Down to the river

“Nothing has changed….The same smell, the same trash clogging the water, the same unpleasant feeling – this is the heartbreaking state of the Bagmati River”

Sonika Paudel
Illustration of two children running amidst greenery
04 June 2023

Five years ago, I was living with my older sister in Lalitpur as I prepared for my college admission exams. Born and raised in Chitwan, this was my first time away from home for any extended period of time, and the experience was jarring for me – in one particular way.

Every day, after my classes, my sister would come to pick me up so we could go back together. Just as we crossed the bridge from Kathmandu into Lalitpur in Tripureshwor, I would be hit with the intense longing to ask my sister, “Can we go down to the river for a bit?” Back home in Chitwan, we used to spend hours next to the Narayani River, dipping our toes in the shallow pools along the banks and admiring the view, especially during sunsets.  

Here, though, I can’t ask that question. The river is an entirely different entity, hostile and unfriendly, something to be turned away from as quickly as possible, noses instinctively covered to avoid the unpleasant, rotting smell.

I’ve been back and forth from the city many times since then, but whenever I cross that bridge, I am transported back to those moments five years ago, because nothing has changed. The same smell, the same trash clogging the water, the same unpleasant feeling – this is the heartbreaking state of the Bagmati River, a river so revered by so many communities in the country. And I always wonder, “How could we have let this happen?”

The answer, of course, can be mainly attributed to unregulated disposal of solid and liquid waste in the water of the Bagmati. Waste management has been a persistent issue in Nepal, increasingly intensifying in heavily populated urban areas like Kathmandu where the system is under heavy strain, and we have yet to come up with a long-term solution. This means that waste continues to be dumped into waterways, leaving them polluted and filthy, and killing the aquatic ecosystem – and all who depend on it. While regulation against dumping of industrial waste does exist, strict enforcement has been lacking.

Lack of public awareness about the consequences of poor disposal is another key issue that needs to be addressed. People throw away their garbage so thoughtlessly, and as the population grows, so does the burden on the waste management system.

Against this context, it is imperative that the government and partners urgently prioritize and invest in sustainable waste management programmes. Attention needs to be focused, foremost, on research and data – after all, we have to understand the problem better in order to come up with feasible plans and actions.

These insights would inform the development of a proper waste management strategy, to effectively guide efforts like formal waste recovery and recycling programmes at the local levels, and provisions for mandatory segregation and integrated solid waste management.

We also need to stay open to innovation, including through increased collaborations with the private sector, for example. Such partnerships, designed to leverage the influence and resources of the private sector towards the greater goal of improved waste management, could be the game-changer we need.

Lastly, I would implore the government and stakeholders to please listen to young people. There are so many examples of youth-led enterprises and initiatives across the country, whether those focused on recycling, upcycling, promotion of eco-friendly products and others – it is clear where the creative energy and ideas lie. It’s important that they are heard and encouraged, and given a seat at the table when it comes to discussions and decisions on climate action. This is their future we are talking about, after all.

And maybe, just maybe, if we are able to find a way out of this mess, there’ll come a day when I can finally turn to my sister and really say, “Can we go down to the Bagmati for a bit?”

About the author 

Sonika is UNICEF Nepal’s Youth Advocate for Climate Action.

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