Foul air, filthy water

Politicians need to show that the country is liveable, and not just one in which they happen to live in. Air and water quality is no less important than federal boundaries

Gagan Thapa & Kashish Das Shrestha

Foul air, filthy water

Nepal is the fastest urbanising country in South Asia and Kathmandu is the country’s largest urban centre. By 2050 more than half of Nepal’s population will be living in large urban centres not unlike Kathmandu, and the valley’s population itself, already at an estimated 3.5 million, is expected to increase by millions. The simple act of breathing is, perhaps, nowhere more dangerous in Nepal than here in the Capital. Yet, Kathmandu can make a turn-around. In 2014 we came one step closer to making it happen: for the first time, all 15 elected Members of Parliament from the Valley, belonging to different political parties, endorsed a Kathmandu Valley Development Vision Document in a unified approach to address six issues: air pollution, water crisis, energy crisis, solid waste and sewage management, and mass transit. The effects of that document are already reflected in the current budget, including in new resources being made available to develop and expand public parks.
There are broader implications of fixing Kathmandu: how we define its development today can help shape how Nepal’s cities and urban centres of tomorrow are planned and designed. To work for a liveable Kathmandu, we believe, is to start a process that will help Nepal develop sustainable cities in the future across Nepal.
Over the last few years, we have engaged in many discussions and research on Kathmandu’s many challenges. The latest one was on 22 December 2014. The course for policy action we propose for 2015 and beyond are based on these many engagements and research, and our reflection on them. They shaped our propositions, which follow.

To clear the air
The Yale’s 2014 Environmental Perfor-mance Index ranks Nepal 177 out of 178 countries in air quality. There is little argument that Kathmandu is the most polluted city in the country. The geographical setting of the Valley–its bowl shape—already puts its air quality at a natural disadvantage, especially in winter. But there has been a rapid growth in newer sources of pollution. While quantifiable data is still lacking to firmly rank the most hazardous sources, experts seem to broadly agree that diesel generators have been a leading contributor for some years now. Recent studies put the diesel generators’ capacity at around 200MW in Kathmandu. Diesel is already recognised as a lethal pollutant globally. The nitrogen oxide (NO2) it produces is linked to increased deaths from heart and lung diseases. Today, diesel has emerged as one of the most predominant pollutants in Kathmandu and other urban centres in the country. Displacing it is a must for Nepal.

Displacing diesel generators
Kathmandu’s air pollution goes up by 40 percent during times of load-shedding—a direct, dangerous result of the fossil fuel-based power generators that come online during power outages. And in the winter months, Kathmandu is prone to up to 14 to 18 hours of daily black-outs. Removing this kind of fossil fuel-based threat is an important step for public health, as well as for our national treasury, domestic environment and energy security agenda. While we wait for the many hydro projects to come online to reduce and do away with our power cuts, we must begin the process of rapidly and systematically building a mixed-source energy portfolio, in which non-fossil fuel based sources phase out the ones based on fossil fuel.
The Government of Nepal has already approved Feed-In-Tariff (FiT), a policy to encourage investment in renewable energy, in the current fiscal year. Now, it is time to actually put that policy to good use. For technical reasons (voltage fluctuation, transmission loss, load-shedding) the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) is generally open to signing any kind of power purchase or to exchanging agreements only with sources that produce at least 100kw. With an Energy Exchange Agreement (EEA)-based FiT in place, electricity would flow both in and out of the buildings with no obligation for NEA to pay cash for what it takes. If a building owner chooses a storage mechanism with batteries, then the building would be largely using its own solar power and charging its backup system with it too, reducing its dependency on both diesel generators and NEA. Every 100kw of solar unit installed and used by a building saves on diesel and NEA fees. During dry months, when the power crisis is at its worst, these consumers will have less demand from NEA, which means more supply for the government body—benefits for both parties. FiT would also set the stage for a broader future policy overview, which would enable some kind of combination of net metering—payment scheme to the solar energy generators—and feed-in-tariff with those who do not need to install a 100kw system for their regular use.
Today, hybrid technologies are also available, in which solar panels and diesel generators operate as a single component, significantly reducing energy generation through diesel.  Eventually, as our entire grid goes online, with no load shedding, even households with much lower energy needs, such as two kw, would be able to benefit from FiT. Options such as micro-grids can be explored too. But for now, we must begin to set in place mechanisms in which FiT-based solar power systems enable the important task of displacing diesel. Kathmandu, and other urban centres, must start the process of transitioning from net energy consumers to net energy producers.
The state and the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority must survey all of its open spaces in government complexes which can be developed as solar power generation sites. While there has been a symbolic exercise at the President’s residence, and talks of powering Singha Durbar with solar energy, what needs to be done is real work on converting the huge expanses of unused land and rooftops of government office properties into power generation sites. Our work on hydro sector is no reason to ignore renewable energy-mixed solutions, which should be implemented eventually, and, in fact, can be done immediately. And urban centres can no longer be treated as energy consumers when they can be net energy producers.

Leadership on clean mobility
Private vehicle ownership is on the rise in Nepal. And Kathmandu is at the pinnacle of this trend, and is its victim—a 2013 Government study found that 60 percent of Kathmandu’s air pollution is caused by traffic emissions. Even newer diesel-powered vehicles, once considered a solution, has turned out not to be the case. Which is why, for example, Paris wants no diesel cars on its streets by 2020. Many European cities share similar concerns and views. In Kathmandu, diesel powered engines are the norm.
The only real solution to mitigating this is naturally a strengthened mass transit system. And while the government is already making some efforts to this end, it needs to figure out how hybrid and electric mass transit options can become the norm (soft loans, tax incentives) while fossil fuelled ones become secondary options that are taxed higher. At the same time, many cities around the world also show that private vehicle ownership is not always reduced by the availability of mass transit, especially when the city has a rising middle class. Which is why, it is our position that if someone is to try and buy a private vehicle, the most sustainable option should be the most practical and feasible too. For this reason, we believe that removing taxes on Electric Vehicles –both four wheelers and two—is the most natural step for our country to take. Indeed, we should take this a step further by developing a Solar Powered Electrical Vehicles package.
We believe that the Finance Ministry must begin work on developing a cash-voucher system for all citizens who plan to buy an electric vehicle powered by solar energy. These solar power systems come with a 10 to 15 year guarantee. Considering that the solar power system would offset at least 10 years of petrol or diesel needs for the vehicle owner, the government should subsidise in cash at least five-years worth of fossil fuel costs, which would otherwise be incurred by the government for that vehicle. Considering the fluctuating prices of fossil fuel, the subsidy could easily be based on real-time price of fuel at the time of purchasing the package, and open to adjustment at the start of ever fiscal year. Exact mechanisms and options can be explored, so long as we are committed to enabling Nepalis to power their homes and cars with the sun. This would help Nepal not just deal with urban motor vehicle pollution, but also set us up as a regional leader in clean urban mobility.
Most major automakers, with distributors in Nepal, manufacture electric vehicles and hybrids too. So auto dealers would get to sell not just fossil fuelled models but also start a new electric vehicles market for the company they represent.
At the same time, pollution check of vehicles is important. There is already a well-established system, which simply needs renewed support and reinforcement. Vehicles that fail the ‘Green Sticker’ test must be taken off-road, fixed, and pass the test. And this must begin with the government’s own fleet of vehicles ¬– which should transition to electric or hybrid vehicles sooner rather than later. The government should also set a policy, in which all vehicles publicly funded, as well as those allowed to operate under special coloured number plates (Green, Blue, White, Yellow plates) must pass emissions tests. The new budget should also allocate funds for Portable Emission Analysers. With these, our traffic officers would be able to conduct spot checks on emission levels of vehicles on the streets, which should be done on a day-to-day basis.

Watershed for air and water
Recent reports, like so many in the past, continue to reiterate the unprecedented role trees have in cleaning up air. There is a reason forests are referred to as the lungs of the earth. But for a country like Nepal, and a city like Kathmandu, forested hills and plains can also mean key contributors to groundwater stability.
About 70 percent of water used for consumption and irrigation in Nepal is groundwater. In Kathmandu, about 800 million litres of groundwater is extracted every day, of which 700 million litres are extracted illegally. This supplies about two-thirds of the Valley’s needs. The Shivpuri Watershed project alone helps ensure 25 percent of that supply. Kathmandu’s geology dictates that the only way to recharge its groundwater system is from within the Valley itself.
Experts agree that once groundwater runs out, it is almost impossible to replace it. Meaning, we have to ensure its sustainability before it runs out. Currently, not only are we taking out water faster than the aquifers can be recharged, our rapid and haphazard construction boom is also blocking or disturbing natural refilling methods. Some experts have argued that if Kathmandu’s groundwater depletes drastically, the Valley will face the risk of subsidence, meaning the surface land with buildings and roads will break apart and fall inwardly into the earth. Despite the huge amount of water extracted daily and the danger it poses, we have no fresh data on the state of Kathmandu’s groundwater. Neither have we taken policy initiatives to ensure our groundwater’s sustainability.
At this point, we believe there is no excuse to delaying the development of new watersheds for the Valley and replicating the significant ecological services which have been provided by Shivapuri for the last 25 years. Nagarkot, Chadragiri and Phulchowki hills have been long identified as best suited for this purpose. Developing three new watersheds in 2015 will go a long way in ensuring sustainable groundwater management in the valley, as well as in helping clear the Valley’s air.
The Ministries of Finance, Urban Development, and Forest, should also consult with relevant agencies to ensure that the country’s municipalities develop groundwater recharge mechanisms to sustainably manage the groundwater extraction. Further, the ministries should find ways to provide incentives to private homeowners who want to install rainwater-harvesting systems in their homes under the condition that the rainwater harvesting system also includes a component to recharge the municipality’s groundwater levels.
There will be other benefits that come along with additional watersheds. They will help reduce rainwater run-offs in the Valley which flood streets and the sewage system, as we have seen in the last two monsoons.

Air traffic
While the suggestions we have made above are the ones on which immediate domestic actions can and must be taken, there are also larger regional issues to start laying the groundwork for. Scientific data clearly show that regional pollution affects us directly at a local and national level. Or rather, that one country’s pollution will affect another country, even if thousands of miles away. The risk to a city like Kathmandu and a country like Nepal is higher from pollution in both India and China. Meaning, air quality and its associated issues of public health should start to shape our regional and global positions in climate negotiations and diplomatic engagements. In order to demand global actions and commitments, we must first stand on a foundation of domestic commitment and actions towards sustainable development, in which an urban future is not of brown air and brownouts, but rather, simply, a sustainable liveable one, in which the simple act of breathing is not an established risk.

For a liveable Kathmandu
The year 2015 needs to be a watershed year for Nepal’s political and bureaucratic class to show, with examples, its commitment to Nepalis that they can make this country a liveable one, not just one in which they happen to live in. That air and water quality is no less important than federal boundaries; in fact, it is those who are already marginalised in our communities who will suffer the most from inaction on these issues. There is no water crisis for those who can buy it. There is no load-shedding for those who have generators and inverters.
The economically empowered are at a natural advantage of procuring stopgap measures to deal with the crisis. While the policy suggestions we have made are centred on reducing Kathmandu’s air pollution, they will also help address another kind of pollution that the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers a growing crisis: noise pollution. Like air pollution levels, noise from power generators and vehicles in Kathmandu has been documented to be well above the levels WHO consider safe, and a general nuisance, something that anyone who has spent time in Kathmandu will testify to.
We must keep in mind that there has been no shortage of good ideas in the past. Which is why 2015 cannot only be about policy directives; this year must be about policy implementations. We also believe that what we have proposed above should not be limited to suggestions, but rather lead to collaborative actions, much like the policy that phased out three-stroke engines from Kathmandu. New buildings must be energy producers and groundwater rechargers.
The mobility of new vehicle owners must not contribute to deteriorating public health and our fossil fuel-induced trade deficit. And during power-cuts, energy production should not be defined by fossil fuel-powered generators. Making Kathmandu cycle and pedestrian friendly should not be hinged to bike lanes and footpaths, but rather the air cyclists and pedestrians are exposed to. In 2015, we need to start a cohesive effort to clear Kathmandu’s air, with defined timelines and benchmarks.
As demonstrated above, air quality is one of the most important crosscutting issues amongst the six identified by the Liveable Kathmandu campaign for now. Improved air quality is, simply, the first step towards making Kathmandu liveable.
Gagan Thapa is the elected representative of Kathmandu-4. He actively leads the Liveable Kathmandu campaign. Kashish Das Shrestha is the Director of the City Museum Kathmandu, which hosts the Liveable Kathmandu campaign. He is an independent sustainable development policy analyst and has worked with Thapa for many years.


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