An urban horror storyNepal’s cities are a disaster waiting to happen. What can we do about it?
Many years ago, my grandmother and I took a walk down the Bagmati river across from Tripureshwor, today part of the Bagmati corridor that leads to Balkhu. We came across a decrepit paati-like structure on the side of the road with a slab of stone about four feet tall, with Hindu deities carved on top. It was a brahmanaal, the stone slab on which the dead are laid to dip their toes in the holy waters. But here it was, on the side of a dusty road, far away from the river, an obscure object that evoked curiosity ever since the Bagmati receded to its current channel.
A friend’s father likes to remind us he and his friends swam in the Bagmati not too long ago. I have hazy memories of a flooded Bagmati lapping up our boundary walls in the 1990s. Old photo archives on the internet repost pictures of a healthy river that touched the shores of the Kaalmochan Ghat in Tripureshwor. The river seemed to reclaim these memories as it rose and flooded the city the previous week. Perhaps it too remembered its past glory, like all of us do. It didn’t care for our shoddy urban planning; its original floodplains may have been forgotten by humans, but the river had not.
It is now a cliché to say the Kathmandu valley is an urban disaster waiting to happen. Perhaps we can now extend the cliché to the rest of the country. Concrete structures have been creeping up on the hills around all cities in Nepal. Some of the new roads feel like someone with a point to prove drove a bulldozer up a hill and poured concrete on it. Our landfills are filling up, and we have no alternatives left. Floods and landslides are a common annual occurrence. Our cities’ roads are choked with traffic. The land divide has never been starker; the slums along the Teku ghats live in an entirely different world than the bungalows of Baluwatar. There is no zonal planning; metal welders and garages co-exist with homes and stores. And anybody who walks up to any of the hills surrounding a city can see for themselves how a Nepali urban sprawl resembles a concrete jungle.
It is not that the authorities are unaware. The 2017 National Urban Development Strategy report says, ‘While urbanisation and urban growth appear inevitable, urban areas are beset with a host of critical issues related to urban development, management and institutions.’ Forty percent of the population today lives in urban-designated areas. In 2013, the World Bank declared Kathmandu valley to be among the fastest growing metropolitan areas in South Asia, with its population growing at 4 percent per annum since the late 70s. Pokhara’s population growth was at 5 percent at the time; Bharatpur, Butwal and Dhangadhi at more than 4 percent per annum. ‘Kathmandu Metropolitan City (hereafter, Kathmandu)—the only urban centre in Nepal with a population above 1 million—is growing at 4.0 percent per year, medium cities (100,000–300,000) at 3.5 percent, and small cities (50,000–100,000) at 3.6 percent.’
The 2017 report highlighted the key issues that face Nepal’s cities today: informal urban growth and sprawl; gaps in basic urban infrastructure such as roads and waste treatment; rising pollution and poverty levels; weak urban planning institutions; poor urban land use database; and a ‘lack of coordinated national, regional, municipal urban investment vision and plan’. It estimated that Rs 2,453 billion needed to be invested in basic infrastructure in all urban areas, old and new, ‘to achieve improved conditions’ by 2031. However, because municipalities by themselves could only raise about 5 percent of the funds through their own revenue sources under the federal mechanism, about 60 percent of the funds needed to come from the federal government, while development partners were expected to contribute 30 percent, with the remaining 5 percent to be met by the community and the private sector.
These numbers are stark; they portend a future where all the existing issues in our urban areas will be amplified. Urban planning features low on the political agenda; instability could be attributed as a cause, but that does not excuse the inaction by local governments which have remained stable for the most part. Local governments have assisted in the deterioration of our urban sprawls. Pokhara’s enlightened authorities have decided to lease out the Seti river and other water bodies for sand mining inside the city itself. The corridors of our governments function in mysterious manners; nobody seems to have heard of risk assessments, or even if they have, the benefits outweigh any costs.
Compared to what the future may hold, the past appears significantly better in Nepal. I’d, however, caution against such a nostalgic vision. Urban migration is a natural phenomenon that comes with income and population growth; rural areas do not hold much appeal to a globalised generation; and most would prefer living in cramped urban spaces than remote hilltops.
As I see it, there are two roads ahead of us. Most of Nepal will relocate to the cities in the coming decades. Without urban planning, these cities will become more unlivable, and those who can afford to will migrate, either outside Nepal or to better neighbourhoods inside the city itself. The hills around the cities will be denuded; the woods will give way to concrete horrors as in Kathmandu. The silver lining to this scenario is that Nepal’s rural areas could retain their green cover; urbanisation could thus lead to increased forest cover for the rest of Nepal, even if the cities are depleted of their trees.
The second is to work with the assumption that urban population growth is a given, and thus create a policy framework that immediately starts working on zoning, infrastructural requirements, and knowledge database. This may require politically tough decisions: rehabilitation of slum areas, shifting of industries to outside city limits, creating green zones and protected areas around the cities to limit expansion, and enforcing stiff norms for new construction. Urban infrastructure investments can generate an economic cycle of their own; local authorities may be given more avenues to raise funds, or even enter into partnerships with the private sector. But in a society where oppositional politics means street protests, as we’ve seen this last week, such a scenario is highly doubtful.
Going by the Nepali experience, we will perhaps have to make peace with the first scenario. Things will continue the way they have. Maybe one day, we will long for the past as the older generation does today. Then it’ll be our turn to recall the stories of a time when the Bagmati was more than just a stream.