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On a clear day you can see nowhere

Nepal tries to scale back smog that blankets the roof of the world in

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1999


If you rise up from Katmandu valley in a small plane around noon on any weekday, the thick, brownish-colored blanket down below is air pollution spreading for miles. Very thick. Very brown-gray.

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The famed pristine view of the legendary snow-capped

Himalayan peaks a long way to the north is gone.

The pollution is denounced by the World Health Organization as air that in places is six times more polluted than accepted standards for a city of more than a million.

And in downtown Katmandu, if three old buses in a row accelerate at the same time, the last bus almost disappears in a triple whammy of billowing black exhaust fumes.

To these hundreds of old buses add 4,000 to 16,000 three-wheeled, diesel-burning "tempo" taxis (banned by India but used in Katmandu), plus thousands of motorcycles, countless aging trucks, and the smoke from brick and cement factories.

Their cumulative daily pollution is an "assault" on health here, says a recent World Bank report, and results in more than $7 million a year in health costs.

But look closely in the chaotic traffic. Those few all-white tempos darting along with all the other horn-honking, black tempos represent the fragile hope of improving Katmandu's air and future.

Named "SAFA [clean] tempos," and driven by electric power, the vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, no rasping noise, just an emission-free hum powered by batteries.

Successfully replace all the old tempos with SAFA tempos, and in an ideal world, this could be the start of a trend to significantly reduce pollution in an ancient valley. So goes the rationale included in several master plans for the city and valley. And with plenty of untapped hydropower for generating electricity from Nepal's many rivers, charging the electric tempos is potentially not a problem.

But in Nepal's nascent democracy, with a parliament established only in 1990, the absence of any kind of national capacity to plan or create infrastructure has an immobilizing impact on all the nation's problems, including pollution. Business plans are not common.

In addition, Katmandu is growing rapidly as young men and women leave poor, rural villages seeking better lives in the city. With an inadequate public transportation system, estimates are that 600 motorcycles with high-polluting two-stroke engines are being added to Katmandu streets each week.

"There is no real political will to address pollution," says Julio Andrews, representative of The Asia Foundation, a US-based social organization involved in many programs in Nepal. "Plus, the police here have a vested interest in the old tempos," he says, alleging that many are owned by the police, "and they are not terribly happy about the electric tempos."

In fact, Nepal was the first country in South Asia to introduce SAFA tempos. Eight took to the streets in l995, funded by the Global Resources Institute (GRI) and USAID. Today, there are an estimated 200 SAFA tempos here, with several dozen battery-charging stations available. "Katmandu has more electric vehicles now than any city in the world," says Marilyn Cohen, assistant director of GRI. "It's wonderful they have reached this point."