20-26 February 2015 #745

Clearing the air

Efforts to mitigate long-term climate change are well and good, but we need much more urgent efforts closer to home to clean up.

An international conference in Kathmandu this week on Brick Kilns Policy and Advocacy could not have been held in a more appropriate venue. Delegates from around the world discussing the social and environmental cost of the industry, looked out through the windows at a vista blighted by brick factories. What used to be bucolic terrace farms across the Valley have turned into an ochre dust bowl where ant-like men women and children toil alongside mules carrying bricks to be fired in furnaces.

Bricks are very much in the news these days. A report in The Guardian last week spotlighted the working conditions of brick kiln workers in Nepal, especially children. Entire families work in these kilns, and the children help their parents just as they would lend a helping hand in the farms back home. Although the job is seasonal and hazardous, income for the families of kiln workers is better than many other rural professions.

The underlying reason for poor working conditions of brick workers, however, is the same as that for migrant workers being cheated by fellow-Nepali recruiters, or young women being sold to brothels by their own relatives. It is also why a transportation cartel doesn’t care to improve bus services and fixes prices. All a result of governance failure, weak regulation, political protection of organised criminals, impunity and the lack of accountability.

The solution, therefore, has to be structural, not piecemeal. It lies in mustering the necessary political will to be responsive to the health and environmental concerns of communities. When greed and selfishness become a part of the job description of politicians, it may be unrealistic to expect the public interest to suddenly take precedence.

We may have to wait for rulers to finally realise that the lack of action is affecting their own health and the well being of their offspring. For example, when London’s Thames River had turned into a sewer 100 years ago, politicians acted only because the stink made it impossible for parliament to sit. Or, only when elderly politicians started dying of respiratory failure caused by pollution from coal burning did British legislators pass the Clean Air Act.

There will also come a time when pollution in Kathmandu Valley will get so bad it will shorten the lifespan of the capital’s residents, including policy-makers in Singha Darbar. That is when they may act, but don’t bet on it. Enlightened self-interest was never one of the hallmarks of our rulers.

Nepal’s prolonged political transition and the inability to hold local elections for nearly two decades has made local and national politicians less accountable, encouraged patronage and the protection of the construction mafia. The result is the plunder of the Chure, illegal sand mining, boulder exports, bus and tanker cartels holding the public hostage, and brick kilns that flout labour and environmental laws.

This month, Nepal is showcasing its failures in a series of international conferences organised by ICIMOD and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to look at how soot particles from brick kilns, crop burning, vehicle emissions and other chemicals are not just affecting the people’s health and hurting farmers, but also accelerating global warming and glacial retreat in the Himalaya.

As Arnico Panday and Helena Molin Valdes argue on page 6, the emission of short-lived carbon pollutants like soot particles can be tackled locally, and addressing this would not just mitigate climate change, but also improve public health and make more efficient use of energy. This means regulating brick kilns, adding chimneys to household stoves, looking at crop burning practices and reducing forest fires.

The black carbon particles floating around in the Asian Brown Cloud in our region do not respect national boundaries. Prevailing winds from the Indo-Gangetic plains are blowing up pollution trapped in its inversion layer in winter to the mountains. The smog is getting worse as India’s standard of living rises. The decision to make the Ganges navigable for seagoing barges to bring in imported coal for five new thermal power plants is just the latest indication of the way the region is headed.

We welcome international efforts to address transboundary efforts to mitigate long-term climate change, but what we need are much more urgent efforts closer to home to clean up the air.

Read also:

Getting rid of soot, Helena Molin Valdes and Arnico Panday

Building blocks, Jan Møller Hansen

Every breathe we take, Arnico Panday

Sick city, Anna-Karin Ernstson Lampou