Kathmandu’s Polycrisis

RIGHT BANK: Even a moderate monsoon downpour this week caused the Bagmati to overflow, submerging the banks. Kathmandu is not prepared for a convergence of crises that has made the capital unliveable. Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

Kathmandu Valley’s rivers have always been in full spate during the monsoon, but their wide floodplains allowed the water to spread while fertilising the banks with nutrients.

But in a process that accelerated after the multiparty system was restored in 1990, and especially since the Maoist conflict began in 1996, the Valley’s population exploded. The real estate mafia and their political partners gradually encroached on the riverine flats.

Some of the tributary streams of the Bagmati now have roads and houses built over them, others have been squeezed into narrow canals. With just 90mm of rain in 24 hours, these waterways easily overflowed this week, submerging the banks. 

“It was not a lot of rain, but it fell over a short period and there was nowhere for the river to go,” watershed expert Madhukar Upadhyay explained to us. 

Read also: Thunderstruck in Nepal, Shristi Karki

Rainfall patterns have changed with frequent torrential microbursts or prolonged drought due to climate change, but the main reason is that we have constricted the rivers and streams.

“This should be taken as a warning,” Upadhyay added. “This week’s floods could have been as bad as they were in Uttarakhand or Beijing if rainfall was heavier. We should have had strict zoning laws about not building along floodplains.” 

Kathmandu’s urban heat island effect meant that this year’s pre-monsoon maximum was up to 5°C higher than average. Trees that would have cooled things down are gone, concrete and asphalt trap the heat.

In winter, the Valley’s air quality is unbreathable and off the charts. Inability to control vehicular fumes, garbage burning and brick kiln emissions means suspended particles are trapped under an inversion layer. The city has now given up trying to control vehicle emissions, and subcontracted it to the private sector.

Read also: Nepal needs to get its climate act together, Editorial

Emissions can be curbed with a systematic push towards electric public transport and battery-powered vehicles. This would also mean using surplus clean hydroelectricity that is going to waste. Instead, the government has increased taxes on electric vans.

In his election pledge, Mayor Balen Shah promised to clean up Kathmandu’s air and trash. But there has been no effort to segregate waste, leading to chronic problems at the landfill site. A foreign investment proposal to manage waste and generate power through incinerators is stuck in red tape.

None of this can be blamed on the climate crisis. Media headlines call floods ‘monsoon havoc’, but they are actually ‘human havoc’ — a result of regulatory failure, poor planning, corruption and individual greed.

Yet, there is a climate dimension that is making existing problems worse. A new report by the Integrated Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD) shows that Himalayan glaciers shrank 65% faster between 2010-2020 compared to the decade before. At this rate, 80% of the ice mass will be gone by 2100. In addition, springs are going dry and the water table has receded. 

Read also: UN climate report declares planetary emergency, Sonia Awale

“We are now past adapting to climate-induced calamities, we have to talk about mechanisms to pay for loss and damage,”  ICIMOD Director Pema Gyamtsho told a webinar this week hosted by Climate Analytics South Asia. “But while the global community debates loss and damage, climate-induced disasters continue to render many people homeless and hopeless.”

This July was the hottest ever globally, and some weather extremes that climatologists had predicted would take place by 2050 are already happening. World leaders will meet in Dubai at COP28 in November and discuss reparations for climate harm.

“Loss and damage funds may or may not happen, but we in Nepal must take preventive action with local participation immediately,” says Madhukar Upadhyay.

That advice is most relevant for Kathmandu, where federal agencies and mayors must work in close coordination to tackle the Valley’s polycrisis.

Read also: “We have not respected the fragility of the Himalaya”, Nepali Times

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.