Breathable KathmanduNepal and in particular Kathmandu can learn from the success of Hong Kong
A recent Environment Performance Index (2016) by Yale University has categorised Nepal as the fourth worst performing country in terms of air quality after India, China and Bangladesh. Kathmandu Valley, in particular, is very vulnerable to air pollution. Studies have shown that the concentration of particulate matter, minute airborne solid particles and liquid droplets that cause pollution, in urban and heavy trafficked areas are several times higher than the World Health Organisation’s safe upper limit. Air quality becomes even worse during winter as the cold air from the nearby mountains is trapped on the Valley floor by a warmer layer of air above, preventing pollutants from dispersing.
The main source of air pollution in Kathmandu Valley is vehicular exhausts and re-suspended road dust from unpaved and poorly maintained roads. Wearing a mask while going out of the house has become a daily ritual in Kathmandu.
I am currently in Hong Kong as an exchange researcher to learn more about the city’s initiatives on the management of air quality and transportation. Two cities, Hong Kong and Kathmandu, are not very different in terms of air flow. Kathmandu Valley is naturally surrounded by hills forming a bowl-shaped topography, which restricts wind movement and retains the pollutants in the atmosphere, whereas high-rise buildings obstruct air movement and trap pollutants in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has also been facing air pollution issues. Motor vehicles, especially diesel vehicles, are the main sources of local air pollutants. The Government has implemented a host of measures to cut vehicular emissions such as replacing diesel vehicles and adopting higher fuel and vehicle emission standards. It is phasing out some older diesel commercial vehicles.
The Environment Bureau of Hong Kong released “A Clean Air Plan for Hong Kong” in 2013. According to the report, roadside concentrations of some major air pollutants have dropped by around 50 percent and the number of smoky vehicles by nearly 90 percent in 2014, compared with 1999. The Clean Air Plan includes reduction of roadside emission by replacing pre euro 4 Diesel Commercial Vehicles (DCV) by Euro 5 model or better by 2020. In addition, the future plan is to strengthen emission control for petrol and LPG vehicles and form low emission zones for franchised buses. Furthermore the plan is to review the air quality objective at least every five years.
Hong Kong has a highly developed and sophisticated public transport network which makes travel efficient, affordable and accessible; no wonder nearly 90 percent of travel is by public transport. This leads to less congestion and pollution. Kathmandu is in need of an efficient public transport system to meet the existing demand. Until and unless the public transport system is improved, the city can not get rid of traffic congestion and mobility woes. Though Sajha bus has been initiated in Kathmandu, large urban buses should be operated to reduce the number of private vehicles.
The public transport system has to be supplemented with a good walking system in order for it to be effective. In Hong Kong, most people walk only to reach the public transportation stations, whereas walking is the major mode for daily mobility in Kathmandu Valley. If only proper pedestrian infrastructures were provided, Kathmandu would be more walkable like Hong Kong.
Awareness at both the public and policy levels is much needed to address air pollution. Air quality monitoring stations must be installed to provide timely and useful information to the public. The air quality monitoring network in Hong Kong operated by the Environmental Protection Department comprises 15 fixed monitoring stations. In Nepal, The Department of Environment is planning to reinstall eleven air quality monitoring stations in major cities by the end of this fiscal year, which is a good initiative. Good management and maintenance system need to be in place for the stations to be sustainable.
The government of Nepal does have funding mechanism such as Environment Protection Fund, Pollution Tax from petrol and diesel, and recently a provision for Environment Friendly Vehicle and Transport Fund but they are yet to come into operation. Air pollution has become a serious environmental problem and health risk. It is high time that we implemented our policies and learned some lessons from other countries to make Kathmandu a breathable city.
Manandhar is associated with Clean Energy Nepal