cities | Waste Management | consciousness | development

Our waste management problem is exactly what we think it is

Forgetting and striving to stay blameless is our characteristic disposition

- By Anurag Upadhyaya |

Photo by: Aashish Thapa
Photo by: Aashish Thapa

What are the challenges of waste management in Kathmandu city? [5]

The challenges of waste management in Kathmandu city are as follows:
o Lack of coordination between the administrative body and grassroot workers.
o Lack of proper education on waste management.
o Lack of economic resources.
o Lack of skilled manpower.
o Lack of effective formulation and enforcement of rules and regulations.

And five marks are secured. Any eighth grader gives nearly the same response to any question pertaining to problems in Nepal. Aside from that we consider “manpower” and “economic resources” distinct answers, the example above presents something true about how we, the proud citizens of a beautiful country now so severely polluted, think and live.

Before I point out some characteristics of these responses (which, make no mistake, are indeed the ‘right answers’ to the question), allow me to persuade you first that we guide our thoughts with this: What would I write if this was a question in an examination sheet?

A short story: Recently, I found myself in a workshop full of scientists and researchers in Nepal. The participants, all experts in their fields, were asked to work in small groups and to deliberate on a few questions. Each group was expected to come up with a short presentation of what the group discussed, discovered, and found through the exchange of thoughts and ideas.

Only, there was no discourse, no exchange of thoughts and ideas, no discovery, no findings. There was, however, a presentation ready at the end.They succeeded in coming up with five seemingly distinct ‘points’ in response to each of the prompts. They utilized allocated time to micromanage what point belonged where, how they were to be worded, and what order they were to be put in.

But of course, ‘sustainable’, ‘policy’, ‘administrative’, ‘resources’, ‘youth’, ‘practical application’, ‘education’, ‘skilled manpower’, ‘increased awareness’ – all jargons we learn as schoolboys and schoolgirls appeared in the sheets. When they were presented, everyone in the hall comprehended, applauded, and at the same time considered it dispensable and superfluous.

How could they have found it meaningful? By profession, they were scientists and researchers. They are trusted to recognize the distinction between ‘true’ and ‘correct’, between ‘necessary’ and ‘possible’, and make use of them as appropriate.

But imagine they really were serious about these jargons, not that difficult to imagine. Each of us are in some way serious about them. They are not altogether meaningless either. Only, what once were strict technical terms got taught to our population at large. The technical terms lost their stricter sense. They became jargons in everyone’s pocket. And now, when one (everyone) uses them, nothing is clarified by them. They give a vague sense of something.

Take for example, ‘limited resources’, how profound a challenge to everything in Nepal. What do we mean by it? We may mean insufficient cash flow, we may mean insufficient laborers, we may mean insufficient raw materials, we may mean insufficient technology, we may mean insufficient dedication from policymakers, we may mean insufficient motivation in laborers, we may mean inadequate health condition of the laborers, we may mean inadequate skills of policymakers to properly order the priorities, and we may mean all of these.

We do, in fact, mean all of these by this handy phrase. How unhelpful a cause it then becomes! Everything, it will seem, needs attention and change. And we call it a systemic problem – a jargon we learn much later in life. The solution then becomes systemic change, and every individual remains guilt-free for the problem at hand.

Now what does all of this have to do with solid waste management in Kathmandu? Isn't the problem of waste management in the city conceived as a systemic problem? Do we not arrive at this conclusion from our early education? When we see piles of garbage in the street, when we throw our garbage in the street, do we not find ourselves blameless for the act? If only the municipality had done its duty………

The sight of garbage piled up by the streets is not a novel sight for the locals. But just as they appear, they disappear, and we forget until it reappears. Forgetting and striving to stay blameless is our characteristic disposition. Who is responsible for the garbage piling up in the streets? We answer: the bodies that we pay to remove them.

A recurring problem. The sight of garbage piled up by the streets is not a novel sight for the locals. But just as they appear, they disappear, and we forget until it reappears | This photo was taken in 2018 | Photo by: the_farsight

We ourselves are not responsible for the waste we produce. We take the production of our waste as a natural consequence of living in the city, and we are used to unburdening ourselves by paying some money for it. This is also how we, the proud residents of the city of temples who are mostly atheistic, think and live: money can be used to transfer responsibilities.

Last month, not unlike many years, piles of garbage suddenly reappeared in the street, around the valley | The current mess in Kalikasthan | Photo by Aakriti Maya Aryal This time, it was most obvious to all that Mahanagarpalika was not simply to be blamed – at least not as the sole party unable to remove solid wastes from the streets in Kathmandu.

Why were the garbage bags piling up on the street? The sources of the waste, namely, households and businesses, did not have space for these wastes within their territory. We are used to some authority clearing our wastes. We suppose these authorities have space and capacity to process and deal with our waste. In fact, we are used to this very idea of waste – that it is something which can have no space within our households or businesses, and therefore needs to be taken away by somebody else.

We pay someone else to make space for what has no space in our households and businesses. What they do with the collected waste, we were not concerned with, for the longest. But why must we have an idea about it? Do we not also pay taxes to remove the need to be concerned with these things?

For starters, we need to know whether our trusted authorities are only temporally addressing our issues, finding short term and unreliable methods to unburden us. We can then either prepare for impending doom or pressure our authorities to work towards reliable ways of addressing our problems.

As a main course, consider why we started a democratic movement and what this movement demands from ourselves. The promise of our democratic movement was transparency in administrative functions and informed involvement of us, the citizens, in governance. We seem to have forgotten this later part. Ignorant citizenry was already the norm; we wanted democracy to create informed citizenry.

In other words, we had declared in our democratic movement that we were willing to be responsible for all the good and the bad that our democracy was to bring. To fulfill our duty as residents of this city, we need to be concerned with what happens with the waste collected by our authority, amongst many other things. But we want our democracy to keep our leaders accountable, not ourselves.

We had not fully realized that the waste-collectors we interacted with were not really making the space for our waste. The residents near the landfill site were making that space for us. But were we paying them for it? Municipality had promised to compensate them for it, and the promises remained on papers only – the papers that we hardly get our hands and eyes on. We seem to forget that when KMC makes promises, we the residents of Kathmandu, make the same promise along with them.

But can the residents near landfill sites ever be compensated? What would we take from KMC, as a compensation, for us to keep the waste we produce within our spaces? Clearly, no compensation can be thought of for the overall degradation of life that living with our own wastes would bring us.

We protested by piling our wastes on the streets, instead of demanding any possible compensation from KMC for managing our own wastes. It’s unthinkable. Our households lack space, technology, and dedicated manpower required to process our wastes. We expect KMC to be better equipped. KMC is equipped alright, as long as it is permitted to threaten the livelihood of Sisdol residents, and eventually Banchare Dada residents.

When Sisdol residents protested, we no longer had access to the landfill sites and we used our own streets as a landfill site, except our streets are not purposely designed for waste management. We had an opportunity to sense what the daily experience of the residents near landfill sites has been for the last seventeen years. The dismay we felt for a couple of weeks, they have felt for years, at a greater magnitude. And finally, our worries have been catered to, garbage has been lifted from the streets. Sisdol residents, on the other hand, continue to live in the same dismay.

Waste, perhaps, is a natural consequence of living, but we are ashamed to dispose of the most natural wastes (human feces, and urine) in public, and rightly so. Other creatures in the city (dogs, cows, chicken and many more), however, shamelessly defecate in the streets. Our disposal of ‘city wastes’ in the streets imitates the same shamelessness that these creatures display. 

But we did not suddenly turn shameless in this way. We have been demonstrating this shamelessness in our habitual littering. The casual disposal of cigarette butts, candy and chewing gum wrappers, receipts from businesses, and plastic bags, by the street sides, is a norm amongst us.

We do not discourage our young ones from swinging their arms to litter the streets. It would be hypocritical and blameworthy to guide our young ones in this way. We do not keep ourselves from swinging our arms in the same way. We have deeply cultivated the convenience of dropping unwanted things in the streets. Why carry them with us when we can inconsequentially do away with them?

We thought the same about the wastes that were to be taken away from us but were not. We shamelessly did away with them. Result: small garbage mountains around the city that did not attract anyone. Its stench bothered passersby and its physical presence made the pedestrians unhappy. But in the midst of all this disarray, our street dogs seemed to feast all day long and have a great time. Maybe, Tihar is a great occasion to pile up garbage in our streets. 

Jokes aside, until we feel ashamed to litter our streets, and until we feel deeply responsible for the waste we produce and for how our authorities process them, the problem of waste management in Kathmandu and its surrounding municipalities will remain a systemic one. Everything will need to change, and nothing will. How we develop shame and responsibility, I do not know. But we surely lack them, collectively. 

Before I part away, I feel compelled to give you something you are most used to seeing concerning solid waste management in Kathmandu. Here it is: 

Mayor Balen has made newer promises to the Sisdol residents. The foul smell from the landfilling site will disappear in a few weeks from now. But if it were so easy, why were they not removed from the first year of landfilling in Sisdol? There’s more. The leachate is to be removed in a few months. And there’s much more, apparently 18-points of promises in total. Add to it the agreements made with the local officials before the one with the residents.What were they? Who will remember these promises? And how long until our streets once again reflect the realities around the landfill sites? 

Here's how much waste needs management, in Kathmandu and its surrounding, daily.

Here's how much waste needs management

For comparison, we can fill nearly 35 swimming pools with the waste we produce each day. We are not entirely helpless. New York City, with only three times more population, produces ten times more waste, daily. Yet, their management of waste, though environmentally taxing, ensures that NYC residents do not make open display of the waste they produce.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to waste management. Our city will need to find what works best for it. Our conversations on waste management would not die out once say, NepWaste* comes to full operation and processes our waste. The conversation on waste management will then turn into conversations on the environmental effects of waste management plants. With our city living and our democratic spirits, we must welcome these conversations, engage with them, be concerned about them, and care for them.

*NepWaste: NepWaste Pvt limited is assigned to implement the Municipal Solid Waste Management of Kathmandu City with project scope of collection, transportation, processing for waste to energy and landfill management of about 1,000 TPD of waste produced by the Kathmandu city. The appropriate W2E technology is to be built, operated and transferred to the government after 20 years of operation.

The project is envisioned to improve the living conditions of four Million people living in Kathmandu Municipality and nine other adjoining municipalities. The project will engage about 4,000 people currently working on different segments of waste supply chain and scrap business and provide occupational health & safety, bringing them too in the definition of formal workers (As detailed in LinkedIn page of NepWaste).

In 2018, Nepal Investment Board (IBN) and NepWaste signed a preliminary Project Development Agreement (PDA). But the project is currently in limbo after the IBN withdrew from the project since the waste management fell under the jurisdiction of local governments under the new constitutional provision and NepWaste’s proposal for some changes afterwards where NepWaste and KMC have not been able to come to any agreement.

Anurag Upadhyaya is a writer/researcher.

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