By Liesl Clark
The village of Samdzong is so small it took us only 25 minutes to walk around with sacks to pick up the garbage thrown outside people’s homes. Why is this trash found throughout the village? Until recently, all garbage was organic: Shoes were (and many still are) handmade from leather and wool, clothing came from local wool, and there was no packaging accompanying the food because it was all carried up in burlap sacks or grown in their fields.
Throwing waste out the door, in a nearby stream, or even in the fields, was a common practice because waste was biodegradable and would eventually fertilize their crops. Now we find plastic Crocs, sneakers, and flip flops littering the village. Plastics of every kind can be found in every water supply in Nepal, even in this village at the top of the watershed. Toothbrushes, laundry powder packets, ramen noodle packaging, shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes are commonly found just about anywhere.
Most disturbing are the batteries found in the drinking water. We’ve recovered some 30 batteries from the irrigation ditches and streams nearby. Water is believed to move trash out of the village and out of sight. Since batteries don’t float, we find them where they’ve been discarded.
Many batteries have been burned, thrown in a garbage-burning pile along with plastics, yet the batteries, of course, don’t burn completely. From Samdzong and other villages, I now have about 50 of these burned batteries. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that burning batteries and plastic is not good for human health. The mercury and cadmium in the batteries should never be burned and should be kept out of any watershed. We can recycle batteries through most municipal recycling facilities, but in Nepal batteries can’t be recycled. Efforts need to be made to safely dispose of them away from drinking water sources.
Plastics are found downstream of any village here. In some, the plastic waste in the water is so bad irrigation ditches have become clogged, causing unplanned flooding or damming of precious waters from the thirsty barley and mustard fields.
In 25 minutes, with the help of 4 men and 2 children, we collected 3 potato sacks-worth of cans, plastics, and batteries in Samdzong. They’ll be carried down valley to be picked through by a women’s club in the village of Kagbeni, where they sell burnables (I hope not plastic) to homes that need fuel and reuse what they can. We tried to take the plastics back to Kathmandu to be recycled but this was against the regulations of the Annapurna Conservation Area District, that required us to drop off all the garbage, whether our own or a village’s upstream, at their checkpost in Kagbeni. My concern is this: The villages are simply dumping their garbage into the rivers and streams at an alarming rate. A system of recycling for each village needs to be established so the flow of plastics into Himalayan waters can be stopped. We’re all downstream of these villages and it’s up to us to educate everyone about the health hazards of these plastics and batteries entering our watersheds.
Two of the women from the village of Samdzong brought out their household trash to add to our collection – more plastic packaging for noodle soup. There’s no burial pit for garbage here as you see in some villages, no place to safely dispose of it here at 13,000 feet.
“Thank you,” were their words of appreciation as the women handed me used batteries that’ll be carried by our horses out of this pristine village sitting upon the sacred grounds of the headwaters of the great Kali Gandaki River watershed.
Are you depressed by these images from Mustang, Nepal? You can help us in our efforts to raise awareness about this garbage crises in our world’s highest watersheds by contributing to our campaign.