KATHMANDU â€" Itâ€™s not yet 7 a.m., but already there are tens of thousands of people gathered along the banks of the Bagmati river that runs through Kathmandu.
This is the 100th week of an informal campaign to clean up the vital waterway. â€œIn the world, we are proud of Mount Everest, and we are just as ashamed of our Bagmati River," Bhanu Sharma, one of the leaders of campaign, says over a loud speaker. "Itâ€™s our responsibility to save Bagmati and help rid the country of the shame of this polluted river."
â€¨â€¨The crowd joins hands. Participants include senior politicians, ambassadors and religious leaders. â€œIt was a human chain to protect the river. It formed a human wall. We were trying to say we will not throw our sewage, garbage in the river and we will not allow other people to do that,â€ Sharma later explains.
â€¨â€¨Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is also part of the human chain. â€œIf all citizens, groups, parties come together for a common agenda, we can change anything," he says. "Itâ€™s a peopleâ€™s initiative and the government will fully support this. We are developing alternative drainage system. The river will be clean soon."
Piles of garbage
Nearly 3 million people, about a 10th of Nepal's population, live in Kathmandu. The city doesnâ€™t have enough recycling plants to manage the solid waste and all household drainage is dumped in the river. The government is now constructing a water recycle system and working on developing bigger recycling plants.â€¨â€¨
Mahesh Shrestha has pulled his pants up and is in the river. He is taking out plastics, torn cloths and other garbage from the water. â€œI have been doing this every week over the last 100 days," he says. "It used to stink a lot. But now itâ€™s improving. We will continue cleaning but the government also needs to stop pouring drainage into the river."
â€¨â€¨The two-year-old cleanup campaign began as a grassroots initiative launched by a group of eight activists. Bhanu Sharma, the principal of Apex College, is one of them. â€œThe pile of garbage was like Mount Everest," he says. "The piles of garbage were everywhere. All plastic. All wastes disposed of â€" human excreta, sewage from peopleâ€™s houses and factories. It all flowed into the Bagmati."â€¨â€¨
Over these past 100 weeks, the people collected more than 5,000 metric tons of waste from the river. They dumped it in the rubbish dump a few kilometers away from Kathmandu valley. Overall, more than 500,000 people participated in the campaign.
Seeking help, not money
â€¨â€œBasically, two decisions we took in the beginning helped us: that there wouldn't be any officials â€" no coordinator, no president, no treasurer, nothing; and second, that we wouldn't receive any money. No cash. No bank account, no receipt," says Sharma.
"If someone wants to donate, come and donate baskets, boots, gloves and other things," he adds. "It is voluntary job. We do not pressure people to come and join. We request them. And we will keep requesting."
Back at the event, two girls are singing songs to encourage people to protect the river. The song says we grow like flowers in numbers; we expand like fires and clean for a healthy future.â€¨â€¨
Tina Bhattarai, 21, is holding a bag full of waste taken from the Bagmati and puts it in dustbin. She wears a t-shirt that reads: Be Nepali. "I am just dreaming about the day when I enter the river and I will not feel itchy any more," she says. "I will swim in the river.â€
Bhanu Sharma also dreams of that day. â€œWe are putting lots of pressure on the government," he says. "We want to handover this cleaning process to the local people. We want to go to peopleâ€™s houses and tell them instead of picking garbage from the Bagmati, letâ€™s stop throwing garbage in it.â€
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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