8 MIN READ
Mayor Balen Shah’s commitment to improving Kathmandu’s solid waste management system is cause for optimism. But there are no overnight solutions, and the spotlight must stay on the issue.
Newly elected Kathmandu Metropolitan City mayor Balen Shah has continued to dominate headlines even days after the announcement of his election victory this past week.
His independent candidacy in the mayoral race was characterized by a passionate, youth-driven campaign of unprecedented energy and fanfare. Its momentum has sustained, with frequent updates on his whereabouts becoming the talk of the town as citizens pin their hopes on the new, charismatic outsider to bring positive change. With Monday’s Municipal Council meeting being live-streamed in an effort to boost governmental transparency, Shah has already secured his first goodwill victory as mayor.
Shah’s mayoral campaign revolved around an assortment of important, pertinent issues that lie at the heart of Kathmandu residents’ lives. Instead of relying on age-old campaign templates with predictable pie-in-the-sky rhetoric, Shah’s candidacy captured the city’s (and really, the nation’s) imagination with its razor-sharp focus and relatively conservative plans to improve traffic management, enhance public service delivery, control pollution, and set up a mobile pothole repair service he calls the ‘infrastructure ambulance’. It was his prioritization of Kathmandu’s solid waste management problem, however, that I think played the biggest role in his campaign’s success. It is also perhaps the one issue that is going to have the biggest public microscope on it through his tenure.
Even before taking the oath of office and officially assuming his position as mayor, Shah signaled his commitment to the issue by visiting the landfills of Sisdole in Nuwakot, Kathmandu’s primary solid waste dumping site. Every year, residents of Sisdole protest the Kathmandu government’s handling of the public health risks caused by the garbage dump by barring trucks from entering the landfills. Similar protests occurred in the newer Banchare Danda dumping site as recently as May 26. Residents have put forth demands including financial compensation and improved infrastructure in return for allowing Kathmandu to dump waste in their area. The garbage piled along the streets of Kathmandu through the vote-counting period was a symbol of tragic irony amid the optimism that surrounded the elections.
In yet another show of his dedication to the cause, and a touch of political flair, Shah also stated that he would not accept garlands, khadas, or any forms of felicitation until substantial progress is made on the city’s waste problem. He reflected on interactions with the residents of Sisdole saying, “They are the victims of our sins. The people of Sisdole are suffering from cancer and skin diseases because of our garbage.”
Following the Municipal Council meeting, a five-member task force was formed under the leadership of Mayor Shah, also including Deputy Mayor Sunita Dangol, to study Kathmandu’s waste management problem in detail.
Kathmandu’s solid waste management problem now has a bigger spotlight on it than ever before. Shah’s commitment to the challenge and the city’s palpable excitement about its prospect is an excellent place to start. It should be noted, however, that the problem is a largely systemic one that cannot be solved overnight. Solid waste management has been one of Kathmandu’s biggest scourges for many decades now, and it has only grown with the city’s expanding perimeter and increasing population.
To put it bluntly, Shah has inherited about as poor a public waste management system as is possible in a city the size, climate, and population of Kathmandu. The aforementioned landfill in Sisdole, Nuwakot, first came to be used as a temporary dumping site for an allotted period of three years while authorities identified and developed a permanent site. That was over 15 years ago. Under normal circumstances, up to 200 vehicles dump solid waste in Sisdole every day. The landfill, located in a steep gorge spanning over 38 hectares, is now beyond over-capacity. A mountain of garbage grows every year. During the monsoon, heavy rainfall causes garbage to flow down onto the roads and nearby settlements, causing extreme health risks.
According to estimates from 2021, the 3.32 million people residing within the 18 municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley generate over 1,200 tons of solid waste on a daily basis. At least 75 percent of this waste ends up in a landfill; the other 25 percent is dumped in empty plots, emptied into the Bagmati river, or burned in the open to disastrous public health and environmental effects. A 2020 Kathmandu University study found that about 9 percent of Kathmandu’s waste is burned, increasing the concentration of air particulate matter (PM2.5) by nearly 30 percent, killing thousands every year.
A new landfill at Banchare Danda was opened in 2021, but ongoing conflicts with locals have prevented it from being used to capacity. The status of the development of an incinerator cell at the site is unknown. According to Shah’s own investigation, monitoring has not been carried out by either the city or the concerned federal and provincial ministries. It is thus currently unclear when Banchare Danda can become fully operational to ease the load off the overcapacity Sisdole landfill. Based on his election manifesto and interviews he’s given on the campaign trial, Shah’s first priority is to speed up this process.
But what about reducing the amount of waste that goes into the landfill in the first place? The most obvious, yet least popular answer, is to segregate waste at the source and carry out collection separately. Doing so would help allocate organic waste to productive ends and recover recyclable materials. Unfortunately, there isn’t a strong culture of sorting garbage into separate recyclable, non-recyclable, and compostable organic parts, especially at the household level. Segregation takes time, conscious effort, and is just too bothersome for most families and businesses who don’t already have a habit of doing so. Furthermore, garbage collection processes often dump all trash into the same trucks headed for landfills anyway.
Mayor Shah plans to mandate separate vehicles with different day-based schedules to collect different types of garbage. This is an excellent place to start, but it must be supplemented by programs designed to incentivize citizens to segregate their garbage first. The administration need not look beyond already operating social enterprises such as Doko Recyclers and Khalisisi that emphasize an exchange of value as incentive. No matter how small the amount may be, if the local government can allocate resources to financially reward people for segregating their garbage, studies from around the world have found that such programs can actually save municipalities a lot of money in the long run. Incentives aside, a 2018 survey of Gorkha Municipality showed that about 67 percent of respondents said they would be willing to separate their waste if the government strictly enforced it.
What is less discussed is the role emerging technologies can play here. Around the world, waste-to-energy tech has normalized the burning of garbage as fuel to generate electricity. Studies conducted in the United States have found that solid waste can be reduced by about 87 percent by simply sorting and recycling appropriate materials to generate energy before shipping garbage off to landfills. Of course, setting up such plants can be expensive and time-consuming, but they also bring opportunities for successful private-public partnerships. Wet, biodegradable municipal waste, biomass, cow dung, and drainage sludge can technically be commodified for energy generation now. Only the necessary infrastructure is missing.
One such promising technology, which has already been piloted successfully in Kathmandu, is the biomethanation plant in Teku. The bioplant officially began generating energy through methane gas obtained from bio-waste amidst much media coverage in 2017, following the election of Shah’s predecessor Bidya Sundar Shakya. Five years later, however, the technology has not been scaled up to expand to other such plants and the media has seemingly lost interest.
Kathmandu’s solid waste management system is ineffective and unsustainable. It has also grown more structurally complex and difficult to entangle over time. Equally intricate are the ways in which social inequities along the dimensions of ethnicity, gender, and landlessness intersect with the waste problem. Mayor Shah’s energetic campaign, emphatic first week in office, and seemingly resolute conviction towards this challenge has given Kathmandu residents a cause for optimism. Given the scale of the problem, though, it is on the citizens to hold the new administration to account as its priorities and attention shift over the years to come.
Shuvam Rizal Shuvam Rizal is a Kathmandu-based researcher. He is the founder of Rizolve Sustainable Solutions, Research Lead at Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal, and climate change columnist for The Record.
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