Let’s talk trash: What Bangladesh can learn from Nepal
Nepal’s management of the fallout from tourism and waste management in the Himalayas presents a teachable moment
Sohara Mehroze Shachi
With Covid-19 related travel restrictions being lifted, cross border tourism is seeing a spurt worldwide. Adventure seekers are flocking to destinations such as neighboring Nepal’s Mount Everest — the famed highest peak of the world. However, irresponsible tourism and mountaineering in recent years has turned the Everest trail into the world’s highest garbage dump. And Bangladesh, with its burgeoning tourism sector in its own mountainous region — the Chittagong hill tracts (CHT) — should start paying attention.
Mount Everest receives thousands of climbers from around the world, who contribute nearly $300 million a year to Nepal’s economy but may also be responsible for polluting its pristine landscape. Tourists leave behind piles of junk — empty beer bottles, food tin cans, discarded trekking equipment, tents, or oxygen tanks — along the path. To address this growing challenge of commercial mountaineering, Nepal’s government and NGOs have taken a number of initiatives, with varying levels of success.
“Beer bottles have been banned as they do not decompose easily, only beer cans are allowed. Plastics will also be banned soon,” said Sonam Sherpa, a member of Nepal’s national assembly working for 18 years in the country’s environment sector. The government also mandates all development projects to conduct environmental impact assessments, he said.
In 2014, Nepal introduced a $4,000 rubbish deposit for every team that goes up to the Everest Base Camp and above. The deposit is refunded if each climber brings down at least eight kgs of their waste. However, since carrying loads in an oxygen-depleted state in these high altitudes is difficult, many climbers forfeit their deposits, an amount which pales in comparison to the $20,000 – $100,000 they spend on the expedition.
The Sherpas porters accompanying them carry the bulk of their belongings and are often unable to carry back the waste. In 2019, the government agencies brought down 11,000kg of waste during a two month drive, along with dead bodies of four climbers who died during the treacherous trek.
In addition to the government’s Everest cleanup initiatives, the local Sherpas created the community-based NGO Sagarmāthā Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), which manages waste in the region, ensures climbers have the necessary legal permission and educates visitors on responsible tourism.
“The waste management situation used to be really bad before 1990. There was no waste management regulation or committee. In those days tourists had just started coming and it was all quite new to us,” said Ang Dorjee Sherpa, President of SPCC. He added that without any proper organization the environment was a mess with various types of litter. Tourists used to drop toilet paper in holes in the ground and the next day dogs would dig it up and spread it everywhere.
“There was a realization that something needed to be done to address the waste situation and that’s how the organization Sagarmatha Pollution Control Center SPCC came into being,” he said. Today, SPCC has 22 permanent members and around 60+ part time workers. They brought back over 20 thousand kgs of non-burnable human waste from basecamp last year.
“We have decided that we are not going to burn anything. We are going to recycle and upcycle,” he said.
In 2018 SPCC started a clean up campaign involving porters, in collaboration with Tara airlines and the UN, to bring down a large amount of garbage left on mount Everest by tourists and transporting them from Lukla to Kathmandu. The waste is then handed to a recycling social enterprise in Kathmandu.
The expenditure associated with doing so is very high for the SPCC, and it is trying out different funding mechanisms, Kaji Sherpa explained.
“The government couldn’t fund SPCC for more than a few years as it’s an NGO, and previously it used to be supported by the private sector, whereas now it charges a certain amount of money to Everest climbers and local hotels to fund its operations,” he said.
Following Nepal Mountaineering Association’s 2015 warning that human excrement was becoming a health hazard, the SPCC has also constructed mobile toilets around the key mountain camps of Everest.
The president said that SPCC is managing public toilets very efficiently, sharing an incident when the government tried to sack a toilet cleaner due to lack of funds, but SPCC stepped in to fund it. However, the load is very heavy to pick up for SPCC alone, and they rely on locals to share the burden.
“People used to think it was SPCC’s responsibility alone to clean waste, but it is after all just an NGO, and people have responsibility as well,” said Lama Kaji Sherpa, chairperson of the Namche youth club, adding that SPCC has now formed local committees that are in charge of managing waste in specific areas.
According to Sonam Sherpa, the major lesson from Nepal’s Everest waste management experience is that environmental conservation needs to be very context specific, depending on the local community, and should promote the local culture and indigenous ideologies.
“Since most people follow Buddhism in this part, which advocates for compassion and living in harmony with nature, those values have become important for the success of this project,” he said.
“People need to be at the forefront of environmental conservation. They should be motivated to protect the environment by providing them a sense of ownership and ensuring their hands-on involvement.”
The Bangladesh Context
Bangladesh also houses part of the Himalaya that spans mostly in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (HCT) is part of the Southeastern part of the Himalayas, and like Nepal, has a predominantly Buddhist indigenous population. Domestic tourism has been booming in the CHT with ethnic Bengali tourists from the plains flooding the hill tracts, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic with options to travel abroad being limited.
Areas such as Sajek in Rangamati and even the remote parts of CHT such as Nafakhum in Bandarban are receiving unprecedented numbers of tourists. However, the waste management infrastructure of these areas is ill equipped for this tourist onslaught.
The Chittagong metropolitan area has no sewage treatment plant so raw sewage from all sources goes directly into water bodies. As a result, provision of safe drinking water and sanitation is a major challenge for Chittagong’s authorities, with waterborne diseases being widespread.
A 2017 study on Sitakunda, Chittagong found that close to 50% people disposed of their daily wastes by open dumping. It also found that 70% of the people surveyed were dissatisfied with the existing solid waste management system, and the majority reported encountering bad odour and piled up garbage on the roadside. This situation is representative of many parts of the CHT and will only be exacerbated with the increased tourism.
Waste management research in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is scant but the situation is generally experienced to be worse than in the Chittagong Metropolitan Area.
“While I travelled across the CHT areas, I rarely found an improved latrine with running water in the community,” said UNICEF Bangladesh’s water and sanitation Officer Safina Naznin.
Golam Mostofa Kamal, a local program officer of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Bangladesh’s Strengthening Inclusive Development in the CHT said the garbage in CHT is usually incinerated or collected and dumped in one place. “This creates more problems than it solves,” he said.
But similar to the arrangement in Sagarmatha of Nepal, Namtua a small tourist village in the CHT has a community waste management system, and Alikadam, a remote part of CHT, has a volunteer mediator forum that could be involved in waste management, Kamal said. The Unnayan (development) board is conducting some initiatives on waste management, such as installing waste baskets, and during the height of the pandemic some NGOs worked on awareness campaigns, but their resources are inadequate, and a lot more needs to be done.
Prasenjit Chakma, Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh and a native of CHT said that fecal sludge is discarded in lakes and landfills in mountains. But he said he is more concerned about plastic waste than human excrement since the former is not biodegradable.
In the absence of a proper system to collect litter, tourists litter the Kaptai lake in Rangamati with plastics and dump them in the drains in Bandarban leading to clogging and flooding, he said.
“In a picnic party I noticed that announcements were made via a loudspeaker to not litter in the lake, but the young people still kept doing so perhaps because they did not know or care about pollution,” Chakma said, stressing the importance of behavioral change education for tourists.
UNDP’s learning and innovation focused unit — the Accelerator Lab in Bangladesh — is trying to promote sustainable tourism in the Chittagong hill tracts, as a part of which it has been conducting workshops and training to generate behavioral insights, create awareness and bring about necessary behavioral change.
The Accelerator Lab is also exploring ways to engage local youth and informal waste collectors to develop solutions to waste management in CHT as well as reducing waste at source, especially single use plastic.
Prasenjit Chakma also mentioned that fines imposed for littering and mobile courts to implement anti-littering laws could work in these spots.
Bangladesh does not have a solid waste management law. The task is delegated to the local government bodies, which is similar to the case of Nepal where the local government is constitutionally mandated to do so. While there is a 1998 National Policy for Safe Water Supply and Sanitation, implementation and enforcement are weak, with very low levels of public awareness.
With increasing tourism in the Chittagong Hill tracts — Bangladesh’s Himalaya region — waste management challenges are only going to be exacerbated, and the public sector’s efforts would be inadequate. Taking a leaf from Nepal’s book and its experience with the Everest region, the Bangladesh government could enact relevant policies and create the necessary infrastructure to reduce littering by tourists and empower locals and community-based organizations in the CHT to lead waste management efforts.
Sohara Mehroze Shachi is a development professional and freelance journalist focusing on climate change and environmental issues