Kathmandu’s waste is making Nuwakot sick

Landfill site for the capital’s garbage has poisoned the bucolic valley, making it unlivable

Workers at the landfill site in Bancharedara. ALL PHOTOS: SAMRAT SILWAL

Even before you see it, you smell it.

Just off Kathmandu Valley’s western rim, over a ridge and down the mountain, visitors are alerted to the landfill site by the pungent stink.

Trucks loaded with garbage ply the narrow dirt road and bulldozers stand by on the roadside to clear the frequent landslides.

The sludge from the landfill enters directly into the nearby Kolpu River as swarms of flies, eagles and vultures fly above the wasteland. There a stark contrast between this mountain of trash and the lush, tranquil forests and green terraced fields surrounding it.

For residents of Sisdole and surrounding villages, the smell has been a constant companion for nearly two decades. And with the new landfill site in Banchare Danda just 2km away, they worry their health and livelihood will continue to suffer because of what Kathmandu throws away.

“This place is now unlivable, we sometimes wish that it would stop smelling for a few hours so that we could catch a break,” says Krishna Ghimire, a local farmer who also runs a shop nearby.

But it is not just the sight and the smell that the residents are concerned about. Many in the villages are falling sick with rashes, skin allergies and even cholera.

“When we pass the landfill, we get rashes and allergies. A few months ago, I got a cut while on the road next to the dump and it took three months to heal. It was just a small cut,” says Krishna.

At a nearby health post which serves as the sole medical centre for residents, staff member Jyoti Maya BK sees 25 patients daily, more during the monsoon.

"The waste just leaches out and flows directly into the river. Farmers who tend their fields have chronic skin allergies, asthma and sometimes even cholera,” says BK. “The health post is flooded with such cases during the monsoon. It becomes difficult for us to work as we are understaffed, and we don't have a doctor here either.”

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Recently, residents here have also noticed the number of cancer cases going up. Although there has been no formal study that links it to the landfill site, locals say it is a worrying trend.

"The long-term exposure to the landfill environment can result in rise of recurrent chest infections and pneumonia,” says pulmonologist Ekta Rana Malla.  “Prolonged exposure to chemicals from the landfill can give rise to Occupational Lung Diseases or Interstitial Lung Diseases, and pollution and smoke give rise to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases. It can aggravate diseases like bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, skin diseases etc. If infants and children are exposed then there's a high risk of recurrent infections with can ultimately affect their growth.”

When Sisdole was selected as the landfill site for Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, Kakani and Banepa in 2005, it came with a list of promises: employment opportunities for residents living near the landfill, development of healthcare facilities, better roads, and community development schemes. The locals were also told that the landfill was temporary and would be in operation for only three years.

Seventeen years later in April 2022 Sisdole was finally full, unable to take anymore of Kathmandu’s waste. But the promises remained unfulfilled. Instead, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) decided to shift to Banchare Danda. This sparked protests in the district as irate locals stopped trucks from dumping trash in the landfill.

Watch: Wasted Politics: Kathmandu's Garbage Problem

"When trash collection stops in Kathmandu, there is news about how people are suffering in the city. What about us who have lived with trash for the last 17 years?" asks Parmila Ghimire, a Sisdole local (pic, right).

Her husband, Keshav Ghimire, adds, "Actually, we had invited KMC with garlands to dump waste here. We wanted good roads and infrastructure in the village but sadly they haven't come through with their promises. Even the road they built is for trucks to transport waste to Sisdole and Bancharedara."

The agitation coincided with the election of Kathmandu’s new mayor, Balen Shah who made it his top priority to resolve the issue. To keep the Sisdole residents happy, the government signed an 18-point agreement on 9 June 2022 once more promising better waste management and finding scientific solutions.

But with nothing changing from the government side, locals once again took to the streets in July, and the government resorted to using security forces to continue waste disposal in Bancharedara.

"For many years we have been asking for a solution from the government, but it has not listened. We have to live with the stench all the time, and now there will be two landfills in this area. We feel abandoned and are treated like stateless people. Now, our only demand is that this area should either be free of waste or we should be resettled," said Thakur Ghimire, ward member of Kakani-2.

Kathmandu Valley and Banepa generate an estimated 1,200 tons of waste daily. Most of which ends up unsegregated in the landfill site. Meaning even if 60-65% of the waste is organic, it may get contaminated with batteries and e-waste being thrown in the same place. More harmful is the leachate which seeps into water bodies, contaminating ground and river water, and impacts on biodiversity.

"When we use the water from the Kolpu for farming, we get rashes that last for weeks. Some of our cattle have died drinking from the river," says Krishna Ghimire. "Earlier, we hardly used pesticides for agriculture, now, we have to use it to get a meagre harvest. All of this happened after the landfill."

According to Shilshila Acharya, a climate activist and waste management entrepreneur the other danger is a process known as ‘bio-magnification’.

She explains: “Contaminants like mercury, arsenic, and pesticides, such as polychlorinated biphenyls and DDT, are consumed by organism transferring them up the food chain.”

Bio-magnification makes humans more susceptible to cancer, respiratory illnesses, kidney and liver problems, congenital disabilities, and heart diseases. Scavenging animals and flies of which there are many in Sisdole, also act as disease carriers.

With haphazard dumping and no sustainable long-term plan, Kathmandu’s and in turn Sisdole’s garbage problem is deep-rooted. Segregation-at-source at every stage before finally using the landfill and supporting all the players in the waste value chain can be a solution to Kathmandu’s waste.

"This issue deserves top level attention, and we need to support the best minds trying to solve this problem. There will be many opportunities for job creation. But, sadly, I don't see any urgency from the government," says Acharya.

The last time Sisdole residents staged a protest Mayor Balen Shah announced that the households had to segregate waste before sending it off to the waste collectors. But months down the line little has been done to implement it or to assist Kathmandu’s residents to segregate household waste.

And the Sisdole residents continue to be trapped between the two landfills and a state that has continued to turn a blind eye to their condition.

Says Acharya, "This is not simply an environmental issue, it is also a social justice issue. We accuse developed countries that injustice has been done due to their greenhouse emissions, but within Nepal we commit injustice to rural communities like Sisdole. If one day Pokhara decides to dump its waste in Kathmandu, would we allow it?"

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