No smoke without fire in Kathmandu


Perhaps the most overlooked source of the tiny particulate matter that makes Kathmandu’s air so hazardous is the open burning of household waste. Even in wealthy areas, lawyers, teachers, and doctors burn yard waste and garbage, including plastics. In doing so, they endanger their own health and that of their neighbours.

Most people -- even government officials – do not realise the scale of the problem. ‘Open burning of municipal solid waste,’ Tribhuvan University's Bhubendra Das has written, ‘is a poorly-characterized and frequently-underestimated source of air pollution in developing countries.’

In a 2018 study, Das and his team discovered that Nepal has three times as much open burning as officials think. 

The topic is often misunderstood. ‘Unlike vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions,’ Das writes, ‘the common public and elected officials are relatively unaware of the significance and harmful impacts of open burning.’

A 2020 study found that garbage burning increased PM2.5 concentrations by nearly 30% in India and Nepal, and kills thousands upon thousands each year.

Another recent study, by Kathmandu University’s Prof Khanal and Kundan Chaudhary, shows that 9% of Kathmandu's waste is burned. That means Valley residents burn one in every 10 plastic bags, toothbrushes, and plastic buckets, launching toxic contaminants into the open air. Imagine the putrid fumes of a fire with all these plastic bags, toothbrushes, and buckets in the open lot next to your house, blowing into your young child’s window. 

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In Kathmandu, the open waste burning epidemic is tied to the city’s waste disposal problem. The two are linked. 

‘People fail to realise that by burning waste, you are simply transporting the waste from the land to the air we breathe, which will ultimately affect our health,’ Shilshila Acharya, director at the waste management company Avni Ventures, recently told the Kathmandu Post.

Much of Kathmandu’s deadly air starts as waste  – the dried plant matter, plastics of all kinds, and other household items that we no longer find useful. Burning it becomes the easy way to get rid of it – except that it often returns as the tiny toxic particles that we breathe into our lungs.

Traditionally, Kathmandu households collected waste in empty lots. The Newar scholar Todd Lewis has written, ‘have long designated certain small side courtyards as garbage dumping spaces called sāga, places that were to be cleaned out once a year.’ Government sweepers also helped clear away refuse.

Over the decades, Mary Slusser observed, Kathmandu’s inner core, which sat on a bluff above the Bishumati, was extended outward by filling in low areas with refuse. Buildings erected on such unstable land sometimes collapsed during the rainy season.

But, as early as the 1960s, Kathmandu’s garbage began piling up. In 1966, Gorkhapatra reported about ‘the heaps of garbage from courtyards and lanes’ endangering public health.1 ‘Some portions of the city,’ it warned, ‘are dirty and constitute a danger to public health. Prompt action is necessary.’

Prompt action did not arrive.

Read also: Where to take a dump, Bhushan Tuladhar

Increasingly, Kathmanduites turned to a convenient dumping ground: the Valley's sacred waterways. ‘Domestic and shop refuse,’ a 1971 WHO report noted, ‘is either thrown into the street or allowed to accumulate in private courtyards.’ But refuse swept up from the streets ‘is carried in baskets to one of the rivers, where it is dumped in the river bed or on the bank, thereby attracting flies and rats, and causing foul odours, water pollution and the desecration of beautiful scenery.’

Tourists, the report added, often complained about stench and eyesore. That was 1971, 50 years ago. Today, it is hard to imagine that Kathmandu's growing reputation as one of the world's most polluted places is attracting people to the city. It is astonishing that a city that makes its money from tourism pays so little attention to the pollution that tourists find so revolting. 

Kathmandu is hardly the first city that has struggled to dispose of its waste. In the US and other parts of the world, waste has long been a problem. But other places have built systems that keep the water and air cleaner.

In mid 19th-century American cities, garbage was given to pigs or “swill children” who piled it in carts. These children scavenged edible parts, sold compost to farmers, and sold the metal, bones, and bottles to junk dealers. Ragmen sold rags for making paper. Women fed leftover scraps to chickens and pigs. 

But the system collapsed in the late 19th century: with industrialisation and new consumer items and packaging, the waste piles grew into mountains. City governments responded aggressively, taking control of waste management. Some cities burned, others dumped. Chicago dumped its waste into Lake Michigan, St. Louis and New Orleans into the Mississippi River. In 1886, New York City pitched 80% of its 1.3 million cartloads of garbage into the sea. Neither burning nor dumping was friendly to the environment.

And despite these efforts, by the mid 20th century America’s waste situation had grown dire. As manufacturers began to build “planned obsolescence” into their products, and as Americans grew more and more obsessed with consumption, convenience, and disposability, waste exploded. 

Read also: The COVID-19 plastic pandemic, Sonia Awale and Ramesh Kumar

Between 1940 and 1968, Americans doubled their per capita waste, from 2 to 4 pounds each year (about 1 kg to 2 kg per person). Much was plastic packaging. By 1964, the nation’s 192 million people each consumed 2,000 packages a year – 384,000,000,000 in total. In 1976, Americans purchased more plastic by volume than all steel, copper, and aluminum combined. 

Something similar happened in Kathmandu, only more recently. Indeed, just as the US and other countries were organising to clean their water and air in the 1970s, Nepal was beginning to drown under unmanaged solid waste, one cause of its dirty air. 

Nepal’s history is particularly tragic because, with waste, Kathmandu actually had many good traditions to draw upon. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, when I first came to Nepal, Kathmanduites survived without much stuff. They reused things. They turned plastic milk bags into flower containers. Little shops bundled goods in newspaper or old student homework. At celebrations, people served food on plates made from leaves, not plastic. With such gentle traditions, Kathmandu could have avoided the problems that plagued cities elsewhere. But Kathmandu lost these good habits. 

One friend recently marvelled to me how, when she was young, her family were so eco-friendly. They produced almost no non-biodegradable garbage. They recycled and re-used. They didn't have to reduce because they never used much in the first place. 

But, she eventually realised, these habits were not a product of environmental consciousness. They came by necessity, not by design. They grew not from an ecological awareness or sense of responsibility. No environmental sensibility was at work. Just as soon as her family found cheap plastic bags, plates, and cups easy to come by, they abandoned their environmentally-friendly ways to become champion polluters.

Read also: What will Nepal do with its e-waste?, Sonia Awale

Even if until not long ago Kathmanduites needed only a few things, most of which they found locally, recently their "needs" have mushroomed, usually driven or flown in from far away, sometimes hundreds and even thousands of kilometers away. 

‘With more ‘stuff’ available to buy and more money to buy it,’ environmental journalist Cheryl Colopy writes in her excellent Third Pole essay "Why are South Asia's Rivers so Filthy," ‘there is more to throw away.’  And often, Colopy notes, the junk goes into rivers. 

But Kathmanduites have also found another convenient solution: burning. If the US is a "throwaway society," then Nepal is a "throw-it-and-burn-it" society. Burning is a familiar, easy option. And, for anyone who breathes, it’s also hazardous.

One reason why burning is so familiar is that most Nepalis, even in urban areas, come from rural areas. Agricultural societies routinely deploy fire. And in monsoon Nepal, where heavy rain leads to explosive plant growth, fire can be an essential dry-season tool. 

People have brought these habits to the city. ‘Nepal,’ a 2020 Kathmandu Post editorial noted, ‘has a long history of open burning being culturally accepted. Every year, people throughout the country take the opportunity of a dry spring season to clear out the bramble and weeds that have encroached upon their lands over the previous year.’  

All this burning adds up, especially in a big, dense settlement in a small, bowl-like Valley. ‘A few practicing such burning tactics would not be an issue. But with the population on the rise, this has become a significant challenge,’ notes the Post.

Most of the Valley’s open burning, the research shows, is concentrated on the city’s edge and in residential compounds. On the city’s outskirts, there’s more yard waste than in the city core but also insufficient and irregular waste disposal services. Indeed, in the Valley’s smaller towns, 50% of waste goes uncollected. This soon begins to smell and look foul. It attracts pests. Burning is one way to "solve" the problem, to make it go away.

Ignorance and negligence also play a role. Many wealthy residents routinely burn their garbage, including plastics, and yard waste, even though they have other options. When neighbours complain, they give excuses, dismiss the problem, or blame their servants. It is clear that values need to shift, and the authorities need to step in. 

Read also: Managing Everest's waste problem, Alton C Byers

Reducing waste burning is one important way to clear up Kathmandu’s air. It’s not hard. Indeed, it’s "the simplest way to make improvements,” says Bhushan Tuladhar. “It is controllable."

Three things would help: a better waste disposal system, with separation of waste at source; more awareness; and strict enforcement. "With a little strong enforcement, a big change is possible," adds Tuladhar.

Open burning should not be so hard to stop in urban areas. Plumes of smoke can be seen from a distance. You can find the fires easily. And the Supreme Court ban on open burning in the Valley in 2018 has made it doable. But people still openly burn. Open burning seems another manifestation of Nepal’s implementation crisis.

The burning of agricultural waste in fields is more difficult. It is hard to dispose of stubble without fire. But yard waste and garbage burning is different. It’s the “low hanging fruit” in controlling air pollution. "Changing transport is hard. You need to change the whole system,” says Tuladhar. “It’s the same with brick kilns; you need to change a big industry. But open burning should be preventable."

Read also: Nepali entrepreneur turns trash into cash, Naresh Newar

Tom Robertson, PhD., is an environmental historian and creator of the “Mitho Lekhai” YouTube channel. His article “Conservation at the Crossroads” appeared in Nepali Times on 25 January 2022 and “Kathmandu’s ‘Flash Floods’ are 4 Decades in the Making,” on 25 July 2021.

[1] “Public Health,” Gorkhapatra, May 22, 1966, as found in Regmi Research Project, 527/66.