I am thankful for that image in my head that wouldn’t go away

This is my first blog! I have been thinking about writing a blog for so long – I might as well take the plunge! I will be writing about a variety of topics including urban planning, solid waste management, and community engagement, among others. Today’s blog, however, is dedicated to a passion of mine – a project I have been involved in for a few years now.

I blame it all on that image of trash-lined roads!
My interest in this project stems from my experiences growing up in Australia as a teenager and seeing the sorry state of solid waste management in Kathmandu upon my return to Nepal in 2000. The image of thousands of plastic bags that lined the streets as our taxi trudged along from the Tribhuvan International Airport to my home in Bhaktapur is forever etched into my mind. I did not understand how these plastic bags could just ‘be there’ – left, dumped carelessly by one individual after the other, and ignored by our municipalities. This was just the beginning, of course. I was later to discover the struggles faced by local governments to provide adequate waste management services. I witnessed the burning of waste, rubber, plastics by individuals without realizing the harmful impacts. I saw and smelt the stench of our rivers – it was crying for our attention but clearly not enough people cared. This was the year 2000. I had finished my high school studies and didn’t really have much of an idea as to how I could do anything about it. I had lived in Australia for 7 years by that point in time and coming from a Newar family and living in a small town in North Queensland that didn’t have many other Nepali families, had largely forgotten how to speak Nepali. Upon going back to Nepal, I experienced reverse culture shock – my struggles to learn the language (yes, I had to start from the alphabets kakhaga) and the need to adapt quickly to Nepali culture only heightened my sense of how different I felt. I walked too fast, I was angry at the bureaucratic lethargy and the indifference, I couldn’t speak Nepali properly (I still struggle in formal contexts). Over the next six years as I spent my days studying architecture at Khwopa Engineering College, I fell in love – well and truly – with Nepal and its culture. It was such a stark contrast to the laid-back Australian culture we experience here. Nepali culture is intricate, layered, dynamic, comfortable. I felt like I belonged in Nepal, and that feeling continues today even though I have spent more than half my life now in Australia. Ever since I moved to Sydney for further studies, I make sure I come to Nepal each year. Nothing gives me more pleasure than walking through the streets of Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, hiking up a hill and looking at the views of the majestic mountains, sipping tea and chowing down on momos and baras, or talking to complete strangers about anything and everything. 489380

I am still learning
After I finish my studies at the end of this year, I plan to spend more time in Nepal to try and understand the socio-economic complexities, the culture and beauty. I would like to work in Nepal after I have gained some experience here in Sydney and am at a stage where I can make myself useful in Nepal (it may take quite a few years!). Till then, Clean up Nepal is how I plan to connect with Nepal. Sydney is a hotspot for Nepalese people. Australia’s comparatively lenient immigration policies saw an influx of Nepali students between 2007 and 2010. Although there are no concrete figures, it is estimated that there are over 50 000 + Nepalese in Sydney alone. And it is self-evident – Nepalese are heard chatting on their phones on the train, they can be seen working in numerous professions, rushing to college in the city, and participating in the growing number of programs put on by Nepali community organisations. 8918356I learnt a lot about Nepal in Sydney. For the first time in my life, I had friends who were primarily non-Newars. Living and studying in Bhaktapur meant that I hadn’t really come across the breadth and depth of Nepali culture. That was soon to change with my connection to Nepal’s basket of ethnic diversity that delighted my senses and opened up my eyes to what Nepal was about. I became involved with the Nepali community in 2009, two years after I had arrived to undertake tertiary education in Australia. I led the set up of community organisations such as Guthi Australia and Sabdamala Nepalese language school, the first Nepali language school for children aged 5 to 12. I wanted our second generation Nepalese to at least have an opportunity to learn Nepali if they wanted to. Being able to communicate in Nepal to me seemed like a pretty good idea, especially after my struggles when I went back to Nepal in 2000! My involvement in these organisations taught me a lot. I learnt the virtues of patience, working together collaboratively, having a healthy respect for difference in opinions, and working with individuals from all walks of life, ideologies and professional backgrounds. When I convened the first executive board meeting for Guthi Australia, I recall speaking 90% English and 10% Nepali. This has changed completely now and I owe it all to interactions with numerous individuals in the Nepali community in Sydney. They have taught me so very much.

Connecting with Nepal
After I finished my two-year term with both Guthi Australia and Sabdamala in 2011 (I believe in the hand over of leadership), I felt a need to get involved in something that would enable me to connect back to Nepal and also provide me an opportunity to learn. I, along with a close group of friends, set up Small Earth Australia, a Sydney-based not-for-profit that promotes cross-border collaboration between Australia and Nepal. We undertook a number of projects – funded the construction of a school in the outskirts of Lalitpur, sponsored 10 children to study in Lamjung, and started Clean up Nepal. 7674480The idea of Clean up Nepal is based on the concept of Clean up Australia, which later on spread throughout the world to become the largest global environmental movement called Clean up the World. The idea behind Clean up the World is simple – local communities gather where they live to collect rubbish for a few hours over the Clean up the World weekend (generally the third week of September). I thought it would be a great idea to get something similar started in Nepal and started to do a desktop survey of which organisations had organised cleanup activities in 2011. I discovered that there were many organisations (particularly schools, colleges) that did run such programs but to my dismay, they were only one-off events. Also the local community wasn’t involved and so, school students went in, cleaned up an area and then the next day, it was business as usual. Yes, rubbish stockpiled and no one cared.

Net impact = 0. How could we change this? 
I realized then that the Clean up Australia concept would need to be tweaked  for the Nepali context. Firstly, Australia has a pretty good waste management system provided by local councils (similar to our municipalities) and secondly, the rubbish that is collected on Clean up Australia day is minimal. In Nepal, we were talking about hundreds of tonnes of rubbish not a few kilos here and there! Also Australia’s socio-economic context is quite different to that in Nepal. A lot of families in Nepal are struggling with the basics. Surely there would be a challenge in engaging them? After over 18 months of internet research, talking to my friends in Nepal and writing to a number of organisations in Nepal, we settled on working with a not-for-profit, The Small Earth Nepal. Our aim was to start something. We wanted to organize a cleanup in Kathmandu and engage 500 people to join the event for the Clean up the World Weekend on 21 September 2013. We wanted to stick to our organisational principles, however – principles of active community engagement and leadership, working collaboratively with stakeholders (government, civil society, private sector, local communities, volunteers), mobilizing the skills and expertise of volunteers globally, and working on minimal funding.

Why the community matters
In January 2013, our first local partner, Keep Itahari Clean, started their community-led campaign. A group of 6 to 7 committed individuals would go out in the public areas of Itahari and start picking up rubbish – no speeches, no announcements, no fanfare, nothing. They simply spent a few hours each Saturday collecting rubbish. Slowly people started asking what they were doing and they too joined in. A group of 7 soon became a bustling and lively group of 30 individuals. I am pleased to let you know that this weekly cleanup is ongoing at Itahari till today. It takes place rain, hail or shine every Saturday. Their commitment has brought about significant change in Itahari. We plan to showcase this change in Itahari through a documentary once we raise some funds so that other cities throughout Nepal can also learn from this experience. This experience in Itahari confirmed our understanding of the need for a community-led, grassroots approach. We realized that a top-down approach would not work right now because of the usual suspects – reinforcement of regulations in Nepal is weak, bureaucratic entanglement is the norm, policies and strategies remain on paper with an inability for these to be converted into operational plans, and organisational cultures that aren’t receptive to innovation, among others. More importantly, a much finer-grained understanding of the needs of communities was needed. Research on solid waste management issues in Nepal is lacking and without a holistic understanding of these issues, how could policies be informed and evidence-based, how could budgets be aligned to infrastructure development, how could one ensure actions were connected to a larger vision/goal and how could one ensure ‘impact’ (rather than doing projects for the sake of doing projects)? Publications by the Asian Development Bank, Water Aid and academic research strengthened our argument for investing in grassroots activities working in collaboration with all levels of stakeholders. The possibilities of addressing the almost 70% of organic waste produced by households meant significant gains could be made in reducing the amount of waste being transported to landfill sites if this organic waste was converted into compost. We decided that we needed to begin somewhere and getting the community engaged and talking about these issues was the first step.

It all paid off. Phew!
We quickly exceeded our initial aim of getting 500 people together on 21 September 2013 to cleanup their neighborhoods. I have to admit the nationwide event was a logistical nightmare. The flurry of activities on social media and on-the-ground led me to make a decision to drop out of university for the second semester in 2013. I started investing almost 6 hours each day on top of my 8 hour days at work in the months leading up to 21 September 2013 to get the campaign off the ground. We were talking to individuals from over 20 cities in Nepal. We had a global team that was working on various components of the campaign that was largely being promoted via facebook and twitter. There was a lot of coordinating to do! On 21 September 2013, Clean up Nepal worked with 12 national partners, 120 local partners and mobilized some 15 430 volunteers at 45 locations in 20 cities throughout Nepal to collect 84,564.5 kilograms of rubbish. Report available here. We celebrated and gave ourselves a pat on the back, took a few months off (after feeling slightly burn-out) and regrouped to strategize about how we would move forward. We quickly realized that the management of solid waste in Nepal was so bad that an annual event like this alone would not create long-lasting impact. To supplement our nationwide efforts, we decided to start tole-level (neighborhood-based) ongoing cleanups in Kathmandu with a view to expanding to other cities throughout Nepal. The process of engaging a community and empowering them to take lead in the management of waste generated in their area is very much an iterative process. It involves our Clean up Nepal team and volunteers holding a number of meetings with the community, providing them support with ‘organizing’, and connecting them to other resources in the area (manpower: schools, colleges; funding for gloves, banner: local businesses; waste collection: municipalities; technical expertise: Clean up Nepal and other stakeholders working in the environment sector). We ask the community to decide the frequency of cleanup activities; they generally opt for a fortnightly cleanup. We started our tole-based campaign in March this year and so far we have four sites in Kathmandu – Chhuchepati, Mahankal, Kupondole and Chhapro (near Pepsi Cola). This is just the beginning. By the end of the year, we plan to have 16 more sites. These sites aren’t just let’s pick up rubbish sites. We are also working to introduce the community to conduct: 1. Waste segregation at source 2. Training on composting and worm farming, and 3. Training on roof gardening in a bid to not only manage waste better but also ensure sustainable living – a response to the consumerist, capitalistic world we live in. Over 98% of participants at cleanup events are from the local area. This means there is a greater sense of connection, belonging and responsibility, and yes, they don’t need to catch a bus or ride their bike to get to the cleanup site. No need for funding. In fact Clean up Nepal provides no funding to local communities to cleanup their areas. Initially the community doubted their ability to fund these cleanups. But they soon realized we weren’t going to channel money from mysterious, foreign donors into our pockets. Their resolve increased when they realized that all the resources they needed could, in most cases, be found within their own community. All the community now needed to do was to jump out of bed, stick their head out to see their neighbors picking up rubbish in their local neighborhood and lend a hand.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as that 
In our bid to work on the above, we have had to move from being a program run by Small Earth Australia and The Small Earth Nepal to now registering as an independent entity with the Social Welfare Council. Last year’s nationwide campaign was run by a team of volunteers and this will continue, but we have realized the need for a core group of paid staff in Nepal. The logistics are just too involved to organize from outside Nepal. We spent approximately $1000 for our entire campaign last year (which is unheard of among the NGO community) and this was raised by Small Earth Australia and The Small Earth Nepal. This year, we anticipate the need for approximately $8000 to $10 000 to run a office in Kathmandu with 5 paid staff. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a large sum of money and we hope that investing this amount will enable us to attract funding in Nepal and more importantly connect with businesses in Nepal, who we feel, should be supporting an initiative like this as part of their corporate social responsibility. We are also encouraging the set up of Clean up Nepal chapters worldwide to spread the word about Clean up Nepal and also to help raise funds. We have a registered chapter in Australia and a chapter in the USA that will undergo registration shortly.

Better days yet to come
2014 has seen a surge in interest in the work Clean up Nepal does – at least based on the interactions on our social media platforms. Whilst a majority of our facebook fans are from Kathmandu and fall within the 18 – 24 age bracket, interest to run similar tole-based waste management campaigns in Chitwan, Pokhara, Bhaktapur, Janakpur and Dhangadhi is an affirmation that such campaigns could be rolled out to areas outside Kathmandu in 2015. I am inspired and humbled each day by the work the Clean up Nepal team does, especially our team of volunteers in Nepal led by Nabin Maharjan. Like all of us, this team consists of individuals who have full-time jobs, run businesses or are full-time students. Yet their belief in seeing a cleaner and greener Nepal is so strong that they manage to find a few hours here and there in their day to stay involved. None of us get paid and in fact we happily contribute as much as we can financially to the campaign. It is this strength I see in the global community that makes me realize we can work collectively together to achieve great outcomes. Clean up Nepal belongs to all of us. We have a number of strategies in place for 2014 and have also now revised our vision. I look forward to connecting with you, getting to know you and discussing with you how together, we can play an active role in working with stakeholders in Nepal to improve our solid waste management systems. For more information, please go to our website or like us on facebook.

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