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Kathmandu’s Uncoordinated Attempt to Manage Earthquake Debris

In the absence of a workable government action plan, citizens have begun recycling and rebuilding on their own

Even before the data was calculated, Dr Alka Sapkota, a young environmental expert with the Nepal government, knew the administration would be unable to efficiently clear the massive amount of debris left behind by the April 25 earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. The figures confirmed it: Nepal’s Kathmandu valley generated approximately 3.94 million tons of debris. “An equivalent of nearly 11 years of waste was generated in one day,” Sapkota is quick to remind me when I probe her about the delay in clearing the debris.

Nepal post earthquakePhoto by courtesy of Asian Development BankThe Kathmandu valley generated about 3.94 million tons of debris after the April earthquake. While it’s encouraging to see citizens manage their own debris, there is growing concern about the way potentially hazardous material is being handeled.

A major chunk of the detritus in this unplanned metropolis consists of construction material: bricks, concrete, wood, tin, broken furniture, wires, electronic equipment, and other scrap. Most buildings in the area are made of reinforced concrete, or mud and mortar with either tiled or corrugated iron sheet roofs. “Eighty percent of this debris in Kathmandu will be recycled – with or without the government’s help,” assures Sapkota, who works for the government’s Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre.

The Nepalese government plans to pull down all the severely damaged buildings, sort out concrete and bricks that cannot be reused, crush these materials and create recycled bricks or filling material for roads and other structures. Debris that is contaminated by lead infused paint or contains asbestos, pesticides, and acids is to be appropriately processed before being reused or cast away.

But so far government has no clear action plan in place on how this will get done. It is still working on formulating a process that will enable it to collect the debris, process it, and employ it in the reconstruction effort.

But even if a plan were put in place, does Nepal have the equipment and know-how for such an ambitious task?

“We have some equipment, I mean, there are equipment in the country, some of this is privately owned and really expensive to take on hire, but if we can get them and formulate a good policy we have enough expertise,” Sapkota says. However, she is less certain about how the contaminated and hazardous debris will be safely dealt with.

In 2014, the nation’s federal affairs and local development ministry had drafted a “strategic plan” for post-earthquake debris management in the Kathmandu valley, but it was based on a fantastic overestimation of a possible disaster scenario. The draft plan, that was submitted, based the entire process on a magnitude 8 to 10 event that the planners estimated would destroy or severely damage 60 to 80 percent of houses in the valley, and generate 55 to 65 million tons of debris. While helpful to some extent, the plan lacked specific instructions about debris management that could be used in this recent disaster. (The April quake had a magnitude of 7.8 and, as mentioned above, generated 3.94 million tons of debris)

In the absence of a government plan and pushed by economic necessity, people in the city, and across Nepal, have taken it upon themselves to sort the debris and begin the reusing, recycling, and rebuilding process. All across Kathmandu, amidst the rubble, rust-colored bricks and resinous sal wood – commonly used in homes and buildings here – are being separated and piled up for reuse. “We separated the bricks, and wood. We will reuse some of it, to reconstruct the house and the compound wall, the rest we will sell off to a contractor,” says Narendra Raj Pandey whose central Kathmandu home was among one of the about 750,000 houses that were destroyed or severely damaged by the tremors.

Building contractors too, have been buying up reusable bricks and wood. Since the earthquake, the demand for bricks has risen and so has the price. A single unpolished locally-made brick worth 15 Nepalese rupees ($0.15) now costs 18 rupees ($0.18). An average sized single story house in Kathmandu requires about of 40,000-50,000 bricks.

The country’s ministry of environment, science and technology estimates that nearly 1.12 billion bricks will be required for reconstruction of damaged buildings across Nepal. Manoj Aryal, an environmental inspector with the ministry, warned that manufacturing the bricks would necessitate large use of coal and soil.

While it’s encouraging to see private citizens manage their own debris, there is growing concern about the unchecked way this is being done. Contaminated and hazardous material, which people don’t know how to handle, is often discarded in low-lying areas within city limits. Untreated debris is being buried, increasing chances of toxic seepage into water supplies. “This is where we need to step up, but the government [action plan] is yet to be prepared,” says Sapkota.

Even before the earthquake, managing the 1000 tons of waste generated every day in Kathmandu was a challenge the government could scarcely cope with. Without adequate equipment, policy, and political will, the capital had already developed a massive waste problem given the rapid rate of unplanned urbanisation. Yet Sapkota is optimistic. She believes that a national workshop on post-disaster reconstruction this month will allow different government departments and other stakeholders to come together for the first time and push for meaningful change in the way waste — post-earthquake and otherwise — is managed. Experts and international developmental partners are hopeful that by focusing on post-earthquake reconstruction, Nepal’s infamous bureaucracy will untangle the red tape that has prevented the formulation of responsible waste management policy.   

“The process of managing hazardous waste is still lacking. E-waste, too has not been talked about. And these are serious concerns. But we will use this opportunity to pass policy that will make sense and make most of this chance that the earthquake has given us,” Sapkota says.

Slok Gyawali
Slok Gyawali is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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