As I was checking on various Nepali news websites last week, I was greeted with pictures of happy faces celebrating the festival of “Chaat”. Chaat is mostly celebrated in Nepal’s Terai region and in parts of neighboring India. Hidden behind the happy faces though, a reality Nepal and its people are choosing to ignore. The country’s rivers and water bodies are being damaged beyond repair and the result could be a catastrophic to wildlife and to the people.
During Chaat it is customary to visit nearby rivers, ponds, lakes to offer prayers to the sun and to the goddess celebrated during the festival. Unfortunately people forget to clean up after themselves after the prayers are done. So the water body is littered with flowers, and various food offerings.
Kathmandu’s historic Rani Pokhari, a pond in center of the city, was opened to devotees celebrating Chaat. Needless to say, at the end of the day the fragile ecosystem was disturbed and damaged. Couple of years back, due to lowering water level and pollution Rani Pokhari’s fishes were dying at an alarming rate. You could see the surface of the pond covered with dead fishes from a distance. And yet the local authorities opened up the pond to hundreds of visitors, who despite good intentions damaged the city’s historic and natural asset.
During Dashain, some communities take the idol of goddess Durga to nearby water body and “fuse” it with the water to signify the end of that year’s celebration. Now think, year after year hundreds of idols painted with toxic chemicals accumulating in a river or a pond. Damage done to the fishes, water system and the environment is beyond repair.
Festivals are not the only culprit behind water body pollution in Nepal and Rani Pokhari is certainly the only victim. Around Kathmandu, you can see rivers being used as dumping sites, as free waste management system. Bagmati River, considered holy by Hindus has been turned into this giant sewage system. If you take a stroll around Chabahil and Mitrapark area in the city, you can see raw sewage from area homes being directly dumped into the river without any treatment.
Bagmati is also being abused by city’s factories, their chemical waste goes directly into the river. While all this is happening, Kathmandu’s residents strangely don’t seem to care. There are some organizations and activists trying to clean up Bagmati but their efforts are too little in front of large scale pollution that is taking place.
Rivers outside Kathmandu, even in rural areas are facing decline. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s 2005 report, pesticides are paper industry are polluting Nepal’s rivers making it difficult for fishes and the ecosystem to survive. River pollution is causing the decline in population of endangered gharial crocodile and the Gangetic river dolphin found in Nepal’s Karnali River.
For a country like Nepal, which lacks natural resources other than its rivers, wildlife and beautiful landscape it is sad and mystifying to see that protecting those precious resources is not prioritized by the government or the people. There are some organizations-local and international and activists working to protect Nepal’s environment but their effort, though heroic seems too little compared to the size of the problem.
Government has not shown any interest in formulating laws and regulation to punish those who pollute water bodies. The environment ministry is an agency founded to create a smoke screen so that donor agencies keep investing in protecting Nepal’s environment while the nation’s government sits still doing nothing.
What about the people? Bless the activists trying to protect Nepal’s environment. In their honor I will refrain from criticizing Nepal’s people who think it is other people’s job to clean up their mess.
It is not government’s job to clean rivers but it is their job to make laws to punish those who pollute them. It is not the people’s job to wait for the government to save the nature but it is their job to demand laws to protect the environment and natural resources. In case of Nepal, sadly, both the government and the people have failed. Let us hope that all the Durga idols lying deep in the country’s rivers and the Chaat prayer offering floating in Rani Pokhari bring in a divine intervention to save the country’s precious water bodies.
Previously published at UPI Asia Online and Nepal Abroad.