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How evidence-based policymaking can help Nepal control air pollution

Nepal can effectively address transportation-related air pollution and other pressing issues. Evidence-based policymaking approach can transform erratic project outcomes into successful, impactful initiatives.

Photo credit: ICIMOD

Air pollution is a silent, yet pervasive threat to human health, and its impact is felt acutely in regions like Nepal. While most studies on the health impacts of air pollution have been conducted in North America and Europe, the situation in Nepal, particularly in Kathmandu, remains alarmingly under-explored. This lack of attention is concerning given the severe health burden that air pollution imposes on the country.

As air pollution increasingly affects people worldwide, its impacts on public health are becoming more evident. Common ailments in Nepal include respiratory sickness, allergies, and eye infections, as well as chronic diseases such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), ischemic heart disease (IHD), and stroke. Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) have been the leading cause of human death, accounting for 60 percent of deaths. Cardiovascular illnesses have caused the most deaths among NCDs (22 percent), followed by chronic respiratory diseases (13 percent), cancer (8 percent), and other NCDs (14 percent), according to the World Health Organization’s Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Country Profiles (2014).

According to IQAir, Air quality index (AQI) and PM2.5 air pollution in Nepal, Nepal’s 2023 average PM2.5 concentration is 8.5 times the WHO annual air quality guideline value. Nepal ranks 154th in air quality, with rankings between 151 and 200 considered unhealthy, posing serious health risks. Active children, adults, and individuals with respiratory diseases like asthma should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion, while everyone else, especially children, should limit their outdoor activities.

The government of Nepal’s ambitious climate commitments at COP26—to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and increase the share of clean energy in the country’s energy demand to 15 percent—are both an imperative and an opportunity to beat air pollution in Nepal. However, achieving these goals requires immediate and effective control measures. The Urban Health Initiative (UHI) has identified four major sources of air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley: solid waste, transport, industry/brick kilns, and household energy sectors. UHI also proposed several viable solutions to mitigate air pollution and improve public health. Yet, the monitoring of these pollutants and their impacts remains inadequate.

While many countries are striving for zero carbon emissions, Nepal continues to rely heavily on conventional construction methods that release significant amounts of carbon, substantially reducing air quality. Various initiatives have been introduced to promote sustainable mobility and reduce emissions from the transportation sector. These measures aim to encourage low-carbon and sustainable transportation policies. Scientific analysis of air pollution data and research in this field must be enhanced to support evidence-based policymaking.

Evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) is a systematic approach to public policy development that relies on empirical evidence and rigorous data analysis to inform decisions. This approach ensures that policies are effective and efficient, using available research and data to achieve desired outcomes. Providing evidence-based recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders can enhance the impact of green transport initiatives and formulate sustainable transportation policies. EBPM involves data collection and analysis which is about gathering comprehensive data on air quality, traffic patterns, and public feedback to inform policy decisions, research and evaluation, which focuses on conducting thorough impact studies of current transportation emissions and potential interventions, such as electric buses and dedicated cycle lanes, integration of evidence, which is about developing policies based on research findings and launching pilot projects to test their effectiveness, stakeholder engagement, which is about involving government agencies, private companies, environmental groups, and the public in the policy development process and transparency and accountability which is about creating open data platforms for public access and publishing regular reports on policy progress and impact.

Evidence-based policymaking is important for a number of reasons. First, EBPM bridges the gap between research and practice, ensuring that public policies are grounded in the best available evidence. Second, it offers a rational, rigorous, and systematic approach to policy development. Better utilization of evidence in policy and practice can save lives, reduce poverty, and enhance a country’s development performance. For example, the Digital Matatus Project in Kenya led to more targeted and effective transportation policies, improved safety and service quality, and enhanced communication between the public and service providers, increasing overall user satisfaction.

Kenya’s implementation of the Digital Matatus project demonstrates how developing countries can use EBPM to address complex transportation challenges. By collecting and utilizing data effectively, Nairobi improved the efficiency, safety, and accessibility of its public transportation system, providing valuable lessons for other developing nations aiming to enhance their urban mobility frameworks.

EBPM can be applied to strengthen Nepal’s transportation system for which following steps can be taken. a) Data collection and analysis: Mapping traffic routes, patterns, and congestion points by using digital tools. Establishing extensive air quality monitoring stations in major polluted areas and gathering feedback from public transport users to understand their needs and preferences. b) Research and evaluation: Conducting impact studies of current transportation emissions and congestion. Evaluating the feasibility and potential impacts of interventions such as electric buses, dedicated cycle lanes, pedestrian zones and monorails. c) Integration of evidence: Developing policies based on research findings and launching pilot projects to test their effectiveness. d) Stakeholder engagement: Establishing forums for government agencies, private companies, environmental groups, and transport operators to refine infrastructure. Conducting public consultations to gather input and support for new initiatives. And e) Transparency and accountability: Creating open data platforms for public access and publishing regular reports on policy progress and impact.

EBPM can be applied in the several areas to reduce air pollution. They include Electric Vehicle (EV) promotion and integration, Kathmandu Sustainable Urban Transport Project (KSUTP), Brick Kiln Emission Reduction Initiative, Sustainable Mobility Initiatives in Pokhara and Lalitpur Air Quality Monitoring and Management.

These initiatives have shown promising results in improving air quality and public health.

By adopting evidence-based policymaking, Nepal can effectively address transportation-related air pollution and other pressing issues. This approach can transform erratic project outcomes into successful, impactful initiatives. Examples from other countries demonstrate the potential of EBPM to develop targeted, efficient, and effective policies. Implementing such policies can lead to sustainable and significant improvements in Nepal’s infrastructure development and air quality.

Roshani Dhakal is a research scholar at Kathmandu Engineering College, Kalimati. She has been engaged in various research concerning to sustainable transportation solutions.  Dhakal can be reached at [email protected]. Subash Bhattarai is associated with HERD international in the capacity of Lead-Health Infrastructure and Policy. Bhattarai can be reached at [email protected]. Views are personal.