Blog: A murky view from the top of the world

I was ecstatic! A month in my home country after three and a half years of not having seen my family. It was supposed to bring a breath of fresh […]

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By Priyanka Shrestha

I was ecstatic!

A month in my home country after three and a half years of not having seen my family.

It was supposed to bring a breath of fresh air. Except it didn’t (literally!).

As I walked out of Nepal’s international airport to see some of my family members waiting impatiently, I was struck by the thick air.

I didn’t make too much of it until I headed out into town the next day.

The grey haze over the valley, the thick cloud of pollution – I could see it engulf the road miles ahead as we drove around the city.

The culprit? Car emissions.

The streets of the nation’s sprawling capital is choked with traffic and its fumes. I couldn’t recall seeing people wearing masks the last time I was there – but it has now become an increasingly common sight as the thick cloud of pollution threatens to suffocate the capital.

Nepal’s air quality ranks 177th out of 178 countries, according to Yale’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Only Bangladesh fares worse.

I was shocked by the brutal truth.

I’d been reading and writing about air pollution in east Asian countries such as China and even European nations such as France and the UK itself but didn’t realise the extent of how bad it is in the Himalayan country until I saw it first-hand myself.

With the smog worse than the levels that prompted Paris to ban cars last year, Kathmandu seems to be choking.

But while the gas-guzzling SUVs as well as the majority of rural areas using diesel generators have not helped in reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, there have been some positive changes.

Solar panels at Solukhumbu, a popular destination for mountain tourism, in Nepal. Image: ELN
Solar panels at Solukhumbu, a popular destination for mountain tourism, in Nepal. Image: ELN

For example, an increase in solar power and the use of biogas.

I was surprised to see most houses using solar for hot water. I can remember those days of using geysers, which used to take an hour to heat enough water for a mere two showers.

But they seem to be have been overtaken by solar water heaters, which seem more sensible in the country plagued by chronic power shortages.

Householders and businesses still face power cuts of at least eight hours a day in this era of modern science and technology.

It’s a known fact that Nepal could use its vast water resources (home to a staggering 6,000 rivers!) to develop hydropower and help mitigate its problems but the nation seems to be held back.

Is it the lack of investment? Or the rampant corruption?

Many told me it’s the latter as there are people willing to invest (I know a few who actually have) but the lack of political stability has hindered Nepal’s progress of its energy system.

And while it may seem like a distant dream, if urgent steps are not taken – both to protect the environment and build the energy industry – we could well be in for an inevitable catastrophe.