Nepal’s waste management system is overwhelmed. With 200 municipalities, only six landfill sites and limited waste collection services, people and businesses dump their rubbish wherever they can. As a result, plastic bags intertwined with kitchen scraps and countless other types of rubbish line the streets, riverbanks and most public spaces, polluting waterways and taking an environmental toll.
In 2012, inspired by the volunteer Clean Up Australia campaigns that she participated in while studying a PHD in Heritage Management at the University of Newcastle, Neelam Pradhananga decided to do something about these growing mountains of rubbish in her hometown of Kathmandu.
“I thought, surely I can get 500 people to come out of their homes and to do this clean up, but then that year we got 15,430,” says Neelam, recalling the first clean up that she organised in the city.
After that: “people said that it’s great that you’re doing this clean up once a year, but, it really needs to happen on an ongoing basis and we need to start looking at some of the root causes of the problems that we face in waste management,” she says.
And, this is how the journey of Clean Up Nepal started.
Now a fully-fledged organisation, running regular rubbish removal campaigns across the Kathmandu Valley, Clean Up Nepal works with communities to understand what’s behind their waste management issues and to take charge in resolving them.
One such community, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, is Thankot.
When the Clean Up Nepal team first came to work here, the local people were sceptical.
“One of the benefits of an Australian education is that it teaches you how to deal with real life problems, and in order to even start addressing a problem, you need to really understand what the key issues are,” Neelam says.
“So, we took our time and we decided that it was important to really understand the context. What is making the river dirty? Is it just people’s throwing the rubbish in there? Why are they throwing the rubbish in there?”
“One of the benefits of an Australian education is that it teaches you how to deal with real life problems” she says.
Eventually, mutual trust and respect blossomed. Since then, Clean Up Nepal has helped the community to set-up a waste management committee, including representatives from the local council, women’s group and the private sector to collectively resolve the underlying issues causing the local thrash problem.
Now working with scores of communities like Thankot and looking to the future, Neelam says: ‘I hope to grow Clean up Nepal to an extent where we have a significant impact in improving waste management systems.’
“This is going to be a long journey – but, I hope after a couple of decades we will no longer be needed, that Government and the private sector can work hand-in-hand to provide [waste management] services and that citizens are empowered and have the knowledge to understand that they really can make a difference,” she says.