Cleaner air for better health
Bhushan Tuladhar is the Chief of Party of the USAID Kathmandu Valley Clean Air program (Swachchha Hawa, or “clean air” in Nepali), led by FHI 360. Tuladhar is a longtime environmental activist.
Why is air pollution a public health issue?
The respiratory system is merely the body’s entry point for air pollutants. Once air pollutants get into the lungs, they enter the circulatory system, and from there they reach all organs and systems within the human body. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled air pollution as the number one environmental health risk in the world, resulting in 7 million deaths annually — that is 13 deaths per minute. In Nepal alone, air pollution causes over 42,000 deaths per year. And research shows that an average Nepali’s life expectancy is reduced by five years due to air pollution.
In September 2021, the WHO updated its Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) for the first time in 16 years. The result was that almost all AQG levels were adjusted downward. How does this adjustment show the urgency around finding solutions for Kathmandu’s air pollution problem?
The WHO did not just tighten their guidelines — they squeezed them, to protect public health. For example, the guideline value for annual average concentration of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) went from 10 micrograms per cubic meter down to only 5 micrograms per cubic meter. This adjustment means that Kathmandu’s average annual air pollution level, which used to be about 5 times higher than WHO guidelines, is now about 10 times higher. A 2021 review puts Kathmandu as the sixth most polluted capital city in the world. There is a tremendous amount of urgency to the problem.
How is this work addressing air pollution in Kathmandu?
Air pollution is something that all residents feel every time they breathe. So, the solutions need to be local. When you talk about improving transportation systems by promoting walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicles, these are all local solutions. The solutions are often right in front of us, just like the pollution is. It is a matter of choosing the solution over the pollution. You need local leadership that encourages people to do that.
With this project, we are assisting the government of Nepal with implementing the Kathmandu Valley Air Quality Management Plan, 2020. To do that, we are working with the 18 municipalities in Kathmandu Valley; individuals or civil society groups; and the private sector, empowering and encouraging all three groups to act.
Can you provide examples of the type of local approach you are taking?
We are working with researchers at Duke University and Nepal’s Tribhuvan University to set up a network of air quality sensors in all 18 municipalities within the valley. This will provide policymakers and practitioners, as well as citizens, with local air quality data that they can monitor and act upon.
While interacting with women drivers of electric-powered, three-wheel public transportation vehicles called Safa Tempos, we found that about 200 of the 700 Safa Tempos in Kathmandu were grounded because the owners were unable to finance new batteries, and many of the drivers had left the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked to Safa Tempo entrepreneurs and designed a training program for new drivers, at least half of whom will be women, and we are setting up a revolving fund to provide financing support for future maintenance. This will help create new green jobs and get many of the grounded electric three-wheelers back on Kathmandu’s streets.
What can people do to help alleviate air pollution?
People everywhere must understand how their actions contribute to air pollution and then try to reduce the pollution they are causing. For example, they may be burning waste, which could be better managed through recycling. They may have a car that needs to be maintained regularly. They could even leave their car behind and try walking, cycling or public transport.
People living in highly polluted areas like Kathmandu must try to protect themselves from air pollution. This means avoiding highly polluted places as well as knowing the times of day when air pollution is worst. They can also wear a mask. Although it is best to wear an N95 or surgical mask, any mask makes a difference in lowering exposure to air pollution.
And finally, people can raise their voices. Many times, it is only when people raise their voices that governments take action.
FHI 360 is leading the USAID Swachchha Hawa consortium to combat air pollution in Kathmandu, working to engage and empower government, civil society and the private sector to identify, test and scale up local solutions. Consortium partners include the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and One to Watch.