Sustainable Development | Urbanisation | Public Transportation | Pollution

Haphazard | Photo by: Sabin Jung Pande
Haphazard | Photo by: Sabin Jung Pande


Kathmandu - A crumbling valley!

Kathmandu Valley has lost its fertile land to sprawls while hills and forests are felled without rethinking. The air has become toxic, rivers are polluted and drying up. So is the groundwater. Open spaces are encroached. Kathmandu feels hotter than before. Monsoon is becoming intense; flooding is recurring, and the risk of earthquake isn’t done yet. Migration doesn’t seem to stop while planners and private investors are chipping in nothing substantial but ‘concrete’ projects. Where does it put the once beautiful valley?

By Sabin Jung Pande |

Valleys and cities should be young, vibrant, inspiring and full of hopes with a system in place that works for all classes of people. 

What comes to mind when one imagines 21st century cities are images of rich history and heritage, open spaces, clean air and water, dependable public infrastructure like transportation, uplifting climate, vibrant schools, colleges and universities, museums and libraries, ample recreational activities, booming formal economy and ample opportunities to afford better quality of life.

Expectations multiply when it is about the capital region of a country with history and heritage as that of Kathmandu Valley.

The valley is an agglomeration of Nepal’s prominent and busiest cities — Kathmandu, its capital city and financial centre alongside architecturally finessed cities of Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Thimi and Kirtipur. 

But with an utterly shambolic and destructive urbanisation along with an uncontrolled level of air and water-borne pollution, one of the highest in the world, the valley is now a hideous, soulless, and chaotic destination and appallingly lacks a distinct personality desired out of a megapolis. 

To say the least, it is fraught with disastrous possibilities where an estimated five million population live and depend upon, subjected to an everyday deteriorating quality of life.

Ugly Urbanisation
In 1976, just after six years the ring road demarcated Kathmandu, the valley’s urban coverage stood at 20.19 sq. km. By 2002, it grew to 78.96 sq. km. and 139.57 sq. km. by 2015. Its population counted 2.51 million during the 2011 census which is projected to reach 3.26 million by 2021. That is an average annual population growth rate of 3%. Other reports suggest that the valley’s growth rate hovers around 4 to 5 percent. Almost 40% of 2011’s population lived in Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) alone. Administrative, financial and corporate headquarters and supposedly best medical and education services and major tourism centres are the valley's high points.

These stats make Kathmandu one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in South Asia.

But what is perceived as a by-product of industrial growth and often associated with impressive economic performance, Kathmandu’s urbanisation doesn't hold such track record. 

Instead, it’s an outcome of deeply flawed —  with not process, planning or end goal — centralised ‘development’ fuelled by the real estate boom, and unregulated financing and buttressed by lack of governance.

To get a feel of this myopia better, a vantage point would be the right place to survey the valley. An endless wave of asymmetrical and inferior cement structures expand to the horizon without a trace of land-use planning and industrial, residential, commercial and agriculture zoning.

One will observe that housing concepts such as low-costs housing and managed mass housing blocks are virtually absent with exceptions of few high-rises and planned stand-alone residential, which lost a great amount of public confidence after the devastating earthquake of 2015.   

Unplanned built-up areas had already started spreading far and wide much before that and continue till-date. What compounds this rapid transition—unplanned low-density urban sprawl —into one of the most challenging economic and ecological problems of our times is how it has devoured green hills, rapid rivers, fertile lands and rich forests without rethinking about the future. 

A 2017 study based on Landsat images say that the valley experienced an expansion of built-up area by 412% in the last three decades, most of which occurred by consuming agricultural land that lost 31% of its area. The state of Kathmandu’s rivers doesn’t need any statistics to corroborate how urbanisation has destroyed them.

In addition, Kathmandu’s whole urbanisation penalises public at every step forcing them to take up private solutions to remedy every public problem. That puts all the stress back on the valley’s natural resources and nation’s cash-strapped coffer.

One way to understand how this phenomenon has spiralled into a complex problem is by analysing what other perennial problems now engulfs the valley. 

Inefficient and traumatic transport
The commuting behaviour slowly changed in absence of good public transportation policy as a component of broader urbanisation vision. The extent of transformation now poses as one of the vicious threats to this valley.

Existing transportation system is unsystematic, undisciplined, insufficient and syndicate-driven worsened by poorly managed traffic and poor roads, all of which has made commuting a stressful activity for millions of people with and without private vehicles. 

In a need to manage daily rush, private transport, mainly two-wheelers, have become an indispensable part of life despite having downsides such as health, accident and financial risks, and their enormous contribution in air pollution, traffic woes and economic losses.

It is reported that some 200,000 four-wheelers and 800,000 four wheelers ply in valley streets on a daily basis, all of which add to the country’s ballooning import bill and choke the city with traffic congestion. A total of 903 lives were lost in road accidents in the valley alone in five fiscal years starting from 2014/15. In addition, there is enormous economic cost associated with the unchecked pollution they cause.

Toxic Air
In addition to enormous toxic vehicle emissions, Kathmandu’s air quality has another adversary – brick kilns. Around 120 brick kilns operate in the relatively compact bowl-shaped valley compared to country wide spread, says the study – Dirty Stacks, High Stakes: An Overview of Brick Sector in South Asia. These brick kilns operate under conventional polluting technologies making the sector a major contributor to air pollution. Air pollution is also exacerbated by the dust pollution caused by Kathmandu’s construction works which follow haphazard ways of doing things. 

Dying Rivers 
Once known for their sanctity, Kathmandu’s river network has completely lost its splendour today. Encroached, heavily polluted with solid waste and sewages and facing existential threat, they seek redemption, only little of which seems possible now. Its present state reveals how much people value rivers and their linkages with deep-rooted practices associated with the valley’s glorious but forgotten civilization.

Erratic monsoon and recurring floods

Rivers have long been encroached for roads and settlements. With the monsoon cycle becoming unpredictable and extreme, river flows are now trying to find their natural stream. In recent times, the valley has been facing strong monsoon and frequent floods across river corridors threatening and disrupting the adjacent settlements and roads. Researchers are concerned that Kathmandu may face more devastating monsoon and floods in the future.

Dearth of open spaces
Other than Tundikhel stretch and Narayanchour Park, there’s hardly any open green public spaces elsewhere. Existing spaces are either encroached or ill-managed.  

For instance, despite having history of being one of the oldest parks, Ratna Park is today a filthy park notorious as hotspot for prostitution and drug addicts. The adjacent Khullamanch is occupied by KMC office as a bus park. Its 12-storied headquarter is being built at the other end in a nearby old bus park area at a snail pace. 

A part of Tundikhel is still buried with debris of the earthquake and ongoing construction of Dharahara. In Lalitpur, open space in Godawari Municipality is occupied in the name of road and other constructions. These are all representations of a wider phenomenon in the country.

Of late, there are few ongoing efforts to convert encroached land space into public spaces initiated by several municipalities. Nepal Reconstruction Authority has also come out with an extensive plan on reforming the vast stretch of Tundikhel in all its historic entirety- from Rani Pokhari to Tundikhel region occupied within the Bhadrakali Headquarter of the Nepal Army. 

NRA’s plan is doubtful considering how projects hardly materialise in Nepal while KMC’s recent announcement to build a mega hall at Bhrikutimandap, which is among Kathmandu city’s few remaining vast open public spaces, or the recent construction activity at Kamal Pokhari that miffed conservationists, are final nails in the coffin to fully cement the city. 

Although open spaces proved to be the safest harbours for people in Kathmandu when the deadly earthquake struck the country in 2015, development and management of more open spaces, at least small parks within each medium-sized neighbourhood, is still a far-off dream.

Increasing city temperature
Lack of open green spaces and trees mean that people in Kathmandu are devoid of fresh breathing air and cool shade amid Kathmandu’s gradually increasing seasonal heat. 

Studies and public experiences tell that core cities in Kathmandu are getting hotter owing to human’s unrestrained anthropogenic activities that have paved way for heat trapping inside the cities where cement, bricks, blacktops and fuel smoke dominate urban spaces, aided by Kathmandu's bowl-shaped geography. The process broadly understood as making of urban heat island is enormously hazardous to human health; exacerbates climate risks and the melting Himalayas. Recent photos of the Himalayas stripped of snows are a telling sign of what is about to come. 

Depleting underground water
While temperature is rising above the land, unrestrained groundwater extraction is drying up water beneath. Impervious concrete structures have proliferated far and wide, obstructing natural restocking from monsoon rain. 

According to several studies, ground water could be depleting at an alarming rate in many places in Kathmandu as many households, factories and firms like hospitals depend on ground water extraction to meet their water needs including drinking. 

How will the water get in?

A study by the Ground Water Resources Development Board says the water table has fallen beyond 40-50 meters which was earlier accessible at 8-10 metres from ground level. Another study, as reported by The Himalayan Times, shows that Pepsicola experienced a fall of eight metres, from 30 to 38 metres, in the span of five years from 2008 to 2013. In Lubhu, the water table fell to 40 from 30 metres in the span of 2001-2014. 

Failure to recharge underground water timely and sufficiently will not only spiral into a deep water crisis in the future but can also lead to land subsidence as experienced in Jakarta which is becoming one of the fastest sinking cities in the world.

Chaos inside cities
Leave the seemingly posh areas as Baluwatar, Durbarmarg and Jhamsikhel, and take a walk to the innermost parts of cities and observe their details – the crowd, the housings, their walls and shutters, the shops nearby, the hanging wires, the roadseas, the pavements, the sewages, the dusty air and the claustrophobic density in all that. You’ll see a sea of slums surrounding small islands of prosperity. 

Inside the cities, there are politically protected squatter settlements. Roads and streets are littered with wastes and trash and filled with potholes, ditches and leaking drainages. Freely roaming dogs and cattle are frequent sights.

Sidewalks are either narrow or missing, or obstructed with construction materials, parked vehicles or shop extensions. Muddled and entangled cable, telephone and electricity wires hang freely one electric pole to another. 

Many pedestrians and drivers lack civic sense; others are forced to flout traffic rules due to the ineffective road and traffic management. Forget about separate cycle lanes, simple solutions such as trash bins and functional streetlights are still not there.

Come monsoon, roads, streets and pavements turn mayhem when downpour befalls on them. 

Amusingly, there are rare times when a part of Kathmandu gets its rare but artificial orderliness – as soon as geopolitically prominent international leaders are due for state visits to Nepal – overnight temporary facelifts happen in the center hiding their mess behind picturesque flex banners. Business as usual continues in the rest of the valley and rest of the time. 

Even if Kathmandu is supposed to get its permanent facelift, the public would hardly rejoice it considering all the hardships attached.

Construction works like roads, bridges and underpasses have a history of facing time and costs overrun and negligence from contractors. The ways they are carried out wreak nightmares on nearby residents, businesses, pedestrians and commuters with extreme dust pollution, mess and traffic problems. 

Baneshwor-Koteshwor road extension, construction of Kalanki’s underpass and Chabahil road sections and the ongoing underground power cables installation are vivid examples. Even simplest repair and maintenance activities like sidewalk or sewage repairs don’t follow necessary protocols.

Where does it leave us?
Major cities around the world are busy thinking about reforms on how to manage climate risks and become inclusive, better-managed, sustainable and green, provide better ease of living to their people and inspire emerging cities. 

Trapped in a vicious cycle of economically inefficient and environmentally perilous urbanisation, Kathmandu’s most difficult problem would be - how do you fix the damage that is so deep and complex – to mend these intricately crammed cities and where should one begin from?

If the sprawl is stopped, how do you fulfil housing supplies? If existing built-up areas are to be improved by house and land-pooling, how do you convince the private owners? If new cities are to be developed as the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority is preparing to, how do you prevent further congestion of people and buildings? Or, should they just repair what's broken first?

How do you bring back natural streams to the dead rivers? How do you tell commuters to use public transport, one that has lost credibility while the public is instead increasingly inclined to owning personal vehicles that actually cost fortunes? How do you develop an efficient public transport infrastructure? 

How do you tell people to demolish their walls and create wider space for sidewalks or give some space to breathe? How do you improve existing built-up areas and stop the need to sprawl? How do you convince non-essential workers like informal workers working as middlemen around government offices, running small retail shops and workers living under dismal working conditions — it’s time to return back home? 

Melamchi project, waste management works, and water treatment facilities (finally at the verge of completion), river management plans and plans to operate electric buses have been languishing for years now. How do you accomplish them?

How do you manage development resources — beg, steal or borrow?

Above all, how do you disrupt the local politics that lack intent? 

It’s all complexly intertwined, and goes too deep.

For future generations, there is little to fantasize about Kathmandu under such a dystopian outlook. All this should leave us in jitters, dispirited and ashamed!

What was Kathmandu’s past like? How did we get here? Where are we heading? On our next part --> Kathmandu's decay: what it could have become, what it turned into!

Sabin Jung Pande is the editor at the_farsight.

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