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Crisis in Kathmandu

January 21, 2001

Nepal news


I am writing to you from the streets of Kathmandu. Like myself, you might also regularly experience the increasing pollution that already covers our capital city like a great cloud. Some of you will need to work every day in tiny shops filled with fumes from passing vehicles. A few of you will have even lost close relatives whose lives were shortened by the density of chemicals in the air. Increasing Maoist insurgency in the Valley may appear to be the biggest problem facing the Government at present but the crisis surrounding Kathmandu is far greater than mere popular discontent. The whole city is under siege from land speculation, uncontrolled development and even Nature itself.

Visiting Nepal for a few months every year with my son, the annual changes in Kathmandu have a much greater impact on me than if I lived here all the time. Over a period of 25 years I have watched this wonderful city evolve from the most charming city in the world to one of the most unhealthy places on Earth. Some of you may remember the days when even Ratna Park was peaceful and the air was good to breathe. Thamel was a backwater then and Singha Durbar seemed almost out of town. Of course those days are gone now but most of you will have no difficulty in remembering the time when the snow still sparkled on the Langtang peaks in the crisp November air. And all of you in Kathmandu will surely remember the evening glow on the hills around the valley.

The changes over the past 25 years have certainly been great but those over the past two years have been too fast for comfort. When I arrived last November the difference over the previous year struck me very hard. No longer could I see the golden roof of Swayambhu glistening in the sun from my room. A haze of cloud and pollution covered it almost every day throughout the peak season. Even the light was weaker. The solar powered electric system couldn't draw enough sunlight to heat the water. The Sun seemed only a casual visitor whilst the year before it was our constant companion.

Worse still, a large number of high new buildings have erupted across the city shutting off light and views to their neighbours. Despite tourist numbers falling each year by significant levels, building fever in the city goes on unrestricted. All land in the Valley is currently building land and so the price of a decent garden around a property is too expensive to leave undeveloped. New buildings grow like weeds with no overall planning and little architectural merit. A year before, a short stretch of open land still existed by the road before Bhaktapur. Today the two cities have merged in a continuous urban spread that will soon engulf Banepa. A simple photograph taken every year from Swayambhu can show the evidence. The city is spreading across the valley like a gigantic monster that no one seems to be controlling.

Of course such things must be expected in a developing economy. As in all other developing countries, the rural population is declining as more people seek work in cities. But what makes the problem so difficult in Kathmandu is its geography. At 1500 metres above sea level, surrounded by a high wall of mountains, the Valley simply cannot sustain unlimited urban growth. The high altitude makes the air pollution heavier and more difficult to blow away. The bowl of mountains reduces the passage of cleansing winds and traps the pollution inside it. Seen from the surrounding hills, the whole valley is covered in a layer of yellowish smog that gradually thins with altitude. It has reached such a level now that the famous mountain views from Nargacot and Dhulikel are rarely seen even in season. Plainly the Government must address the problem with urgency as both the health and the future livelihoods of many citizens are at risk.

Inside the city simple measures can be taken to help protect inner city inhabitants and improve the attractiveness for tourists. Across Europe the ancient centres of major cities have been given severe traffic restrictions and even pedestrian only zones. Like old Kathmandu, their streets were too narrow for traffic so they simply outlawed it. There seems no reason why the same measures might not be applied here. If the heart of the old city was restricted to only pedestrian, cycle and rickshaw traffic during working hours, the upturn in tourist trade would easily reward the effort. And the improved air quality for everyone would be an added bonus.

But the main problem needs greater adjustment. Nepal is extremely centralised in its government and its outlook. Everything seems focused on Kathmandu. Royalty, Government, Finance, Business and even Industry all centre their efforts in the Valley. But Kathmandu is a 'No Solution' city. As it grows larger its problems become worse. Banning the most polluting vehicles may temporarily ease the problem but each year the number of legal vehicles always multiplies and the overall pollution always increases. The country desperately needs the development of another major city in the Terrai to ease pressure from the capital. That will not be achieved with grand directives or statements of intention. The government needs to lead the way and decentralise itself in order to stimulate that development. A greater degree of regional administration would certainly help but, like in Holland where a similar crisis once faced Amsterdam, a gradual move by Central Government to a more suitable city would be the most comprehensive signal for the establishment of another major urban development.

That change will need time and something must be done quickly if the Valley is to remain a decent place to live and visit. Not only must stricter planning controls be rapidly developed but their effectiveness must be increased as well. New constructions outside the city should require a minimum quantity of land to be permissible. If every new house needed 2 or 3 rupenees of land around it the quality of life for everyone would be greatly improved. Such things might appear radical for a society not used to strict regulations but Nepal is charging into the modern age and its administration needs to move with it.

With my best wishes to you all,