Economic Analysis | Sustainable Development | Urbanisation | Pollution | Natural Resource


How Kathmandu’s lethal pollution is its worst economic adversary?

The past lock downs had lowered Kathmandu Valley's pollution level, but it has resurfaced now and even crossed hazardous level. It will return to its full lethality once business as usual resumes. A take on how Kathmandu's pollution has been killing its economic potential?

By Sabin Jung Pande |

Cities on lockdown due to corona pandemic has provided a momentarily respite with improved air quality to many cities across the world including the ailing Kathmandu valley. At the moment, social media is swarmed with images showing a cleaner atmosphere where air seems free from contamination and visuals are clearer. An image with a glimpse of Everest from Kathmandu is also doing rounds capturing the imagination of netizens for a mesmeric Kathmandu.

But two months ago, things were radically different. Based on World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2014 data on urban air quality, Nepal ranked 10th in the list of the world’s most polluted countries. In Yale’s Environmental Performance Index for 2016 and 2017, Kathmandu ranked as the third and fifth most polluted city. It charted new heights when it ranked the worst in 2018.

It is more likely Kathmandu will return to its former normalcy as soon as the hustle-bustle of this big valley resumes – a matter of serious concern for several other reasons. Here is why:

Pollution: Global overview, local reality

In 2017, Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, a study by Global Alliance on Health and Pollution in collaboration with Lancet Commission, detailed some alarming findings about pollution.

The study confirmed that pollution is the largest environmental cause of diseases and premature death in the world today, inflicting an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015 alone.

“Those deaths were 16% of all deaths worldwide — three times more deaths than caused by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.”

The commission also pointed out that “one out of four deaths in the most severely affected countries is caused by pollution-related disease while nearly 92 percent of pollution-related deaths occurred in low-income and middle-income countries.”

The ‘unliveable’ Kathmandu

Among those low-income countries is Nepal where pollution has worsened in last few decades, primarily concentrated in Kathmandu valley.

A near absolute lack of urban planning is one of the broader causes here. Population explosion in contrast to its underdeveloped carrying capacity, haphazard infrastructure development, vehicle congestion and toxic emissions from staggering increase in personal vehicle use have exacerbated the crisis.

A scene from a dreary, congested city, that is, Kathmandu (Chabahil section)

At such rate and style of development, millions of Kathmandu residents are compelled to breathe and ingest insalubrious air that constitutes more than oxygen. Dust and smoke, germs, toxic gases and even traces of lead have been discovered in Kathmandu’s air, exposing its public to severe health hazards.

Respiratory ailments, sore throats and inflamed eyes have become public’s daily struggle. The valley is sometimes dubbed as a ‘gas chamber’ in casual conversations and social media as people suffer harrowing experiences due to the air they breathe.

In the neighbouring Indian capital city Delhi, situation is worse. Few months back, the central government declared health emergency as air toxicity soared. Visuals of a dystopian-reminiscent Delhi where its mask-bound citizens were choking under its smog-clogged atmosphere made headlines around the world.

Troubles for residents, daily commuters and pedestrians around construction sites is worse

Kathmandu may soon complement Delhi if it doesn’t get its act together. Situations can turn ugly for Kathmandu anytime whose pollution is both air and water-borne and disaster coping mechanisms, including governance and infrastructure, are highly undeveloped.

With the extent of pollution, public health is at grave stake, but it isn’t the only distress to worry about. Pollution is a negative economic externality bearing long-term economic costs. These costs may not be perceptible but are far damaging than we can imagine.

Kathmandu’s pollution and discussion on wealth

A study by economist Naveen Adhikari from Tribhuvan University published in 2012 that used projected population data of 2009 estimated that reduction in the extent of air pollution to a safe level would provide an annual monetary benefit of US$ 4.37 million including an annual economic health benefit of US$ 3.56 million to the population of Kathmandu and Lalitpur cities.

Today, the valley’s population, its living costs and the intensity of the pollution have all scaled up. With ongoing construction projects that are executed haphazardly and few more in the pipeline, for instance ring road and underpass road constructions, pollution is here to stay and most likely escalate.

As both blue and white-collar workers are exposed to pollution, there are losses in productivity and income. For a society to grow economically, its workforce is expected to be productive which declines when they or their beloved ones face poor health conditions.

With low-per capita income and weak provision of social safety nets, comprehensive health insurance coverage is limited. Emergency healthcare expenditure, thus, turns out into reduced wellbeing as availing medical services, both private or public, are neither easy nor economical.

Pointing towards such cost, the Lancet Report revealed that the world suffers annual $4.6 trillion in welfare damages due to air pollution, while Nepal suffered a $1.7 billion in welfare damages which is 8.22% of its GNP.  Similarly, there is 0.6% to 0.8% productivity loss as a percentage of its GDP.

Another study by the World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research centre shows that premature deaths caused by air pollution cost the global economy about US$ 225 billion in lost labour income in 2013. In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released country-wise data revealing that 9,943 Nepalis lost their lives to outdoor air pollution, with 36 deaths per 100,000 population.

On top of these clear losses, there is more to this economic phenomenon.

Proliferation of pollutants in Kathmandu’s air and absence of a robust public transport has driven individuals to own personal vehicles at any cost. According to Department of Transport Management, there are 3.1 million motor vehicles registered in Nepal. It is estimated that around 200,000 four-wheelers and 800,000 two-wheelers ply valley roads on a daily basis.

This aggregate consumer behaviour which has resulted into increasing use of personal vehicle equates to burning of more fossil fuel. Every vehicle imports and fuel burnt means more pollution and more damage to the environment and stress on national current account as Nepal has always been a net importer of two and four-wheelers (except for insignificant occasions) and transportation fuels. Import of fuel alone accounts for more than 15% of Nepal’s merchandise import, according to world bank data.

The government role and passivity in this vicious cycle is clear. They make good chunk of revenues from vehicle imports, sale and use. On the other hand, banks act as a catalyst with their simplified vehicle financing.

Ultimately, citizens have to forego savings and the opportunities to leverage their capital through investments.

Besides, millions of lives are intertwined with the valley as it is centre of everything. It has made Kathmandu a young society where its present and future economic drivers – the young population – come and live for several purposes, but are forced to grow up with irreversible health damages. If right interventions aren’t implemented, it will emerge as a tremendous economic burden as different young cohorts of population start ageing.

Are the kids safe? Children journey through the polluted air on a daily basis exposed to irreversible health damages

There is also an increased risk of losing more of educated and skilled workers to overseas cities that provide better quality of life. Experts view that valley’s dismal condition also acts as a critical push factor in Nepal’s brain and muscle drain.

Curse on tourism

Although Kathmandu is admired as one of the top tourism destinations, the Himalayas’ snow-capped facade can’t cover up the valley’s ugliness. The Visit Nepal 2020 campaign has ended untimely due to Corona pandemic, but Kathmandu will still be its poster city as well as its sole aerial gateway for a foreseeable future.  

It isn’t hard to imagine what impression Kathmandu valley will leave if the present pollution crisis persists. The big question is how can businesses thrive when aesthetics are ruined and sightseeing may leave you sick instead?

How will businesses thrive?

In the past too, growth in tourism and its benefits may have been greater were it not for pollution problems. For instance, data shows that the arrival of Japanese tourists, who are considered high spending tourists and are known for their admiration for heritage sites and penchant for cleanliness, has stagnated in the last 15 years. The Japanese arrivals which were 27,412 in 2003 shows a flat curve till 2017.

Their flat arrival curve over the same time period pollution started peaking in Kathmandu Valley can’t be a mere coincidence – an observation that holds plausibility.

It is equally likely that post-Corona period, tourism will be marked by heightened concerns and sensitivity about hygiene and pollution level of the destination cities.

Bagmati: A symbol of Kathmandu’s depravity

If there’s anything that must trip Kathmandu citizens’ conscience with shame and guilt, it has to be the present state of Bagmati River. The once enthralling Bagmati has today become a symbol of human folly and lust for wealth at the expense of environmental wellbeing.  

Bagmati, a river system with tributaries and sub-tributaries streaming across the valley, is still a sparkling stream at its source at Shivapuri hill. But at the base where humans are densely populated, the river is diluted with sewage and solid wastes and smells utterly foul. It is suitable neither for drinking nor irrigation or recreational purposes while any form of aquatic life has become impossible.

The river has greatly shrunk in size due to encroachment by road and settlement, while its underground recharge areas are cemented with urban sprawl. At the moment, only high discharge during monsoon seems to instil some life in this dead river.

Encroached in every way

These ruins of Bagmati river, its pollution and depletion can give a fair sense of the resultant economic losses at one glance.

Firstly, valley residents started facing a chronic water crisis that necessitated a costly solution in the form of Melamchi Water Supply Project back. The 464-million-dollar project (the costs was later revised to US$ 317.3 million with a due date of 2013) was announced some two decades back with a vision to supply drinking water to the city residents of Kathmandu. Shocking as it may sound, after two decades of project initiation, it is yet to complete and has rather turned into a financial liability with frequent cost overrun and numerous scandals to its credit.

Secondly, once any resource depletes, restoring them becomes a gargantuan task. Some resources may take forever to replenish while some restoration comes at huge costs and efforts. Bagmati falls in both categories.   

At present, the High-Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation is responsible for Bagmati’s cleanliness and restoration. The committee came up with the Bagmati Action Plan in 2009 while the degree of its success is quite evident.  

There are several NGOs working with similar goals. A mega-cleaning campaign, which started in 2013, is also in effect. According to media reports, volunteers have contributed relentless days of work and extracted around 20,000 metric tons of waste from the rivers by May 2018 which continues till date.

Unless tangible measures, such as complete overhaul of sewage system, high penalties on polluters, erection of wastewater treatment plants and policies that overturn industrial and household waste management are fully put in place, any noble effort will only prove to be a waste of opportunity cost. The high-powered-committee is working on many of these areas, but timely project implementation is like an impossible task in Nepal.

In contrast, cleanliness alone won’t assure Bagmati’s restoration. Bagmati represents many other elements of civilisation which are irreparably damaged by the pollution.

Cultural assets and distinction have deteriorated to the point of huge cultural loss. Religious, cultural and heritage sites, located at the riverbank, such as Pashupatinath temple, Shobha Bhagwati temple, Indrayani temple, Kankeshwori, Ram Mandir, Tankeshwori and other important shrines and cremation sites are losing their intrinsic value due to unchecked river pollution. Earlier, these riverbank sites were stopovers for annual Bagmati pilgrimage which no longer happens now.

Different era of Kathmandu’s civilisation like the Lichchhavi and Malla thrived around the river system that gave them the means of existence and an identity of Bagmati Civilisation. Agriculture, irrigation, drinking water and cultural practices like cremation, homage for the dead ones (Sraddha) and salvation were all linked with the Bagmati river system. Rivers were revered back then, but that civilisation, which continued for a long period until the current urban sprawl started, has disappeared now.

Finding ‘treasures’ in the dead Bagmati river (along the Teku stretch)

Along with re-establishing cultural values, recovering encroached river land and riverbanks and replenishing watersheds that Bagmati depends on but are sealed by urban concretes – are almost impossible tasks now.

What can still be achieved is full cleanliness of the existing river, building of towpaths and green spaces along the riversides, relinking of cultural sites and many other regenerative initiatives.

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Even such limited resurrection of Bagmati’s past glory can generate substantial cultural, health, tourism and overall economic benefits. According to a 2015 study on River Thames in London by Oxford Economics, an economic research and consulting firm, “People walk or cycle on the Thames towpath almost a million times a year and participate in the river sport which has resulted into economic benefits in form of foregone treatment costs, reduced absenteeism and greater productivity at work”.

Thirdly, Bagmati’s mistreatment has led to waste of many opportunities of economic gains. The River Thames, the longest river in the England, is a personification of how a river should be treated and managed and how an ingenious engineering of a river system could change the face of areas that it flows through.

The whole of London draws great economic benefits from Thames. It is a drinking water-source for Londoners and provides platform for water transportation services and several recreational water activities like boating, rowing, swimming, kayaking and canoeing. Properties alongside the river sell at premium rates generating additional revenues for its national coffer.

According to the Oxford Economics study, some 4.7 million people visit Thames or maritime-related attractions. The tourism industry in wards adjacent to the River Thames employs around 99,000 people, producing an estimated gross value addition of £2.4 billion to the GDP.

One doesn’t have to go that far to realise how water bodies help generate economic benefits. The Phewa Lake in Pokhara is a prime example. Despite facing encroachment risks, it is managed and preserved relatively better and one of the preferred locations for businesses and investments.

Summing up

What Kathmandu valley requires is a concerted approach with a clear plan and strong execution commitments from its municipal, metropolitan and authorised executives.

But protracted delays in completion of any project or activity like expanding bus network and remodeling it into electric network or procuring few sets of street cleaning equipment are clear evidences that authorities are ignorant, out of touch with what is needed and incompetent to provide any form of respite from the lethal blight of pollution.

The level of inaction also contradicts the spirit of prosperity that the current government has been spewing ever since its arrival into power and an indication how prosperity is (mis)understood by those at the top.

Quite a reverse, extractive policies such as pollution tax is rather considered as the appropriate policy response while local government are hiking taxes to afford its new administrative structure.

Taxes for what? Waste Management is a recurring problem in Kathmandu, as a result, roads regularly turn into dumping sites

Despite the growing discontent about how citizens are taxed left, right and centre, how it is misutilised and how public wellbeing is blatantly ignored, people are still showing resilience. It will be wrong to assume that it won’t explode any sooner.

It is time the governments change the way their cities are run, at least for their own sake.

(All the photos in this story are captured by Sabin Jung Pande)

Sabin Jung Pande is the editor at the_farsight.

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