The alarming level of environmental pollution in Nepal is there for everyone to see and feel. The country ranks dismally in virtually all global indices of pollution—in terms of water resources, sanitation, or biodiversity and habitat conservation. But the most worrying is undoubtedly the dangerous air pollution levels that Nepal is now witnessing. According to Yale University’s Environment Performance Index 2014, Nepal ranks 177th among the 178 countries rated for air quality. Only Bangladesh fares worse. Over the years, Nepal’s ranking—among other countries at a similar stage of socio-economic development— has steadily worsened. The urbanizing society is ill-equipped to deal with the growing press of people and all the concomitant problems like air pollution. Particulate matter and indoor air pollution level are considered air pollution indicators for human health. Nepal fares particularly poorly on the first, although the exclusive reliance of up to 60 percent of rural household on wood for fuel is also a cause for serious concern. But Kathmandu faces the worst sort of air pollution.
The road-widening campaign that started more than two years ago has reached absolutely nowhere. Kathmandu today is a cauldron of dust particulates which are responsible for all kinds of respiratory diseases. Pedestrians cannot go anywhere without being covered in dust. Yet it is not just dust particulates they have to contend with. With the steady increase in the number of vehicles plying the roads, levels of dangerous gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere are rising to dangerous levels. But there is virtually no monitoring of vehicles for their polluting capacity. The noxious gases these vehicles belch out are responsible for everything from eye infections to serious forms of cancer. WHO expects worldwide cancer deaths to rise to 9 million by 2015, and 11.4 million by 2030, with most new deaths taking place in developing countries like Nepal. Yet little is being done to improve things. Most vehicles plying Kathmandu’s dusty roads with ‘pollution free’ stickers will never have been tested. The stickers can be purchased at a fraction of the cost it would cost the owner of the polluting vehicles in fines. The decision to phase out old vehicles has had limited impact as well since implementation is weak.
Make no mistake. Air pollution is a very serious issue, with the health of millions of Nepalis on the line. At this stage of protracted transition, we have a myriad political problems no doubt. But they are not our only problems, as our politicians and policymakers would have us believe. It would be dangerous to think so. The deteriorating quality of air, now just about the worst in the world, should be as big a concern as anything else they are thinking of putting in the new constitution. It literally is a matter of life and death. Why isn’t there uproar in the parliament about this willful neglect of people’s health? Probably because there is little political capital to be made by raising ‘non issues’ like pollution when (in the reckoning of some) the very existence of the country is on the line. If urgent steps are not taken, the place we now call Nepal is in for a health catastrophe, never mind how many federal states we have.