Close coordination with all essential to curb pollution: Dr Sanjay Nath Khanal
Prof. Dr Sanjay Nath Khanal is one of the most respected names in Environmental Science studies in Nepal. Serving as a Professor of Environmental Science in Kathmandu University from 1992-2018, Dr Khanal is a passionate researcher and an active scholar. He has been playing a stellar role in environmental sustainability by supporting the government in enacting environment-friendly legislation. His sincerity for the ecology and environment gives him enough energy to do something for the cause of green democracy. Holding a PhD from University of Natural Resources, Vienna, he also made significant contribution (for nine years) as a scientist for National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Khanal also holds MS in environment Science and Technology from International Institute for Hydraulic and Environment Engineering (IHE), Netherlands. Jivesh Jha, for Lokaantar, had an opportunity to interact with Prof. Dr Sanjay Nath Khanal on the hotcake issue of environment and green democracy.
Is Nepal doing enough to ensure a better environment for her citizens?
Well, the government of Nepal initiated serious discussion on the issues of environment in 1990’s during the enactment of Environment Protection Act and its regulations. Then, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was introduced as the most important tool for the management of environment. In general, it is an instrument that undertakes systematic identification and evaluation of the potential impacts of proposed projects, plans, programs or legislative actions relating to both natural and man-made components of the total environment. So, the environmental measures are being taken into consideration by the government with the adoption of the Environment Protection Act. However, the EIA mechanism cannot work like a magic stick to resolve all the environmental issues.
There are so many tools that could be adopted to control and abate pollution. After all, there is always room for diversity in environmental issues with the incorporation of diverse (unsustainable) development patterns. In addition to this, now the concern is the capacity of the government to look after the issues pertinent to environment because there is requirement of implementation of the regulations, proper coordination among different state agencies and proper monitoring over the instrumentalities of state engaged in protection and promotion of environment.
Unfortunately, we lack infrastructural as well as institutional capacity to expedite the cause of environment and green democracy. Nepal has signed a number of international obligations. The scores of welcome legal provisions are being made and a number of standards are put in place. But the challenge lies in implementation. This way, the government agencies seem little committed for cementing the cause of environmentalism.
Does Nepal have a strong legislation when it comes to pollution? Can the government ensure people that it is able to control and abate pollution?
See, recently the government has tabled a Bill to seek an amendment in the existing Environment Protection Act, 1996. I also had an opportunity to participate in some of the discussions. We had raised reservation over some of the provisions for not covering the overall dimensions associated with the environment. Our environmental legislations should respond not only to local, rural or urban, regional, or national dimensions but also the global and trans-boundary collaborations. We need a robust legislation to combat the adverse effects of trans-frontier pollution that originates in one country and disturbs the neighbouring countries. No state has the right to use or permit the use of its territory in such a manner as to cause injury to the territory of another.
There are number of international obligations being put forward. The environment is now the domain of Ministry of Forest and Environment. The issues are cross-cutting. There are issues relating to local development, transport, or water supply. So, the question is whether there is compatibility among different norms and standards of line ministries on environment issues? This is major concern that needs to be addressed timely.
Second, we had drawn the concern of the stakeholders over the EIA. I believe that the EIA is not only the environ-legal pills to right all environmental ills. Of course, we could undertake EIA at policy level, or strategic level but there are certain things beyond the EIA. Our issues are not only limited to development projects.
Third issue that came across discussion was that there is requirement of strengthening the capacity of state agencies to enforce the regulations. Our Ministry has a limited capacity.
There is a dire need of establishing an Environmental Council, a licensing council which would have authority to oversee the multiple aspects of environment and environment professionals. This council should issue licence for the environment practitioners. Further, the Bill aims to downgrade the position of environment inspectors. The bill does not lay down essential qualification for Environment Inspector.
Let alone a university degree in Environment Science, it simply says that the officer of the government could be appointed as Environment Inspector. The universities in Nepal are producing more than 600 Environmental Science undergraduates every year. So, we have skilled manpower but the state seems to have derecognized them.
Our fight against the pollution is to argue for environmental justice and equitable rights over the national ecology. To strengthen this fight, we must take a pledge to enforce our regulations. I find my head hanging in shame when a person says that your country is so polluted. If we are going to battle against pollution, we have to set our own house in order and ensure that every person and agency of the state is committed to give a tough battle against the pollution.
Every breath we are inhaling in Kathmandu at the moment is toxic. How have we reached this point?
It’s the failure of the regulatory frameworks (that may include department of roads, environment, municipality or various other state institutions). The vehicular pollution is the main pollutant for air pollution in Kathmandu valley. The Department of Environment has established number of monitoring stations to collect the data from across the country. There are around 19 monitoring stations, of which seven are in Kathmandu. We have monitoring stations but we don’t have the recent data. We are still relying on the old data which is failing to produce a real picture. So, there is presence of pollutants in Kathmandu’s air but absence of recent data. So, we don’t know the exact situation.
The infrastructural and institutional capacity should be strengthened. The government agencies should adopt and enact policies that allow the academia to engage in the collection, process and analysis of data. If there is collaboration between the government agencies and academia, we could have timely analysis of the recent data; and teachers and students could produce their research works and theses demonstrating a real picture.
In western part of the world, the academia and government institutions work closely in giving effect to the regulations but these sort of things are missing in our case. Whatever we are doing to prevent the pollution is too little and too late. The bulk presence of transports and vehicular pollution is choking us. It’s time to understand that air pollution violates a person’s right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment. Though air pollution has a devastating consequence on human health, the problem has been overlooked. Air pollution in Kathmandu is hard to ignore.
So, how can we minimize and prevent air pollution?
We all know that air is more vital than water. We need pure air to survive. The WHO standard says that the 24-hour average concentration of pm 2.5 should be 10 or below 10 micro-gram/meter cube. But, the average yearly concentration in Kathmandu valley is around 45 to 50 micro-gram per meter cube. Yet, we are not at the critical situation if we compare our position with other cities.
See, if the various ministries work in a close coordination then we would obviously succeed to curb air pollution. I think it’s high time we grew up and stand tall against this menace.
Nepal is naturally a very fragile country; so it’s obvious to have some natural environmental degradation here. If we minimise activities unfriendly to environment, environmental degradation can be prevented. In developing countries like ours where biomass is still the major source of energy for cooking and fossil fuel is excessively used, environmental degradation is common.
Moreover, in rural areas, biomass is the only source of cooking which in one or some other way makes women, children and elderly the most vulnerable groups in relation to health. It’s very unfortunate to see that we don’t talk much about the rural people and their concerns.
If we manage to control or abate air pollution, we would certainly play a creative and constructive role in realising the 17 sustainable development goals. Unlike heavy rainfall or natural disaster which is beyond human control, the issue of air pollution is manageable if we restrict the emission of pollutants.
WHO data suggests that around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air. And, air pollution is solely responsible for more than 30,000 deaths annually in Nepal.
In contrast, household pollution largely contributes to air pollution. Air pollution creates chronic and non-communicable disease with long-term health implications. In Kathmandu, more than 65-70 per cent of air pollution is generated from local source, while the rest comes from external sources as air pollutants move everywhere.
So, if we make strategies for transport, cooking, solid waste burning or industry with a close coordination of various government departments, we would certainly beat air pollution.
In nutshell, a comprehensive plan is yet to be put in place.
Do you think that the Sustainable Development Goals are achievable in our part of the world?
Some of the goals are to be achieved by 2030. There are certain areas, for example biodiversity conservation and protected areas, where Nepal has made good success. We have almost 45 per cent of forest cover and 23 per cent of the protected area system and many of the species are being protected.
Similarly, in Millennium Development Goals, our success in preventing infant mortality or education was remarkable. So, we have some success stories but they are not adequate.
See, these goals are interconnected and success in one particular goal is not enough. While understanding the linkages between or among different goals, we have to equally put our feet forward for all the goals. Unless we work on all issues, it won’t help us much.
If we look at the white papers, government of Nepal has expressed commitment to promote the electricity cooking and reduce the biomass and fossil fuel consumption. In urban areas, fossil fuel is largely used and in rural areas biomass is the major source of energy. If we intervene rightly to reduce the consumption of biomass and fossil fuel, we would sketch a success story on Sustainable Development Goals.
We can improve the situation on all different fronts and it is achievable if there is coordination among different stakeholders and enforcement of regulations. Implementation of plans and policies has always been a tall task in Nepali context.
It’s high time we understood that there could be no ‘prosperity’ in presence of ‘pollution’ and ‘poverty’. The three ‘Ps’ cannot go together. While thinking of the present, future should not be forgotten. After all, we owe a duty to future generation and for a bright today; a bleak tomorrow cannot be tolerated. Environment should be taken as a component of development process, not as a hindrance. Preventing environmental damage saves enormous cost, life and our planet.
Published on 18 August 2019