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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Smog in the Himalayas

Air Date: Week of

In the last ten years Nepal has taken dramatic steps toward modernization. But at a price: heavy pollution hangs over the capital city of Kathmandu (cat-man-DOO) high in the Himalayas. Now, as Alexa Dvorson reports, rays of hope are beginning to make it through the smog at the top of the world.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In barely 10 years Nepal has sprinted into the modern world, with the kind of dramatic changes that took other countries decades. Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal has embraced democracy after centuries of near-feudalism. Once isolated by the towering Himalayan mountains, it's now wired into the global village by the Internet. And from the shrouds of its Buddhist and Hindu religions, it's emerged as a major destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. But Nepal is arriving in the modern world gasping for breath. In the capitol, Kathmandu, what was clear mountain air has become almost unbreathable. In a city once imagined as the mythical paradise Shangri-La, pedestrians now cover their faces and motorcycle drivers wear gas masks. But as Alexa Dvorson reports, a few rays of hope are making it through the smog at the top of the world.

(Many voices shouting)

DVORSON: In a posh Nepali restaurant catering to foreigners, a musician entertains a tour group by calling out to the deities to drive away evil spirits.

MAN: He's a witch doctor! (Chants)

DVORSON: In a playful moment, a tourist from Ireland is offered up as a sick patient to be magically cured.

(Rattles and singing, music)

DVORSON: The healing powers worked. There's not an evil spirit in the house. But it will take more than drums, flutes, and bells to drive away the effects of this:

(Traffic, horns, ambient voices)

DIXIT: I remember coming back and falling sick immediately. Cough, sore throat. And I used to think something was wrong with me. But then I saw everyone around me was coughing as well.

DVORSON: Kunda Dixit returned to Nepal a few years ago after a 15-year absence. The change was dramatic. In the past, cows and buffalo ambling through the narrow, medieval streets caused the biggest traffic headaches. Now these streets are choked with vehicles and their unfiltered exhaust.

DIXIT: People in Nepal always coughed and spat in the streets. But then it was when, what you spitted out looked black because all the soot in your lungs, that's why it started. But you get used to it.

(More traffic, horns)

DVORSON: Nowadays in Kathmandu, people are all too used to it. But it's still a shock to the system when traffic slows to a noisy crawl. The smoke and dust choke the senses like a toxic blanket. As Kunda Dixit's sister, Rupa Joshi, explains, the air pollution is taking an emotional toll as well.

JOSHI: One day I came back home from office and our youngest daughter Pria was crying. She's 15. Her main complaint was: Why? Why did you give birth to me right now, in this age? Because according to her, every time she goes to school and every time she comes back and breathes in all this diesel air, she's aware of all the damage that it is doing. These are things that really prick your conscience, and you just wish that there was more that you could do.

DVORSON: Rupa Joshi has a fantasy of her daughter and all the schoolchildren of Kathmandu taking to the streets to block traffic for a day and protest the city's foul air. The lead content in gasoline here is reported to be among the highest in the world. And as if that weren't enough, the fuel is often adulterated with even dirtier, cheap kerosene. But even if the streets were quiet, emissions from brick and cement factories would still pour into the stinging sky.


DVORSON: Dr. Prativa Pandey, a general practitioner, treats asthma cases like this 6 days a week.

PUNDI: We certainly feel that there have been much more asthma cases. There have been chronic lung diseases of all sorts due to the increase in pollution. We have certainly seen more respiratory illnesses at our clinic here. Bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis. The pollution problem has gotten worse.

(Bells and voices)

DVORSON: Part of Kathmandu's charm for a visitor is the inescapable feeling of strolling through several centuries at once. Timeless rituals at finely-carved temples give way to the snow-packed facades of the world's highest shrines, the summits of the Himalaya. But nowadays, when the smog is thick, the peaks are invisible. The World Health Organization claims Kathmandu's air is 6 times more polluted than the accepted standards. And here in one of the poorest countries of the world, the people of Kathmandu now spend an estimated half million dollars a year on medication for respiratory ailments.

(Flute playing, voices, traffic)

DVORSON: In the maze of buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, and pedestrians, a smelly 3-wheeled diesel minibus is considered the worst polluter. The so-called Vikram Tempo is a tinny blue wagon with sardine passenger space.

(Voices, motor running, bells)

WOMAN: They're pretty small and they're fitting in -- how many people? Their knees are almost touching. Ten people, huh?

(A sputtering motor)

WOMAN: There it goes.

(Sputtering motor continues)

DVORSON: Vikram Tempos are cheap to ride. But they belch so much black smoke that one frequent passenger has renamed his city The Valley of Hell. No wonder they've been banned in India, where they're made. Officially they're banned here, too, but they're still ubiquitous. It's alleged many of them are owned by the police, so they have a vested interest in keeping them on the streets. And the drivers make a decent living.

MAN: [Speaks in Nepali]

DVORSON: Vikram Tempos aren't causing all the pollution, this driver says. All the other cars are causing it, too. He's partly right. It's against the law to import any vehicle more than 5 years old, but most of them are at least 15. And because the roads are so poorly maintained, dust contributes substantially to the nasty air as well.


DVORSON: Some people blame the problem on a general lack of environmental awareness in Nepal. But at the Pano South Asia Institute, director Kunda Dixit points to a political haze at the center of Kathmandu's pollution problems. Democracy, which made its first sputtering start here in 1990, is still inching up to speed.

DIXIT: You really have to go to the root of it. We have great policies, we just need to implement them. And to implement them, you need political will. You have frequent elections, frequent changes of government. Which in itself is not bad, it's part of democracy to have frequent changes of government. But when that affects continuity is when you see things getting worse. And the root cause is that lack of political will. But there's also a lack of alternatives. So the person who's breathing in this black smoke with a handkerchief in her nose knows exactly what's wrong. But given an alternative, she'll use it.

(Voices and motors)

DVORSON: One alternative is gaining ground: a battery-operated electric minibus called a Safa Tempo. Safa means "safe" in Nepali. In contrast to the noisy, smelly Vikrams, Safas are quiet and clean. They got their start here with the help of an international development group and the Danish government. Now, about 200 Saphas ply the streets, a far cry from the thousands of Vikram Tempos. But they're winning loyal passengers willing to pay slightly more to ride them.

(A door opens, traffic in the background)

DVORSON: This battery charging station is run by one of the Safa companies, Nepal Electric Vehicle Industry, or NEVI, whose ultimate vision is to help all of Kathmandu convert to electric vehicles based on renewable hydro-electric energy, which is plentiful here. It's hard not to get charged up by the prospect, except for a few drawbacks. Safa Tempos have encountered resistance by both police and Vikram drivers. Electric vehicles are also expensive by local standards. Ashok Raj Pandey, NEVI's managing director, admits change comes slowly to Nepal. But he's optimistic.

PANDEY: More and more banks are now coming in. Finance companies are coming in to provide loans to people to buy Safa Tempos. So I think now it's going to grow. I am told that Vikram Tempos are contributing about 25% of the pollution of Kathmandu. Now, if we can get rid of something that provides 25% of the pollution, I think that's a very good start.

(More voices, motors)

DVORSON: At the metropolitan city offices, urban organization is getting off to a good start, too. For the first time in its almost 1300-year history, Kathmandu has a city planning commission. Its grand plan is to develop a mass transit system and ban cars completely from the core of the city. Nepal's central government, widely accused of incompetence and inaction, is transferring is authority over city functions to the municipal level. City planning Anil Chitrakar and his staff are working long hours to organize some of the chaos of Kathmandu.

CHITRAKAR: For many years, people like myself, you know, we were outside the system. Like musket was outside the musket tent. And so, you could make as much noise as you wanted, but you could not be very effective. Now we are like musket, inside the musketry tents. [phrase?] So, either you deliver, or you get killed. So, being an insider, you know, we can make a lot of differences that we were not able to do from the outside.

DVORSON: I must borrow your metaphor and ask whose blood are you intending to suck first?

CHITRAKAR: Well, you know, in Nepali society, there's 2 things that really hamper change. One is a mindset described as fatalism. The second, of course, is in a developing country context, you know, we don't have economic space. So, you know, economic space and the mindset: these are the 2 challenges we face.

DVORSON: Pollution-reducing measures include a crackdown on the distribution of dirty fuel, tight restrictions on vehicle emissions, and widening roads to reduce congestion, but not at the expense of the city's ancient architecture. The mindset of fatalism is tougher to tackle, but city planner Anil Chitrakar is convinced that if the city can show it's serious about fighting pollution, people's resignation will change to action. The deeper question is how this spiritually-rooted city will deal with the pace of change and growth, and whether it can avoid becoming just another sprawling Asian metropolis. Anil Chitrakar grew up in a rigid, traditional society, with no television and hardly any electricity. That's all changed.

CHITRAKAR: Now, you know, I have my own computer. My children access the Internet. They learn even their mathematics through interactive CD. So, I've had the best of both worlds. If you look at the Buddhist teachings, it is the middle path. Now the middle path for Kathmandu would be that, without compromising our identity, we can achieve the same quality of life that the world sort of, you know, propagates. Change is inevitable but, you know, it should be change that we control, you know? That we direct.

DVORSON: So that's fantastic. I mean, a medieval city, your kids can have Internet. But people can't breathe on the streets at 5 o'clock.

CHITRAKAR: So, that's what we're committing our life to here, is basically, you know, very, very difficult decisions. The solution is the people, and the people will respond only to the political system, where they have a direct say.

(Music and ambient voices)

DVORSON: Nepalis have long been known for their patience and creative endurance, but they shouldn't have to endure a kingdom of smog. If they can learn from the urban mistakes of neighboring capitols, they might reclaim the clean air they deserve. But first they need to rout out the pollution and the political system, and make good on their experiment with democracy. Or, as one young student put it, when there is real understanding, the air will be clean by itself.

(Music and singing)

DVORSON: For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Kathmandu, Nepal.



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