Tangled Journeys on NPRnews.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there. Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.
“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas. www.plasticfreehimalaya.org
In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year. As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”
Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.
Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?
There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.
Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts. The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.
“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles. But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.
In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.
In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.
The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.