Cleaning up high places

Managing solid waste in the Nepal Himalaya with a case study of Langtang National Park

All the media attention these days is on Kathmandu Valley’s garbage crisis, and how the municipal authorities are trying to find a sustainable solution.

In Nepal, more than half a million metric tons of waste is produced every year in the municipalities alone, much of it dumped in landfill sites. But as the road network expands, and tourism picks up again after the pandemic, garbage is increasingly becoming a problem also in the mountains.

While the Everest Trail has been cleaned up with the initiative of local youth, other popular trekking trails are facing the problem of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste.

Langtang National Park is a popular trekking destination because of its proximity to Kathmandu and its rich natural and cultural heritage, including endangered species such as snow leopard, red panda and musk deer.

It is a valley dominated by Langtang Lirung (7,227m) and other spectacular mountains, rangelands, forests, and glacier-fed streams. In 1976, Langtang became the first national park to be designated in the mountains.

The earthquake-avalanche disaster of 2015 hit tourism hard, with the region getting almost 18,000 visitors in 2019. The pandemic reduced those numbers to near zero, but trekkers are starting to return.

With this, there is the burden of waste, and this is a growing concern in this geographically fragile and ecologically sensitive area. Some around 200,000 plastic bottles are discarded in Langtang valley every year, and there may be around 5 million bottles remaining in the area from the past.

There have been initiatives to buy back plastic bottles, and transport them to Pokhara to be recycled into, among other things, an alternative to asphalt in paving roads. But a self-sustaining solution is needed.

Waste production is shaped by economic, geographic and social factors. In the case of Langtang National Park, the major contributors are tourists, international and domestic guides and porters, local communities, and seasonal internal migrants.

Post pandemic, Langtang National Park has been receiving a steady flow of tourists. From July 2021 to January 2022, about 10,400 tourists visited Langtang National Park, spending an average of 10 days in the park. There are 115 households in Langtang village and Kyangjin Gompa, and most depend on tourism-related activities such as running lodges, tea houses and portering.

Only about 5% of locals are involved in agriculture and yak farming, and much of construction and portering work is done by migrants from other parts of Nepal. Together, they contribute significantly to the production of plastic bottles, glass bottles, and wrappers.

Changing food practices are also changing the profile of waste in the area. Traditional dishes take longer to prepare and require more fuelwood and are being replaced with packaged foods like noodles, leading to high production of non-degradable waste.

Post-earthquake reconstruction has also led to traditional houses being replaced by concrete blocks. The construction materials including cement, plastic, and steel bars are transported up on mule trains or by helicopter. Left-over packaging and construction waste litter the settlements.

The lack of waste treatment and management facilities in remote mountain settlements means that accumulated waste ends up in valleys, pastures and waterways directly impacting on the environment, biodiversity, and livestock, and spoiling the destination itself.

Glacier-fed streams and rangelands especially at the entrance to Kyangjin are littered with plastic wrappers and bottles, and these can be found all the way up to Langshisa and Yala Glaciers.

Langtang has three species of wild ungulates – Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), Himalayan gHoral (Naemorhedus goral), and blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) which require salt licks for survival.

Locals say that they have seen the animals licking instant noodle and biscuit wrappers for salt, sometimes swallowing the plastic. Mules, horses, yaks, and yak hybrids often get sick and sometimes die from ingesting plastic waste.

Even biodegradable waste takes longer to disintegrate at these high altitudes, where the temperature can drop to -40C in winter. Along with unplanned and improper waste disposal, this could be a much bigger problem in future.

Scientists who have been coming up to Langtang Glacier to measure the impact of climate change have seen the litter problem get worse every year.  Solid waste management is a priority for the Park authorities and buffer zone committees, but much more needs to be done.

A temporary landfill site has been built in Kyanjin Gompa where solid waste is collected and dumped, although it is not used very effectively.

Collected waste is also carried down to Syabrubesi and from there to Kathmandu and Pokhara for proper disposal. There have also been annual awareness campaigns by the Park authorities in collaboration with the Nepal Army, buffer zone committees, and local people.

Partnership for Sustainable Development (PSD) Nepal, a non-profit, is promoting the principles of a circular economy to manage plastic waste in partnership with local communities, Langtang National Park, and the District Administration Office. This pilot project collects about 10,000 plastic bottles for recycling every month.

But a much more holistic and multi-level approach is required, including the declaration and enforcement of Langtang National Park as a plastic free region. This can be supported by systematic garbage collection and disposal, including construction of a treatment facility.

Equally important is awareness and behavioural change as has happened in Sagarmatha National Park. This can help conserve the pristine mountain environment, reduce the risk to biodiversity and ecosystems, and continue to support the local livelihoods that are so dependent on nature-based tourism.

Finu Shrestha is a Remote Sensing and Geo-information Analyst at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) with more than a decade of experience working in cryosphere research. 

Sunita Chaudhary is an Ecosystem Services Specialist at ICIMOD with nearly 10 years of experience in natural resources management in Australia, Austria, Cambodia and the Hindu Kush Himalaya region.

Read more: Refuse, recycle, reuse, repurpose plastic, Aria Shree Parasai

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