The Kathmandu Valley’s first democratically-elected municipal governments in 15 years met in the capital city to tackle a persistent and common threat: air pollution.
At the Mayors’ Summit on Air Pollution last month, mayors, deputy mayors, and chiefs of the environment departments from the 18 municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley drafted an action-oriented Declaration for Clean Air, which is up for further discussion.
At the event, mayors and their teams discussed the current scientific understanding of air pollution and combed through the main sources of pollution in the Valley, potential municipal-level solutions and regulatory frameworks within which municipalities could work.
The summit led to a follow-up meeting at which the mayors adopted a nine-point commitment to reducing air pollution after the summit.
Among the commitments are maintaining vehicle fuel quality to minimize the impact of the transportation sector on air quality, reforming harmful business and industries, tree planting, retiring old vehicles, promoting environmental cleanliness and justice, and collectively coordinating, investigating and analyzing the harmful impacts of air pollution.
Their commitments resonate with many of those made at the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in early November by national, regional and local governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society, which ranged widely from using cleaner fuels and curbing combustion to better planning decisions, monitoring and changing public perception.
The Mayors are just over a year into their jobs, and are feeling the weight of responsibility for the longstanding problem.
“The environment has been a in bad condition for a long time, but we have become the target of criticism as we are the elected ones. Therefore, remedies should be found at the earliest,” Lalitpur Metropolitan City Mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan said at the event.
His municipality, along with Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the International Centre for the Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and Clean Energy Nepal (CEN) were the organizers of the summit.
“Air pollution is a common problem for all municipalities. A single municipality alone cannot clean the air for valley dwellers. No matter how much good work municipalities do in other sectors, if we fail to improve our environment then everything goes down the drain,” said Maharjan.
“This forum gives us an opportunity for the Valley’s municipalities to work together to address this public health menace collectively,” he said.
The Kathmandu Valley is bowl-shaped and ringed with mountain peaks, a geography that traps air pollutants and is prone to inversions at the change of seasons, which compounds the problem.
“Air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley varies from time to time and during different seasons. The air gets more polluted in the mornings and evenings,” said regional program manager at ICIMOD Dr Arnico Kumar Panday.
The mayors acknowledged the complexity of the issue— and its links to municipal services.
“Improving roads that lead to landfill sites alone can improve the air quality here. Citizens often resort to burning waste during monsoons when civic staff is unable to collect garbage because of the poor condition of roads. This practice is one the major causes of increasing air pollution in Kathmandu,” said Kathmandu Metropolitan City Mayor Bidya Sunder Shakya.
Mayor Shakya’s city ranks 261 among the world’s 3,000 most polluted, suffering the negative fallout of rapid, “haphazard” urbanization and growth. A third of the Valley’s pollution is caused by vehicular emissions, 28 per cent from road dust, 23 per cent from garbage burning and 15 per cent from brick kilns, according to Dr Panday.
Air pollution from neighbouring Indian states, which also struggle with prolonged seasonal spikes in air pollution, adds to the Valley’s woes.
According to the World Health Organization, diseases caused by outdoor air pollution kill 22,000 people in Nepal while indoor air pollution is linked to over 23,000 deaths.
Inspiration, hope and concrete possibilities for the governments at the summit came in the form of an empathetic city almost 15,000 kilometres away: fellow geographically bowl-shaped valley-based Mexico City, whose representative described its 25-year-long journey to cleaning up after being declared the most polluted city in the world in 1992 by the World Health Organization.
“The air quality was so bad that sparrows were falling dead on the ground. It was killing our birds and children,” said Mexican ambassador to India, Melba Pria, who spoke at the summit.
“Our city looked like Kathmandu nearly 30 years ago, but not any longer. It took us more than two decades to reach here. We stopped open burning and improved our lifestyle and transportation sector. We did it with small steps that Kathmandu could also do. But every step should be measurable,” she said, emphasizing that there was “no quick fix” to the problem.
“Don’t wait until birds start falling from the sky,” she added.
Thanks to a series of comprehensive programmes, collectively named ProAire, Mexico City recorded impressive reductions over the last two decades in local air pollution as well as carbon dioxide emissions.
According to Ambassador Pria, between 2008 and 2012, 72 municipalities in Mexico worked closely at local, regional and federal levels to transform industrial processes, transportation, fuel and emissions standards as well as public perception.
Coordination at all levels was very important in the course of developing public policies, and decisions were based on solid scientific data, she said.
But Mexico City is not resting on its laurels, recognizing that there is still much to be done and joining the BreatheLife campaign earlier this year to share and shore up support for its efforts.
Kathmandu was one of the first two cities in which the Urban Health Initiative began its work, developing and providing a model for cities working to improve air quality and supporting governments in their efforts to do so. Under the Initiative, local teams build evidence on the health and economic benefits of policies and measures to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, and develop local BreatheLife communications campaigns to raise awareness among decision makers, the health sector and general public to about measures to achieve larger health and climate benefits.
At the recently-concluded Better Air Quality 2018 conference in Kuching, Malaysia, Kathmandu announced that it was joining the BreatheLife campaign, along with three other cities in Asia.
Banner photo by Katja Donothek/UNV. Used with permission.