A load of rubbish
Nepal’s capital stank for more than a fortnight before Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) decided to resume garbage collection this week with the Department of Roads agreeing to repair the route to the Sisdole landfill site, 30km away.
Kathmandu’s only landfill Sisdole has already reached its maximum capacity, and every monsoon the rains damage the access road to the site with the locals having to navigate in knee-deep sludge. The overpowering stench from the heaps of garbage is enough to make residents sick.
“Our water sources have been contaminated and farms are infertile. The road leading up to here is in a sorry state and yet the concerned people pay no heed,” says Bimala Balami of Sisdole.
“From sunrise to sunset that mountain of garbage is all we see, we inhale the bad smell more than we do oxygen,” she adds.
This is echoed by her neighbour Sangita Balami: “The odour from the garbage dumped here is there all hours of every day, there is no respite, people are getting sick.”
The residents started a protest when a 70-year-old woman died on 22 August, attributed to a possible cholera outbreak. The local authorities brokered a deal with an agitating group obstructing the movement of vehicles with a 14-point agreement on Wednesday when the cholera suspicion was proven to be unfounded.
The garbage trucks and containers are now on the move, but it will still take a week for the municipality to manage to lift litter off the streets. Some 15,000 tonnes of waste have been piled up in different parts of Kathmandu Valley because of the lack of proper solid waste disposal in the past two weeks.
Stretched over 38 hectares, the Sisdole landfill is located on a gorge that is now not just full, but has grown into an enormous mountain of garbage. When it was first turned into a landfill site in 2006, the KMC proposed to use it only for three years but 17 years later, 75% of about 1,200 tonnes of daily waste generated in Kathmandu Valley ends up here in Nuwakot.
Under normal circumstances, up to 200 vehicles dump the waste in Sisdole daily, which is later pushed around the site by an excavator at a height of about 200 meters.
“Back then the government had acquired our land for the site, we were promised jobs,” says Bimala Balami. “But they were distributed unfairly. Some people here receive annual grants from the government but others don’t even get a penny.”
Rapid and unplanned growth coupled with poor municipal management has meant that Kathmandu has always had a garbage problem. Kathmandu needs another landfill site and the proposed alternative Banchare Dada, 1.9km west of Sisdole, has been under construction for years.
The Ministry of Urban Development had signed a contract with Lumbini Koshi and Neupane JV in April 2019 to complete the work at Banchare Dada within a year. The project will cost at least Rs346.8 million with the 91 hectare site estimated to be usable for 25 years. But more than two years later, the new landfill has no completion date in sight.
Exactly 50 years ago in 1971, the first international consultant on solid waste management had studied Kathmandu's waste management system and proposed a landfill site.
In 1996, after a 15-years-long effort by the Germans to set up a waste management system in Kathmandu, a German fact-finding mission concluded that the problems relating to municipal waste management in Kathmandu are not technical in nature, and the constraints to developing environmentally sound, cost-effective and sustainable solutions are institutional, organisational and financial.
Studies have shown that segregating waste would cut the volume of trash by half, since up to 70% of the daily collection is biodegradable. We know what the problem is, we know what the solutions are, but there is little political will to follow through.
There has been interest from the private sector to recycle the organic waste, plastic, metal and glass, and install an incineration plant to generate electricity from the rest, but the project got stuck in the bureaucracy with reports that officials demanded kickbacks.
Says environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar: “Kathmandu’s solid waste mismanagement is once again making headlines as it does every monsoon. Unfortunately, the main obstacles to a solution have remained the same for the past five decades.”