When people hear that I first visited Nepal way back in 1976, the consistent reaction is ‘It must have been wonderful in those days. It must have been so much better.’
My response to this usually goes something like, ‘No actually. There were many more destitute people on the streets, innumerable beggars, piles of human excreta and the air quality was bad then too.’ Women gave birth alone in cow sheds. Smallpox had been devastating and goitres were common. It was indeed much more picturesque, but poverty was far more pervasive and profound. What is great to see now is that there are better employment opportunities for all, less youth unemployment and the electricity supply is much improved. Clinical services seem much better too, and good education is reaching more people than ever. Furthermore, coffee is readily available, both in shops and in delightful independent coffee shops that have sprung up all over the city. Despite this it is said that perhaps a third of Nepal’s population of 30 million people live and work overseas.
Nepal was a closed country until the 1950s and it took the death of the First Lady in childbirth (from a retained placenta) for the first maternity hospital to be built in the country – in 1959. Motorcars didn’t arrive until around 1947 – carried in over eight days by around 100 porters: see first car
. The first motorable road to Kathmandu wasn’t completed until 1957.
In those early isolated days, people living outside Kathmandu feared visiting the Valley, which they called Nepal. These outsiders spoke of Nepal lagyo
when bad vapours entered the chest and made you ill. Reportedly, people often developed pneumonia and died.
The huge flat Kathmandu Valley (which stretches over 220 sq miles / 570km2
) suffers the same odd temperature inversion phenomenon as Los Angeles in that the surrounding hills trap cold air at ground level under warmer air and this inversion ceiling prevents the cold polluted air being refreshed. In the early 1990s we did a short trek in the Middle Hills south of Kathmandu and on the way back came to the Valley rim to be greeted by the sight of a vast blue lake that rippled and shimmered in the sunshine. We thought a while and realised that this was no lake. We were looking down at the top of the thermocline that sealed in the capital’s polluted atmosphere. I often recall this image now I live in this miasma of dust-laden air. It is not a great destination for asthmatics.
Since the earthquakes in the spring of 2015 innumerable unsafe or unrepairable buildings have been demolished. Roads have also been excavated in order to install a new city-wide piped water supply. Meanwhile most of the city’s roads need resurfacing. The air is full of dust and feels unhealthy. Like many residents, I’ve taken to wearing a mask when I’m out on my bicycle – and even taxi-drivers wear them.
People who know me understand that I have an odd obsession with poo, but another passion is wildlife. A memory from 1976 was tuning into an odd screeching sound as I walked up Kanti Path in central Kathmandu. I looked up to see that the massive trees lining the road were home to a large colony of fruit bats (aka flying foxes).
Returning to Kathmandu 13 years later, the trees were skeletal and the bats had gone. Pre-monsoon in the late 1980s and 1990s there were so many badly maintained vehicles on the city’s roads that the air actually tasted of sulphuric acid, and eyes often became inflamed. This millennium though, polluting diesel communal taxis have been replaced with clean electric versions and although the air is full of builders’ dust, chemical pollutants seem less, and indeed the fruitbats have returned to Kanti Path. It is great to see how Nepalis celebrate their wildlife neighbours too. Here – I am happy to say – there is no tradition of eating bush meat, indeed vegetarianism is respected. People say they feel physically, as well as spiritually, better when they don’t eat meat.
The Kathmandu water supply is still awful. In some parts of the city, houses receive none at all from the public system. Our apartment gets a trickle of water for an hour or so once or twice a week. There is a whole industry of trucking water from small springs and rivers at the edges of the Valley – the most popular stream is visited by 200 water tankers daily.
When we were living here 19 years ago everyone talked of the new source that would be arriving via a tunnel through the mountains. Now it is said to be arriving in the spring but I’ll believe that when it happens. There’s also a continuing huge problem of solid waste disposal and of sewage being discharged into the rivers, despite many being of religious importance. There was a lot of work to be done even before the earthquakes. Two-and-a-half years on, there is yet more to do rebuilding lives and homes and livelihoods in this, one of the world’s poorest countries, but Nepalis are hugely resourceful and resilient, and the international aid community is contributing a great deal to these efforts.
This piece was first published in Travelwise: newsletter of the British Global & Travel Health Association, 65
winter 2017 and at the time Jane was based in Kathmandu where she supported VSO / ICS volunteers and made gerself available for other worthwhile work with an agency that wasn’t reinventing the wheel.