Kathmandu can manage its urban transportation and become pollution-free if it builds on its strengths - its emission-free non-motorised transport: says CSE

 Kathmandu, July 27, 2012

  • Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) organises media briefing in Kathmandu on 'Challenge of air quality and mobility management in South Asian cities

  •  The valley's air pollution results in approximately 1,600 premature deaths per year

  • Kathmandu must not repeat the same mistake that Delhi and many other cities have made – of focusing on road widening, building flyovers and facilitating personal mobility through cars

  • CSE suggests priority measures to control pollution and congestion

Kathmandu, July 27, 2012: For South Asian cities like Kathmandu and Delhi, maintaining urban air quality and protecting their sustainable urban commuting practices are some of the toughest challenges. Delhi, while having made some significant strides in meeting air quality challenges, has slipped and made terrible mistakes as well.

Kathmandu still has a chance to plan differently. Its strength remains in its huge base of zero-emission non-motorised and sustainable public transport. All it has to do is to recognise and act upon this immense advantage and strength.

This was the message that came from some top urban mobility and air pollution experts from Nepal and India, who were meeting here today to brief the Nepalese media about the ‘Challenge of air quality and mobility management in South Asian cities’. The briefing was organised by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading research and advocacy body based in New Delhi, in association with the Nepal Forum for Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ).

According to Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE's executive director and head of its air pollution control unit, "The profile of air pollution is changing rapidly in South Asian cities, with serious public health implications. Particulate matter (PM) concentrations are alarmingly high in Kathmandu, Delhi and many other South Asian cities."

She adds: "A recent Environmental Performance Index (EPI) study of the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy has ranked both Nepal and India's performance in this area as very poor. A 2006 CAI-Asia report put both Delhi and Kathmandu amongst the most polluted of 22 Asian cities it surveyed. This pollution comes from motor vehicles, brick kilns and road dust. The high concentrations of particulate matters -- PM10 and PM2.5 -- in particular are known to cause serious health problems and excess mortality."

Some gains, but a lot more needs to be done
The first generation action has reduced the overall PM10 average concentration in Kathmandu by 12 per cent from 2003 to 2007. The reduction is observed in spite of an increasing number of vehicles registered in the valley, and is attributed to the actions taken by the government during 2000-07, especially the implementation of the Euro I standard in 2003 and the ban on moving chimney bull’s trench kiln.

But Kathmandu needs to do more: available evidence shows that the health cost saving of the city's air pollution control measures is close to 1 per cent of Nepal’s GDP. Air pollution in the valley has been taking a toll on the public health. A study conducted during February 2008 to January 2009 in Kathmandu and published recently in Atmospheric Pollution Research found high density traffic areas and road intersections of the valley severely polluted by PM10.

The Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology (MoEST) estimated in 2005 that the valley’s air pollution results in approximately 1,600 premature deaths per year. According to an estimate by the Clean Energy Nepal/Environment and Public Health Organization (CEN/ENPHO), the total benefit of reducing the valley’s PM10 levels to 50 μg/m3 would amount to US $1.86 billion per year.

Using the WHO unit risks for benzene and PAH, the number of people expected to suffer from leukaemia due to benzene exposure amounts to 1-8 persons per 100,000; for PAH, the number is 16-32 persons per 100,000. Benefits of reducing benzene and PAH concentrations to half their current values would amount to US $30-70 million per year.

In Kathmandu, vehicle emissions contribute 38 per cent of the PM10 levels. Vehicular emissions and emissions of re-suspended dust from poorly maintained and uncleaned roads together are responsible for 63 per cent of the PM10 emissions in the valley. Agriculture and brick kilns are the third and fourth-highest contributors of PM10.

The Bagmati zone had 0.19 million registered vehicles in 2001-02. This number is increasing at 16 per cent per year. Nearly 59 per cent of the total registered vehicles in Kathmandu comprise of two-wheelers and cars and taxis. The public transport and bicycle share is 19 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

The increase in vehicle numbers is leading to traffic congestion and choked roads in the city. According to a study by Department of Transport Management (DoTM), the number of vehicles in Kathmandu had already exceeded the valley’s carrying capacity by about 30,000 in 1999/2000 fiscal year. More than 50,000 vehicles have been added since then, while the road infrastructure has remained more or less the same.

Kathmandu’s strengths
CSE’s review of available information brings out the strength of Kathmandu. Says Roychowdhury: “More than 63 per cent of the daily travel trips in Kathmandu are still carried by buses. Cars and two-wheelers are as much 42 per cent of the vehicle fleet but they carry a miniscule 10 and 5 per cent of the daily trips, respectively. Thus, cars occupy more road space, carry less number of people but use more fuel, and pollute more per person. It is also very significant that walkers and cyclists together meet close to a quarter of the daily travel demand in Kathmandu. This is the low polluting and low carbon mobility paradigm that the world is trying to achieve today to be more sustainable. Kathmandu must sustain this strength.”

Kathmandu must not repeat the same mistake that Delhi and many other cities have made – of focusing on road widening, building flyovers and facilitating personal mobility through cars. Both Kathmandu and Delhi need urgent policies to protect and build their strength. The second generation reforms will need tough action.

The way ahead
If South Asian cities do not want to wheeze, choke and sneeze then they have to act now. Kathmandu’s and Delhi’s work with CNG shows that they can make a difference. It is time to set new terms of action.

Soft options have all been exhausted. Reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, and leapfrogging vehicle technology are the key options left for us. Plan your cities for people, not vehicles. Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking, not cars. This is the option for the city to cut killer pollution, crippling congestion, expensive oil guzzling and global warming impacts of vehicles.

Some of the priority measures to combat pollution, congestion and energy guzzling include:

  • Set a timeline to meet ambient air quality standards.

  • Link import policy with the technology and fuel quality leapfrog to cleaner fuel and vehicle technology: Introduce Euro IV fuels nation-wide. Prevent fuel adulteration as one survey has shown that adulteration in petrol is about 35 per cent and in diesel as much as 75 per cent.

  • Scale up and accelerate bus transport reforms.

  • Integrate public transport, and non-motorised transport. Cities need to integrate bus, cycling, walking and para-transit systems.

  • Build pedestrian infrastructure: Design pedestrian guidelines for approval of road projects and enhancement of the existing ones. Without proper walking facilities public transport usage cannot increase.

  • Introduce a parking policy as a car restraint measures and to reduce congestion.

  • Strengthen emissions checks on in-use vehicles.

  • Use tax measures to discourage personal vehicle usage and inefficient use of fuels

CSE, one of India's leading environmental think-tanks, has been in the forefront in combating air pollution and mobility crisis in Delhi. In the mid 1990s, its 'Right to Clean Air' campaign had kicked off a sequence of events which resulted in India’s capital getting one of the largest CNG-run public transport service and other important measures. Air quality registered a visible improvement following this.

For more information on this and other related issues, you can get in touch with Souparno Banerjee of CSE’s Media Resource Centre at souparno@cseindia.org or call him on + 977 9803002379.