Category Archives: pollution

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The air that I breathe — my relationship with black carbon

I am old enough to remember the orange smog sitting over Los Angeles and the haze cloaking Manhattan, but my older kids, who grew up mostly in a much cleaner North America, consider my descriptions of air pollution family folklore. Then we moved to South Asia.

Nepali Darth Vader © Donatella Lorcj

Nepali Darth Vader
© Donatella Lorch

In Kathmandu, especially during the dry rainless winter months, the air we breathe dictates a fashion of sorts. Many people in Nepal’s capital wear multicolored dust masks. Women in saris or jeans wear them in pink and red, toddlers wear them, taxi and bus drivers wear them, police and army like them in black or camouflage. The swarms of motorcyclists that make the city a hair-raising place to drive look like Darth Vader, with masks or scarves under their helmets covering all but their eyes. Masks are so ubiquitous that the city’s many ATMs post big signs requiring that helmets and masks be removed before entering the booth.

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Air pollution here is visible, touchable, intimate. The scientific name for the pollution that we breathe in Kathmandu is black carbon particulate matter, derived mostly from burning fossil fuels and suspended road dust. It’s the black grit that I wipe off my patio chairs twice a day and blow out of my nose. It’s the thick grey yellow haze that swallows up downtown Kathmandu during the driest winter months. It’s the black cloud-belching dilapidated trucks, the towering brick kilns that dot the valley spewing out their thick white spirals into the sky. It’s the black plume that wafts out of the humming metal-caged streetside generators. It’s the road dust coagulating upwards in clouds around the ubiquitous road construction sites. Fly in on a  winter day and admire (yes there is a level of dark depressing awe) how the plane slices through a flat layer of continuous thick greyness just before it lands.

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A mere 15 years ago, Kathmandu had clean air. Two factors transformed a valley that tourists called Shangri La. A decade-long Maoist civil war triggered a mass exodus of people from the countryside into Kathmandu, growing the valley population by more than 40 percent, to 3.5 million. Though infrastructure remains poor, rapid urbanization as well as easier availability of bank loans filled the valley with cars and motorcycles. By 2006, the demand for electricity had outstripped supply in a country that turns on its lights mostly with hydropower. Now more than ever, with winter power cuts reaching 18 hours-a-day, many businesses and households rely on diesel generators to provide power.

Generator Diesel - Kathmandu's largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

Generator Diesel – Kathmandu’s largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

According to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), up to 40 percent of the country’s total diesel consumption is being used to generate electricity during power cuts. In 2012, NOC estimated that the country generated roughly 531 MW of electricity from diesel generators, filling a 35% power deficit. Tons of Black Carbon, one of the principle agents of global warming and the second largest warming agent after carbon dioxide, are being pumped into the valley.

      The Kathmandu valley is a bowl surrounded by hills that sometimes prevent pollution from dispersing. In the winter, the cold nighttime air doesn’t lift, creating a lid over the city and locking in the previous evening’s black carbon particulate matter. There is a reprieve during the summer months, when monsoon rains knock the black carbon down and improve daily air quality.

Measuring air quality is no longer done by the government. Kathmandu used to have six stations monitoring air quality but the last one fell into disrepair in 2006. It is now done on a case-by-case basis by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD ( International Center for Integrated Mountain Development). Nevertheless, the 2012 Environment Performance Index (EPI) ranking listed Nepal 130 out of 132 countries in terms of air pollution impact on human health and environment.

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

I knew these facts before I moved here but I looked at them differently when I began to live them. It’s the part of me that thinks I can be in control. I live on a ridge as far south of the Ring Road as commutably feasible. It helps me to know that the wind that blows across my place flows across the rural hills to the southwest and then across the city to the north. Most Nepalis don’t wear masks here. As a meager contribution to better air quality, I never use my own generator but have outfitted the house with enough solar power to power a fridge, the TV, wifi as well as a reasonable number of lights and outlets. But my ability to afford this alternative energy puts me in a minority. I have noticed subtle health markers. My colds come in the winter’s driest months of February and March and last weeks, not days, followed by chronic coughs. Nepal has no reliable hospital statistics on the increase of COPD(chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or other lung illnesses.

Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an associate coordinator for the Atmosphere Initiative at ICIMOD, has been tracking pollution patterns in Kathmandu for over a decade. ICIMOD is presently working with the government to set up a new monitoring station and is studying pollution’s socio-economic effect. There is no doubt that pollution will increasingly hurt tourism. Already, the big attraction of snow-capped mountains surrounding Kathmandu are only visible after a rare winter rain or a Maoist strike that bans all motor vehicles for the day..

SMOKE

SMOKE

Nepal’s climate, like much of its politics, is hostage to its huge southern neighbor. While the Kathmandu Valley has 120 brick kilns, the bordering Indian state of Bihar has about 30,000, says Pradhan. The winds carry black carbon into Nepal’s Terai and beyond, building the large Atmospheric Brown Cloud that moves from India into Tibet and beyond, the black particles slowly melting the Himalayan glaciers. The Terai, once a tropical winter refuge for Kathmandu residents, has been unexplainably blanketed in frigid fog for several years. This year, ICIMOD is convening a regional meeting of scientists to study this phenomenon.

Fog also seems to carpet northern India and Bangladesh for much of the winter. My iPhone reads it as “Smoke” for Delhi. Fog+Smog=Smoke, explains Pradhan. I find the winter air quality in Delhi more disturbing than what I breathe in Kathmandu. I measure taste and feel. In a recent week there, I rarely saw the sun. A pea-soup fog sat on top of the city like a metal pot cover. The air was cold, clammy, immobile, dense. Lucas, my nine-year-old, thought holding his breath might work during our Tuk-tuk rides. Flights were delayed for hours due to lack of visibility.

Kathmandu traffic adds to black baron emissions. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu traffic adds to black carbon emissions. © Donatella Lorch

As I reflect on these experiences, I realize that I have a front-row seat on a major climactic change. The National Academy of Science has done the first long term study of climactic change and pollution impact on Indian agriculture says there is a significant loss in rice and wheat crops due to black carbon.

Pradhan says she does not wear a face mask. She notes that the only real protection against black carbon is from an N99 or N95 masks that are not sold in Nepal. She has tested it and the filter turns black every 24 hours and needs to be replaced. She is philosophical about her home country.  “Once you are put in an environment, you feel normal,” she explains. “But when you come from cleaner places, you definitely feel the difference.”

In Kathmandu, I see it, I feel it, I smell it. And I too do not wear a mask.

‘REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES’ — Postcard from Nepal

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan's main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan’s main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

“I am calling from Nepal,” I began the conversation with my usual opener. I was on the phone with Visa, my credit card having been blocked three times in one week. “That’s a tiny country between China and India,” I explained to the befuddled voice on the other end and then without pause added the tried and true clincher: “It’s the country of Mt. Everest.”

       Sometimes, I feel tempted to skip the obvious and instead to share my favorite, rather obscure fact about Nepal. In 1996, when communism was already an anachronism, Nepali Maoists, with little base among the masses, began a brutal 10-year civil war. They weren’t sufficiently pure Maoists to be recognized by China but were declared terrorists by India and the U.S–though an Indian group, the Naxalites, are said to have provided them much of their military training. Their very first weapons, whose bullets heralded the opening of the war, were American-made and had been air-dropped to Tibetan rebels in 1961 to mount a revolt in China.  To make the story even quirkier, the Maoist leaders are now in the fledgling new Nepali government.  Their former military commander, who directed the war from India and who was believed by some to be a fictional character, today is still referred to by his ‘nom de guerre,’ Prachanda or “Fierce”, and remains a subject of Nepali gossip  — not about where he may be hiding but about how he acquired his wealth and fancy cars.

         There is a fast-fading moldy quotation painted in two-foot high bold lettering on the concrete wall that border the main avenue of Patan, Kathmandu’s sister city. “REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES, it declares in what was once blood-red paint, before the rest of the sentence fades into black-leaching monsoon mold. The author’s originally spelled name resurfaces briefly: “Friedl Castro.”

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal's villages. ©Donatella Lorch

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal’s villages. ©Donatella Lorch

Nepali communism (a unique brand that includes three separate and fractious parties) is far from dead but it has morphed and become part of the flow of the varied influences that define 2014 Nepal. And, yes, for the tourist mountain climbers and trekkers out there, it has even made it to Mt. Everest. With the official title of “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace March,” a 2012 expedition to Everest was co-led by Prachanda’s son and funded by the then-communist-led Nepali government. There are still black-stenciled faces of Chairman Mao around Kathmandu, and at election time last November the hammer and sickle was ubiquitous. A social media and Twitter coach might advise that they revisit their 1960s party brands: ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’; ‘The Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist- Leninist’. Catchy they are not. Businesses looking to invest in Nepal may also be a bit taken aback by politician’s business cards bearing these names from another era.

     From absolute monarchy through a vicious civil war, a military coup and now a fledgling democracy, Nepalis, it often appears, struggle, survive and succeed despite, and not because, of their governments.  With bleak employment opportunities in Nepal, more than two million Nepali youth work overseas mostly in the Middle East and Malaysia as an unskilled labor force.  A similar number cross the border to look for work in India.  Their remittances represent about 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Critics point out that fewer unemployed restive youth at home means fewer problems for the government. None of Nepal’s many political parties have come up with a “Yes We Can” style political slogan, but the common man has found a phrase to express his resignation to the water, fuel and electricity shortages, the slow progress in constitution writing, and even the weather.   The quintessential “khe garne?” literally translates as “What to do?” This is not really a question as much as a manifestation of decades-worth of a culturally-fed apathy and fatalism. 

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

    Nowadays, the revolutionaries are not in opposition.  In fact, many Nepalis believe that they share in government corruption; and they remain mixed and melded and molded with deeply ritualistic Hinduism and its hundreds of festivals. Bandhs (“strikes”), once a feared Maoist weapon, are now part of the mainstream, adopted even by right-wing Hindus–but, though they are occasionally violent, as in the rest of South Asia, observing uniquely Nepali manners, they are maintained only during business hours and not on any major religious holiday. Mahatma Gandhi’s most visible legacy in Nepal is the hunger strike, often undertaken by individuals to demand justice for crimes committed during the civil war. Some are very serious, like the hunger strike of the parents of Krishna Prasad Adhikari, murdered in 2004, demanding that the police arrest his killers believed to be Maoist cadres, but others are a little more comical, in a Nepali way, like a recent statement of various civil servants that they would undertake “relay hunger strikes” until their demands were met. I told my husband that I too would be on a hunger strike between lunch and dinner.

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal's last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal’s last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

After living for four years in Nairobi, a city beset by violent crime and the danger of terrorist attacks, it has been a delight to live in Kathmandu for many reasons, including the lack of ubiquitous crime. I can go out at night, with no fear. Driving my car, I don’t have to check my rear view mirror to see whether I am being followed. I don’t even have to worry about drunk-drivers.  Though Nepalis can drink–heavily–the Kathmandu police enforce zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and many an alcohol-scented driver has found himself stranded at a police checkpoint at night.

    Yet national interest and community self interest often clash. Many Nepalis feel that only protests spark government responsibility. In the aftermath of an August 2nd landslide that destroyed villages, killing 156 people and burying more than 10kms of Nepal’s only major trade route to China, the local community’s “struggle committee” blocked army bulldozers from trying to address the ensuing problems, demanding first that the government deliver the aid that it had promised. Subsequently frustrated by government inaction, local businessmen are now building their own bypass road. The government appealed for funds in the local papers, printing a bank account number for Good Samaritan direct deposits. The Chinese ambassador delivered his government’s donation in cash.

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

 In Kathmandu recently, where garbage disposal is beyond a crisis, residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the city’s only garbage dump (a way station to a bigger dump outside the city) complained to the local government about weeks of overflowing and unmanaged dumping. When the city ignored them, the locals padlocked the gate to the dump. Needless to say, the garbage got dumped anyway–somewhere even less appropriate.  

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking as a threat is often used in Nepal, especially by communist youth groups. This year when private schools announced a tuition hike, the youth groups padlocked and sealed the offices of the schools’ accountants, and added threats of violence for good measure. It was fairly effective–because they have a reputation of delivering violence, fire bombing buses and taxis and (just this week) trashing local newspaper offices.

    Friedl Castro definitely had a point about revolution:  it is not a bed of roses. Democracy is also a long, painful, and convoluted process. From 2011 to 2013, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist party’s ideologue, who has a degree in urban planning, was Nepal’s prime minister. It is his vision of widening Kathmandu’s narrow roads that is slowly untangling the capital’s horrific traffic jams. If only the contractors had remembered to add drainage ditches. 

From Kenyan savannah to Nepali rice fields – two worlds connect with barefoot running

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

My father relished recounting the tale of his college sporting efforts. As a freshman, he tried out for the long distance running team and after the first training session the coach pulled him aside: “Lorch,” the coach bellowed. “You run (long pause) as if your were going to a fire (even longer pause) that was going to happen ten years from now!” Poppy switched to tennis. I, like him, was never a big runner. I quit jogging by age 25.

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Last year, at the end of June, I ran the Lewa half-marathon. It is one of the running world’s most unique marathons, set at 1,700m in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.  Runners weave across the hilly, tawny savannah, home to a vast array of wild animals including lions, elephant and buffalo. Helicopters, small aircraft and Lewa’s guards keep the animals away from the dirt track. I ran the half-Lewa, just over 20 kms, as one of a series of rituals I had selected to say goodbye to Kenya, my home for four years. But even though I felt the satisfaction of having trained for two months and of having temporarily given up my daily glasses of red wine (which to me was even more impressive than my return to running after 25 years), I didn’t think much of what future running and I had together.

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A month later, we moved to Nepal. I am not particularly athletic by nature. There is a lot of arguing that goes on between my head and my feet to do anything that involves sweat. Let’s not forget my love of red wine. In Nepal I felt disconnected. We chose to live in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley, far enough away from the center of Kathmandu to avoid most of its choking winter smog but also too far for easy access to a gym. There is a loneliness to life in a new country. It was monsoon season and the air was a sticky cloak that left me soaked after a short walk. It took a month before I had exhausted every possible excuse and only then did I take out my Five-Fingered Vibrams, the same ones that had run Lewa.

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

There wasn’t a Eureka moment. I fought with every inch of territory. Some mornings I just walked. Oh, the mud. Slippery, heavy, thin, thick, glue-like, ubiquitous mud.  Was that smell cow dung? And is there anywhere flat in Nepal? At some point I must have lifted my head and forgotten briefly the effort of moving forward. Then those moments stretched slowly into half-hour stretches. On my ipod, Cesaria Evora, Adele, Chopin and Jai Ho lured me on. I began to wake up earlier because I wanted to run, though our neighborhood Hindu priest should also take some of the credit for these early rises: his endless 5:00 a.m. chanting and bell-clanking is not conducive to a sleep-in.

I owe a lot to Lewa the same way I owe a lot to Kenya. They both guided me over the stumbling blocks of step-parenthood and the art of getting over a life as a foreign correspondent. But running in Nepal has given me a gift of exploration that did not exist for me in Nairobi. I now run because I learn, because every day, every week, every season I explore the amphitheater of fields below my home and the hills beyond the holy and highly polluted Bagmati River. I watch what the farmers plant, how they break their clay-like soil with ancient-looking hoes with handles that seem to go the wrong direction, their bodies bent in two. I have lived the rice cycle from dry planting of dhan (rice seeds), to transplanting electric-green seedlings into the flooded paddies that quickly turn emerald and finally tawny during harvest. Then comes the potato, bean and corn season.

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

I run on the inches-wide mud walls that separate the paddies, on roads hand-paved of rough hewn stone, through towns where culture is still ensconced in ancient times, where the buffaloes and goats live on the ground floor of red brick homes, ducks waddle in the narrow alleys and women card wool on their stoops on rickety wooden spindles. Garlic and red chili tresses hang down from third floor windows and winnowed wheat is laid out to dry on any spare square of earth.

I see this all because I run — catching a regular snapshot of a life that has turned familiar and friendly.  I stop here and there to grab an instant with my iphone–that odd, short-haired woman in black lycra pants with those weird multi-colored Five-Fingered Vibrams. Even after all these months, those shoes remain a huge hit.

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

I never tire of my route. Every run, I am reminded that Nepal of today is quickly dying away.  Every month, a little bit more perceptibly fades. In a few decades, much of this world will be gone, consumed by the unregulated, haphazard, massive urbanization that is devouring every green space left in the Kathmandu Valley. The city of four million has already climbed the last hill overlooking my running route.

It is an extinction of history.

No news from Everest? What could be happening in Nepal?

 

Nepal transport -- I love Nepal because I learn every day. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal transport — I love Nepal because I learn every day. © Donatella Lorch

There is an allure to the mere word “Nepal.” I first came here in 1983, a single 20-something in search of adventure, which I thought I’d find on the trekking trail. I’d met three tall, muscled Australian guys on the flight to Nepal and one of our most memorable moments together was getting mugged our first evening in Kathmandu. The Aussies managed to catch one of our muggers and at 9p.m., on Kathmandu’s desolate main avenue, a traffic policeman commandeered a passing car and stuffed all four of us in it. He then managed to scrunch the mugger onto my lap for the trip to the central police station. Three decades later Nepal lured me back.

If the news is not about Everest, Nepal does not garner frequent attention from the International media. I get the question all the time: “What is it like to live in Kathmandu?” For me, living in KTM, as many call it, is not about Everest. I am not a climber and though I have Sherpa friends, they are what they call “Kathmandu Sherpas” and many do not even speak their ethnic language. I was raised in a French school that had me reciting the altitude of the Mont Blanc, 4,807 meters, and I am not planning to go above it. This is a potential challenge as Nepal offers 1,500 peaks above 5,000meters. My nine-year-old son is obsessed with Kanchenjunga (#3 highest in the world and by far the most unexplored of the high peaks). So Nepal? Well Nepal is quirky, fascinating, ever changing. I often feel that my everyday is an immersion in history, sociology, live-time economics lessons and human struggle. Never in my 15 years living overseas have I been so overwhelmed, mesmerized, inspired, exhausted and at times confused. I love it because I learn every day.

The Rato Machchendranath chariot, almost ready to be pulled through the streets of Patan ©Donatella Lorch

The Rato Machchendranath chariot, almost ready to be pulled through the streets of Patan ©Donatella Lorch

So let’s just leave Everest aside for a while. What happens on an average week in Nepal? You are always guaranteed a religious festival. The Rato Machchendranath (or Red God) will be on for most of May, a mix of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism with a hand-made wooden chariot topped by a teetering rope turret and pulled daily by scores of volunteers around the streets of Patan.

The Maosits can’t make up their minds to get along while the Marxist Leninists are having trouble setting a date for a party meeting. Then it’s the economy. Nepal is a land of strikes – called Bandhs or closures – successfully executed by the Maoists for years as they hermetically closed down the country.

Fuel lines snake around the block - a standard sight in Kathmandu where fuel shortages are commonplace © Donatella Lorch

Fuel lines snake around the block – a standard sight in Kathmandu where fuel shortages are commonplace © Donatella Lorch

This week street vendors want to block all road traffic in three Nepali cities to protest the new government registration requirement. Fast-onto-death hunger strikes are very common as well protesting police and government corruption and most recently two cement workers went on hunger strike demanding contracts directly from the industry. Miraculously we have diesel and petrol this week as the always-broke Nepal Oil Corporation borrowed from the government to pay the Indians the February oil import bill. But even then, some of the tanker drivers run thriving siphoning off businesses and even the owners of the gas stations tamper with their gauges.

Not paying taxes is becoming a dangerous game for some big businesses. In Kathmandu, the battle is between the administration of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) and the city’s plush five star hotels. Apparently foreign favorites such as the Hyatt, the Shangri-la, the Yak & Yeti and the Radisson have not been paying their property taxes.

From which hotel? ©Donatella Lorch

From which hotel? ©Donatella Lorch

Even worse, they have been ignoring bills from the KMC. Little was known about this on-going battle until the KMC stopped collecting the hotels’ garbage this week. In the stand off, it is unclear where the large amounts of hotel waste is ending up. Everyone’s guess is that it is joining the 60 percent of Kathmandu Valley’s garbage: in open dumping sites such as river banks, road sides and in any empty lot in the city. A great technique for attracting more tourists and more hotel reservations.

Last month, the tax authority closed down a wide range of casinos that had not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in back-taxes. Not to be outdone, the Nepal Electricity Authority is chasing down defaulting government ministries and threatening to cut their electricity unless they pay back bills. Nepalese are quick to point out that electricity cuts might not be noticed as the valley already has 12 hours of load shedding a day.

Driving home in the recent storm © Lucas Zutt

Driving home in the recent storm © Lucas Zutt

Then there is the rain. Bad weather this week had been predicted to last at least six days. Occasional thunderstorms culminated in a storm that stretched into hours of unrelenting torrential rain, whipped left and right by winds while thunder rolled uninterrupted across the mountains circling Kathmandu. Sheet lightning alternated with grand Hollywood style blue bolts zig zagging across the skies. Newspapers reported that 82 people across the country were killed by lightning including one sherpa survivor of the Everest ice avalanche.

In Kathmandu, where many roads have been paved in the past few months in a city-wide road-widening project, it seems the contractors skimped on side ditches and connections to sewage systems. The city flooded. Driving home in close to zero visibility, I could hear the water lapping against the car while mini-rivers made of garbage and plastic bags overflowing from the drainage ditches that double as open sewers, rushed down into the intersections. Always looking on the bright side, the government declared that the rains were good news as now officials could identify before the monsoon hits the locations of the worst flooding.

© Nepali Times

© Nepali Times

The sad news is that KTM’s Tribhuvan International Airport removed a collection of Ruslan Vodka advertisements that greeted all arrivals and touted interesting facts about Nepal. “There are 48 airports in Nepal,” read one. The Nepali Times that ran a hilarious photo essay in turn commented: “Only 8 of them have bathrooms.”

 

Will Kathmandu be buried in garbage?

 

The nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

The Nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of trashed plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

Although Kathmandu’s world heritage sites are well known, few may be aware of a new archeological dig that stretches for several kilometers along the Bagmati River. Deep trenches have been dug out, creating 20ft-high hills made of dirt held together with striations of blue, pink and black polypropylene that tell the 30-year local history of the plastic bag, Nepal’s most ubiquitous landmark.

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

In the Kathmandu Valley, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. It is everywhere, stuffed in plastic bags and dropped in drainage ditches or piled high in empty lots, on the roadside or on the edges of the city’s rivers. It is thrown out of bus windows, off roof tops into neighbor’s yards.

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

As long as their house and yard is swept clean, the vast majority of valley-livers don’t seem to care. When it gets too high, the garbage is burned in open areas, the toxic fumes blanketing nearby houses. The plastic bags clog the rivers and choke drainage pipes, creating flooding and spreading fetid, disease-carrying refuse. The health impacts are felt at all levels.

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Rapid unplanned urbanization has brought traffic jams and choking pollution, but politicians in Nepal’s new government have, with few exceptions, shown little political commitment to solving the problem of garbage. In 2011, the government passed the Solid Waste Management Act that set rules, regulations and fines for transgressors but enforcement is weak and detailed responsibilities are unclear.

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

It is a Sisyphean task. The Valley needs clean water but the sole operating waste water treatment plant is handicapped by more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day and needs to be overhauled. Sewage flows untreated into the rivers. There are no proper slaughter houses in any municipalities and no rules for disposing of the city’s dead cows and dogs. They end up in shallow graves near river banks, leaching into the water supply. Hospitals are responsible for disposing their own hazardous waste such as needles, tissues, organs and other body parts, but the government has not provided a dumping site. Some hospitals burn in the open, and others use incinerators that releases dioxin and furan, two highly carcinogenic pollutants. An exception is the government-run Bir Hospital that has even built a bio-gas plant on its premises.

 

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they light the plastic bags covering neighborhood is carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they burn the plastic bags cloaking neighborhoods in carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Sumitra Amatiya, executive director of the Ministry of Urban Development’s solid waste management technical support center, says sanitation in the Valley is in a state of crisis management. Serving Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the valley’s only working landfill, Sisdole, 24 km from the capital, is almost full and during the monsoons is frequently cut off from the city by floods and landslides. The government has bought the land for another site but needs billions of rupees and at least four years to make it operational, according to Dr. Amatya. As a gap measure, they are expanding Sisdole. The Asian Development Bank, which last year published the most researched and detailed Solid Waste Management report on Nepal to date, will begin work later this year on Kathmandu’s waste-water treatment plant. The government has begun dredging the highly-polluted Bagmati, with the aim of laying down sewage pipes as well as planting green areas. It is unearthing tons of dumped plastic and earth but narrowing the river-bed, which experts says can cause severe flooding during the monsoons, spreading disease through its water.

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

While many Nepalese care, city life has eroded the social dynamic of communities that galvanize neighbors to act together. Many try to make a difference. But they are not enough. One ongoing high-visibility clean-up campaign, lead by Leela Mani Poudyal, the chief secretary of the government of Nepal, has been bringing hundreds of people together to clean the fetid Bagmati every Saturday morning for the past 45 weeks, but a one time cleaning, though highly commendable, is not a permanent solution and it will not make the river waste-free. In addition, small non-governmental organizations, many of them focusing on women, teach composting and garbage segregation.

Politicians are quick to point to a new landfill as the solution. But only 40 to 50 percent of the Valley’s garbage goes to Sisdole, and most of it enters the dump unsegregated. The rest ends up on the streets and rivers. Changing the Nepali mindset is the only way forward, Dr. Amatya believes. Composting is key as 60 percent of Kathmandu garbage is organic. There is the need for a government-supported country-wide public awareness and education campaign about the 3Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce in schools, in the media, door to door. Nepalese need to understand the environmental damage of one-time-use plastic bags. As Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor (South Asia) of U.N. Habitat , put it: “We have to dump the attitude.” Only a social movement can keep Kathmandu from being buried in garbage.

A rugby match and the cost of development

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently.  In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently. In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

We landed in Kuala Lumpur at nighttime yet before the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737’s tires hit the runway, the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see a light outside the plane window. Almost immediately, the cabin was coated in an eye-smarting burnt smell. I am a nervous flyer, and on this evening my anxiety was enhanced by the fact that MH370 had disappeared just four days before and that our pilot had not mentioned the weird weather to the passengers.

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My husband and I were tagging along on my nine-year-old son’s school rugby trip. This was a huge event for Lucas and his seven schoolmates as their primary school team in Kathmandu, the Yetis, was (to the best of our knowledge) the first Nepali rugby team to play outside the country. The boys’ excitement was palpable. My third-culture son, who has lived overseas for almost six years, had been reminding me for weeks that he was going to Malaysia to “represent my country!”  When I had wondered which of his three nationalities, American, Canadian and Dutch, he was referring to, he had dismissed my obvious ignorance. “Nepal, of course!”

What we didn’t immediately realize is that the fog with the burnt smell was not only coating the airport but blanketing almost all of Malaysia and parts of Indonesia as well.

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia's shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia’s shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

Many airports in the region had already closed and by the next day, the Malaysian government declared the air quality dangerous, closed over 200 schools in the capital and advised against any outdoor sports. The first day of the rugby tournament was cancelled, much to the boys’ disappointment. The stinging smoke that was affecting their dream school trip was in fact the end product of the needs of billions of people who live far from Southeast Asia.

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia's super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia’s super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Ever wonder about that “vegetable oil” listed as an ingredient in a huge amount of food we all eat?  That vegetable oil is often palm oil, and it is an essential ingredient in margarines, frying oils, cereals, baked goods, sweets and potato chips. It is also in soaps, washing powder, cosmetics and animal feeds, and it can also be used as bio fuel.  Since the 1990s, the demand for palm oil has increased by more than 45 percent. Though 17 countries produce it, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85 percent of global palm oil production. Millions of Malaysians and Indonesians rely on palm oil for their livelihood.

The choking smoke and palm oil are inextricably connected.  Just drive for hours on Malaysia’s magnificent super highways (yes, they have Starbucks stops) and the countryside is almost entirely blanketed by thousands of acres of palm oil plantations.  But growing world demand, especially from China, means both legal and illegal unfettered cutting down and burning of pristine forests in Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia.  The governments, either because of lack of will or corruption, do little to control what has become an environmental disaster. This year, lack of rain means the burning season is particularly vicious on the lungs. The forest peat burns underground for weeks and the heavy smoke just sits over three of Asia’s most important cities: Singapore, Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

Lucas gets basic global warming. He knows it makes winters colder and summers hotter and that New York and Toronto, where our extended family lives, have had wicked snowstorms this winter. His school is plastic free and on eco days, he walks to class. Our lives in Nepal are an unexpected first row seat where we can witness the cost of development.  Lucas knows well the fetid smell of raw sewage from Nepal’s holiest and dead Bagmati River.

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Unregulated dumping of garbage on city streets makes Kathmandu a filthy plastic-bag littered city. An open sewer runs near our house. Massive and frequently illegal stone quarrying in Nepal’s gorgeous rivers and streams supplies the unquenchable thirst for roads and building construction but result in massive erosion, flooding and landslides, destroying bridges and roads and buildings.

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

 

Still it hadn’t occurred to Lucas that eating his favorite sour cream and onion Pringles or Honey Nut Cheerios or washing his hands with soap could be connected to the smoke that cancelled his rugby match. I was struck by the irony that Kuala Lumpur, a modern, vibrant, clean, green gem that stands apart from the region’s capitals, was being asphyxiated by the very development and industrialization that had provided the money to make it so special.

Malaysia has built itself up as a favorite tourism destination. Its ubiquitous slogan, “Truly Asia,” could be misconstrued on smoky days. Luckily for the Yeti team, it rained and then it poured, and the smog cleared. They won one match, tied another and lost two.  The memories will last a lifetime.