Kathmandu: A city in despairThe Kathmandu Valley Development Authority is largely responsible for the haphazard expansion of the roads by destroying settlements and heritage sites.
Locals of Khokana and Bungamati have been protesting against building the fast track highway next to their historic settlements. The Nepal Army has set up a camp, likely to check public obstruction, and started the construction of the expressway, which has changed certain aspects of the detailed project report accepted by the cabinet. Further, an outer ring road and new town developments are being planned in the fringes of the Kathmandu Valley. If these projects are implemented, the valley is also going to lose its last remaining green spaces, agriculture lands and groundwater recharge areas. Policymakers and planners are yet to realise that these projects, including road widening activities, will further accelerate urban sprawl in the valley and be a recipe for ecological disaster.
Worsening air quality, road fatalities and increasing monsoon flooding events are telltale signs that Kathmandu is already heading towards becoming an unlivable city. It is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in South Asia, and the urbanisation is rapid, uncontrolled and environmentally unsustainable, according to a World Bank report published in 2013. If the urban expansion continues business as usual, Kathmandu will face unprecedented stress on land resources and also significantly increase vulnerability to disasters, including earthquakes.
Biggest land-use change
The biggest urban land-use change in the valley came after the construction of the ring road in the 1970s, which accelerated the built-up areas both inside and outside it. A 2017 study published by Ishtiaque, A; Shrestha, M; and Chhetri, N, using Landsat imageries, showed that the built-up area increased by about 120 percent between 1989 and 1999, largely along the major roads. In the last three decades, it increased by 412 percent, while agricultural land encountered a 31 percent loss. The sprawl was primarily fuelled by road development without proper urban planning including a real estate boom and migration.
The notion of development, as defined by wider roads and more cars, continued. In late 2011, the then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai started a road widening campaign supposedly to reduce worsening traffic congestion. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded the six-lane Koteshwor-Bhaktapur highway and eight-lane Maitighar-Tinkune highway; they were built dissecting dense urban settlements. The southern section of the ring road of about 9.5 km was also built into an eight-lane highway by the Chinese government. With its faulty unsafe design and location amid dense built-up areas, planners have labelled the road a death trap. These myopic projects have changed the urban landscape in unprecedented ways, further fuelling urban sprawl and motorisation, and making the cities unsafe to walk or cycle.
Bhattarai initially gave the task of widening the roads to the Traffic Police Division which has neither the jurisdiction nor the expertise. Houses were bulldozed, sidewalks were dismantled, heritage sites were threatened, and open spaces were encroached upon to make more room for cars.
The Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, led by chief Bhai Kaji Tiwari, is largely responsible for the haphazard expansion of the roads by destroying settlements and heritage sites. The authority was set up by Bhattarai to bypass the city governments and participatory processes to speed up its activities. Tiwari works by completely bypassing the elected representatives and mayors. In a democratic state, his way of operating by holding himself higher than the elected officials shouldn’t be entertained, and his actions should be brought under the law.
The same institution is now undertaking a multi-billion project to develop satellite cities occupying 5,000 hectares. There is hardly any information regarding the project in the public domain. Building these new cities in the vicinity of the main city is an obsolete 20th-century concept. The destruction of the last remaining green open spaces and agricultural land will be the biggest ecological disaster for the city—a suicidal one. Seen from the national perspective, investing resources and concentrating physical infrastructure and services in the capital is not just inequitable. It will put more stress on the valley and encourage migration.
Inept political leadership and bureaucracy are to be primarily blamed for what has happened with Kathmandu’s urbanisation, but development agencies are equally responsible. The JICA transport plan and their skewed math is more about moving more cars than moving people. The JICA report entitled Project on Urban Transport Improvement for Kathmandu Valley (2017) urges the government to widen the existing roads to four and six lanes, and build inner and outer ring roads. Now with the widened roads already getting gridlocked, JICA is providing technical assistance to build underpasses and flyovers, and indoctrinating bureaucrats about their need. JICA had suggested building a four-lane inner ring road over the Dhobi Khola by covering the river. Fortunately, the then transport secretary rejected the idea. In a bid to modernise, Tokyo had made the same mistake.
The Roads Department and the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority have built roads along the river corridors, some of these with funds from the Asian Development Bank. The city has been experiencing disastrous flooding in settlements adjoining river corridors for a few years now. This can largely be attributed to the construction of roads and settlements by encroaching on the river’s natural pathway. More severe flooding events and casualties are very likely in the future with extreme monsoon patterns exacerbated by climate change.
The satellite city project, if implemented, will lead to increased urban flooding and put the valley under water stress. Projects putting vehicles at the centre of transport planning will further fuel motorisation, leading to increased traffic fatalities and air pollution—two major public health concerns in the growing cities of Nepal.
Within walking distance
To make Kathmandu a sustainable and livable city, it can’t go forward in the current trajectory. Instead of building more and wider roads, it needs to focus on investing in an affordable and accessible electric bus transit or surface light rail system, and make the city more walkable and cycle-friendly. Instead of building new towns, it should put its efforts and resources on building more compact and mixed urban settlements on the existing built-up areas, preserve ecological and agricultural space, pursue transit-oriented development, and make cities inclusive.
The population of the valley is going to increase, but proper urban planning and development of other towns and cities in Nepal will help to decelerate the population growth, and contain the growth in the existing built-up areas without the need for developing new cities. It is definitely a longer and more difficult way than straightforward expansion projects, but it is a sustainable way to move forward.
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