmentally sustainable transport system in Nepal.

11. Develop separate air quality management plans for sensitive places with archeological and historical values such as Lumbini – the birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

12. There is a limit to how much improvement only technological measures can make on air quality. Therefore, we need to focus on getting the message across, through raising awareness and providing alternatives, to a large number of people about the need to make changes in their daily lives responsibly. The impact of changes in their individual behavior by choosing less-polluting options, even at home, can make a significant difference.

13. Cross-border air pollution: One key aspect of air pollution in Nepal is transport of air pollution across national boundaries. Nepal receives substantial inflow of air pollution from the Indian part of the vast Indo-Gangetic plains (IGP), one of the most heavily polluted regions of the world, and thus it affects air pollution in different parts of Nepal. In order to achieve clean air goals in Nepal, it is necessary to control emissions from local sources within its boundary, but this alone is not sufficient because the transboundary air pollution will continue to contribute a substantial fraction to compromising the air quality in Nepal. Therefore, Nepal must actively explore opportunities to bring up the cross-border air pollution issue to multilateral discussion platforms such as SAARC and CCAC, and bilateral discussion with neighboring countries, particularly with India.

In essence, air pollution is a complex challenge but with strong political will and support from committed citizenry it can be addressed, as has been demonstrated in the past by successfully cutting air pollution drastically in many other cities and countries around the globe.

Rt. Honorable Prime Minister,

Time is running out. Our eyes are watching you, a revolutionary leader. I call on you and the Nepal government to address the root causes and the unfolding dire consequences of air pollution in Nepal. While there is still time, please enact policies and plans for transformative solutions, as opposed to band-aid solutions, for meaningful reduction in emissions of air pollutants so that we can bring air quality from current horrible levels to bearable levels within the next five years and ultimately to cleaner levels in the foreseeable future. This will protect public health, food security, sensitive ecosystems, climate, and most importantly our national economy and socioeconomic development goals.

We have a constitutional right (Article 30) to live in a clean and healthy environment. Clean air is our most precious life-supporting resource. Your Excellency, please save it, and please save us, the Nepali countrymen.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Maheswar Rupakheti,

Atmospheric Scientist/Scientific Project Leader,

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Potsdam, Germany

Email: maheswar.rupakheti at iass-potsdam.de