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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Electric solution to Nepalese pollution

By Daniel Lak
BBC correspondent in Kathmandu

Journalism in Asia takes you to strange places, sometimes unpleasant, occasionally dangerous, often exotic.

But a morning spent on Stephen Kimberly's milk round in the West Midlands was among the most unusual things I've done in my years in this job.

Milk float
The hallmark of a civilised society?

A confession first of all - I'm an unabashed admirer of the British system of home delivery of milk.

In Canada, where I come from, we took a giant step backwards about 30 years ago when dairies handed all milk sales over to shops and supermarkets.

Opening the front door in Britain and collecting that morning bottle of fresh milk is - I believe - a mark of a civilised society.

So it was that I found myself on the pre-dawn streets of Castle Vale, just outside Birmingham, riding with Steve Kimberly in his new, improved state of the art milk float. It's the latest model of electrically powered vehicle used to put pints of milk on peoples' doorsteps.

I wasn't there to help carry the empties or to watch the stock in rougher neighbourhoods, though I did both when asked. No, I was along to see the milk float in action.

You see, this model of vehicle was destined for greater things than just the largely invisible job of morning milk delivery.

The British Government and a businessman in Nepal think that this milk float could also deliver clean air in Kathmandu.

Steve was entranced with my tales of Nepal and thrilled at the thought that his milk float might one day be an electric bus in the Nepalese capital, carrying up to 24 passengers quietly and not polluting the already filthy air.

He shook his head when I told him of the thick, grimy clouds of smog and dust that oozed from vehicles powered by adulterated petrol.

Noxious cocktail

In South Asia, cooking fuel like paraffin is subsidised so the poor can afford it, but it often finds its way into the market-priced petrol so an unscrupulous dealer can make more money.

Electric three-wheeler
Electric vehicles are a common sight on the streets of Kathmandu

Paraffin isn't meant to be burned in car engines and it causes noxious black smoke.

Diesel, too, is also widely used by buses in Kathmandu and the fumes from all those poisons spewing into the air have produced statistics for respiratory disease worse than a smokers' ward at a cancer hospital.

An American Jesuit priest who has been a school teacher in Nepal's capital for 40 years - who often commutes by bicycle - was recently told by his doctor to give up smoking.

"But I've never even puffed on a cigarette", said the good father to gentle scepticism from the medical man.

It's that bad here.

That's why Adam Friedensohn of Lotus Energy latched onto the milk float idea, with the enthusiastic support of the British Government.

Adam's an American and is married to a Nepali. His two young children who have to endure the horrible air in Kathmandu so he's thrown all his effort into making electric vehicles the norm here.

He's had some success, a fleet of locally designed, battery powered, three wheel rickshaws carry thousands of passengers around the city every day.

But his electric milk float-based buses remain very much on the drawing board because of Nepali Government inertia, and possibly corruption.

Protecting privileges

Approval for his project remains perennially stalled at the so called Ministry for Protection of the Environment, which largely seems to me to see its job as protecting the privileges of diesel vehicle importers.

The people are watching this government closely. They must approve this project
Shanta Rana

Adam's not giving up though, he has come up with a scheme to manufacture the bus chassis's here in Nepal at the country's only indigenous car company.

It's all based - of course - on imported milk float design, and will create Nepali jobs. Adam's also hoping that BBC coverage of his project will push recalcitrant bureaucrats into action.

As a resident of Kathmandu myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could stand in the way of something that makes our environment healthier, better for locals and tourists alike and as everyone knows, tourism is Nepal's most important business.

My own informal checks have shown that the ordinary people - the medical victims of air pollution - are hugely in favour of the electric vehicle program.

Sunita Lama, a single mother who sells carrots by the side of the busy Kathmandu ring road, told me her baby daughter already has a horrible cough from breathing exhaust fumes.

"Only a corrupt and evil person would be in favour of that," she told me, real passion in her voice.

At the other end of the economic scale, Shanta Rana says she hardly goes to the temple anymore to pray, despite her devotion to the Hindu faith.

'Too many cars'

She breaths oxygen from a tank and uses an inhaler and blames pollution for her problems. "The people are watching this government closely," she says, "they must approve this project."

Back in Castle Vale, the inventor of that latest milk float model, Kevin Borne, his high hopes for the Nepal project, whatever the governmental challenges of the moment.

"Look," he told me, "in Britain, we have tunnel vision, we think electric vehicles only deliver milk. But we have too many cars on the road too - too much pollution and not enough resolve to stop it.

"If the Nepalese see my milk float as the way ahead, then we can follow them. It can only be good for both countries.

Kevin's enthusiasm is infectious, although as a long time aficionado of milk floats , I don't take all that much convincing.

SEE ALSO:
Nepal 'clean' cars face threat
13 Aug 02  |  South Asia
Asian haze poses 'widespread threat'
11 Aug 02  |  Science/Nature


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