Increasingly, Kathmanduites turned to a convenient dumping ground: the Valley’s sacred waterways. ‘Domestic and shop refuse,’ a 1971 WHO report noted, ‘is either thrown into the street or allowed to accumulate in private courtyards.’ But refuse swept up from the streets ‘is carried in baskets to one of the rivers, where it is dumped in the river bed or on the bank, thereby attracting flies and rats, and causing foul odours, water pollution and the desecration of beautiful scenery.’
Tourists, the report added, often complained about stench and eyesore. That was 1971, 50 years ago. Today, it is hard to imagine that Kathmandu’s growing reputation as one of the world’s most polluted places is attracting people to the city. It is astonishing that a city that makes its money from tourism pays so little attention to the pollution that tourists find so revolting.
Kathmandu is hardly the first city that has struggled to dispose of its waste. In the US and other parts of the world, waste has long been a problem. But other places have built systems that keep the water and air cleaner.
In mid 19th-century American cities, garbage was given to pigs or “swill children” who piled it in carts. These children scavenged edible parts, sold compost to farmers, and sold the metal, bones, and bottles to junk dealers. Ragmen sold rags for making paper. Women fed leftover scraps to chickens and pigs.
But the system collapsed in the late 19th century: with industrialisation and new consumer items and packaging, the waste piles grew into mountains. City governments responded aggressively, taking control of waste management. Some cities burned, others dumped. Chicago dumped its waste into Lake Michigan, St. Louis and New Orleans into the Mississippi River. In 1886, New York City pitched 80% of its 1.3 million cartloads of garbage into the sea. Neither burning nor dumping was friendly to the environment.
And despite these efforts, by the mid 20th century America’s waste situation had grown dire. As manufacturers began to build “planned obsolescence” into their products, and as Americans grew more and more obsessed with consumption, convenience, and disposability, waste exploded.
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