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.
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."
But the road to acceptability continues to be anything but smooth.
"The existing five or six manufacturers are hardly surviving because the cost for the upfront investment for an electric tempo is huge, around $7,500," says Bimal Ghimire, project manager for Lotus Energy, an alternative-energy company that markets an electric vehicle. "The owners of the vehicles say there is not that much profit margin," he says, "because interest rates for loans are 16 to 17 percent."
Late last year, SAFA owners said they were being harassed by the police. Some drivers were apparently beaten by diesel tempo owners, and some of the SAFAs were allegedly impounded by the police.
D.P. Limbu of the Clean Locomotive Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (CLEAN) complained that the SAFAs were also denied waiting spaces in front of buildings. He said, "It is becoming more and more difficult for us to operate our vehicles." The government's Transport Ministry intervened in the dispute and allocated spaces for SAFAs in front of certain buildings.
The irony is that the government officially banned new registration of diesel tempos seven years ago. Yet this February, in the kind of jumbled reasoning that smacks of vested interests, the Transport Ministry decided to allow more diesel tempos because the ban meant there was a shortage of tempos. After a flurry of newspaper articles and outraged public debate, the ban was reinstated by Nepal's prime minister.
Nepal's Transportation Management Department can deny registration of vehicles that do not meet emission requirements. Beginning last year, the department conducted street monitoring of vehicles because most engines here are 15 years old or older, not well maintained, and have no mechanism to filter the exhaust.
"The tempo owners don't want to change," says Mr. Ghimire, "because their vehicles are running and they are making money. So why should they spend a huge amount to convert to electric?"
No law exists to enforce any kind of penalty or correction. Vehicles with red stickers are supposed to be denied entrance to known areas of the city with heavy pollution, but again, enforcement is virtually nonexistent. Nonetheless, Baidhya Naih Maliik, director general at the Department of Transport Management, says that by July 2000 "we will make sure that all polluting vehicles are banned from plying the streets."
To some here, this appears unlikely, even though Ms. Cohen and others say it may be possible. "As long as the ban is intact," says Cohen, "they can only rebuild the diesel and petrol engines so many times." The number of vehicles on Katmandu's narrow, crowded streets has exploded in five years from 70,000 to an estimated 140,000. Fuel sold in Nepal has a high lead content, among the highest in the world.
"Without the political will or the capacity to enforce laws and regulations, change will be very slow," says Lars Hermann, a spokesman for DANIDA (Danish International Development Assistance).
Radio Sagarmatha, South Asia's only independent, noncommercial radio station, now sends a special "SAFA Radio" tempo out into Katmandu with scientific equipment to monitor pollution at 30 locations.