Unhealthy city

Keshav Bhattarai


Keshav Bhattarai

Born and raised in a farming environment, I can easily acclimatise even in dusty and filthy environments till my late 50s. Heavy snow shovelling for hours to clean drive ways during the winter and working in hot environment of 40-420 C during the summer causes no harm to my health. But, unfortunately, as I visited Kathmandu in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016, every time I suffered from chronic laryngitis after a short morning walk of some of the heavy traffic areas.

The later years had been the worst ones when I needed to communicate in writing as I lost my voice. I am not any notable figure to make a huge deal of my health issue, but I believe I represent thousands of medium to low income people living in Kathmandu who suffer from similar problems.

This incident inspired me to highlight environmental conditions of the bowel-shaped valley that generally remains calm during the morning period with full of aerosols. Published records suggest the concentration of PM2.5particulates in the ambient air of Kathmandu ranging from 51.2 – 500 μg/m3, based on traffic times and vehicle types, which is far higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, 25μg/m3, for normal breathing.

Air pollution is a scourge for not Kathmandu alone. It took over 7.5 million lives in 2012 in South Asia. Particulates originating from solid fuels, diesel-operated old vehicles and generators used to alleviate load shedding were blamed for such causes, and the Kathmandu Valley has all these affinities with the addition of dust particles coming from repeatedly dug arterial roads.

The Panchayat and succeeding governments were not serious about the Physical Development Plan of Kathmandu 1969 and Long Term Development Concept of 2002. Rather, they repeatedly misused the term of sustainable development while expanding Kathmandu metropolitan area and its peripheries. Already hibernated urban plans became non-existent after the Maoists exerted terror politics in the countryside to consolidate people in urban centres to make its blood-bathed 1996-2005 insurgency a success.

At that time, Kathmandu’s population swelled up without control.  Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai brought bulldozer architecture technology to Kathmandu in order to correct Maoist Party’s evil deeds, and courageously took steps to demolish many houses that were built without following proper standards. The government poured billions of rupees, as compensation, but there remains huge decry on delays for inadequate and unfair compensations.

Nonetheless, former PM Bhattarai’s actions cannot be undermined as it provided accesses to inner dwelling units which otherwise had no means to be evacuated if earthquakes similar to April 25, 2015 occur again. Some 350 km roads have been widened in the Valley; however, less than 120 km of them are blacktopped so far.

Road expansion claims to have followed urban transportation standard proposed in 2007 for the valley to connect arterial roads with the highways and ring roads while leaving aside some areas on the Right of Way. Roads like Jorpati-Sankhu, Tripureshwor-Kalanki-Nagdhunga, Lazimpat-Maharajgunj, Dillibazar-Baluwatar, Tinkune-Baneshwar-Maitighar, Kalimati-Kuleshwor-Balkhu, Kamalpokhari-Ratopul-Gaushala, Maharajgunj-Budhanilkantha, Naxal-Mitrapark along with other small residential roads were expanded along with the upgrading of Kalanki-Satodobato-Koteshwar into 6-8 lanes. During this expansion, many traditional artefacts were destroyed.

Road expansion drive has become one of the major sources of air pollution that turned the valley into the dust bowl. Even simple measures like spraying waters to suppress dust particles during demolition were ignored. In some areas they were impracticable too. Despite expanding roads, the ratio of vehicle to total fleets is insufficient as every year vehicles are added making the Kathmandu traffic a complete gridlock. However, traffic jams have been non-issue to the government planners.

Sidewalks are merged into main roads, which have increased road accidents. The 2015/16 records shows 40 percent of the fatal traffic accidental deaths were among the pedestrians.  Nepali planners enjoy technological advancement and gladly add more vehicles on the road, and under pressures of syndicates let the old vehicles ply on crammed roads with less care to public health.

Adding new vehicles and permitting old vehicles to operate have been causing environmental destructions on a scale that had never happened in earlier stages of human history. Moreover, the bulldozer architectural technology seems to have created more problems than finding proper solutions. Though road expansions have facilitated commuting activities of nobilities by vehicles through interior gullies, the tiny particulates emitted from these activities are non-filterable. Cotton and ordinary masks cannot save us from particulates that easily penetrate into our blood streams. These are developing to unimaginable complicated diseases.

According to the BBC Nepali Service (Dec 25, 2016), over 9,000 people die in Nepal each year, mainly in the Kathmandu Valley, because of the environment-related diseases. Kathmandu’s inner areas are rarely paved, but pervasive dusty roads mask various objects with tiny particulates. Main roads have huge potholes that generate dusty cloud as vehicles move during dry seasons and throw filthy waters during rains. Even though the concept of biophilia and green living environment has been deeply conceived by households, no plant’s leaves, even in private compounds, are free from dust particles. Dust particles block leaves’ stomata and retard plants’ photosynthesis activities.

Walking during the morning hours in the bowel-shaped Valley is very risky because of the over concentration of aerosols. The majority of the regular morning walkers have been suffering from various respiratory ailments.  Because of the increasing pollution, today, Kathmanduites walk less, consume industrially synthesized transfats, live a sedentary lifestyle to be safe from haphazard traffic, and thus, deprive themselves from needed vitamins and other calorie intakes.


The end result has been that Kathmandu is becoming the second most polluted city in South Asia after New Delhi, a microcosm of global epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and adult-onset diabetes–the devastating lifestyle disease of the modern urban age. Probably, Kathmanduites will be learning how to survive in the changing environment, but a time lag could impose unnecessary suffering.  Though these sufferings have been helping to flourish the medical businesses, definitely, it will be a huge burden on the government.

Looking at the cluster settlements of the Kathmandu Valley from Google Earth 2016, Kathmandu has been crammed without proper ventilation. Assuming 3-4 person per dwelling unit (room of 18-25 square meters), almost five million people live in the Valley within an area of 265 square kilometres that include valley’s five old urban centres and their peripheral areas. All areas have dusty arterial roads. Whether the arterial roads are paved or gravelled, Kathmandu Valley is definitely losing its naturalness. Obviously, roads are compacted with heavy soils and gravels to make them motorable. Water does not percolate from these surfaces to recharge underground waters. Of the 265 km2urban surfaces, if only 60 percent is paved (that includes housing area, compound, approach road, and arterial roads), 160 km2 will be totally impervious.

In general, Kathmandu receives average total annual precipitation of 1,343 mm (52.9 inches) for 53 days/year (May-September), equivalent to 1,343 litres/square metres. Assuming 10 mm rainfall in a rainy day, one square meter area will receive 10 litres of rain. The impervious surfaces that will be developed soon will contribute 10 litres of rain/square metre. With these rough estimates, Kathmandu urban areas will have to provide smooth outlets to 14,000,000 cubic meters of rain water. The duration of drainage will vary based on how long the rain pours.

This is a lot of water for Kathmandu Valley to discharge. Just to compare, Nepal’s Koshi River has an average discharge of 2,166 cubic meters per second, while Rhine River in Europe has 2,200. Many of the drainage areas in the Valley have been narrowed for road, settlements, and other purposes. If very high intensity rainfall occurs in the Valley, there is a possibility that many houses built at the lower elevation will be affected and several roads will be clogged with flood waters mixed with sewage. The filthy waters might invite cholera and other water borne diseases.

It is high time for planners in Kathmandu to think seriously and link human activities with the physical environment. Current trends of territorial working styles where architects, city planners, ecologists, public health specialists, and environmental engineers work in isolation should be discontinued for sustainable urban development. Clearly, Nepal is missing the component of sustainable technology component and working together with various agencies. Probably, a new belt road encircling 265 km2 urbanised area and linking it with arterial roads with strict time table for public transportation and heavy taxes on private vehicle based on their ages might ease Kathmandu’s pollution problems. Shifting population away from Kathmandu may not be feasible.

Harvesting rain waters from roofs might help in recharging underground reservoirs and reducing drainage. A healthy Kathmandu and relocation of some facilities in other geographic areas could help in promoting eco-and-medical tourism as well.

The writer is a Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri, USA