KATHMANDU — It'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. "In 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. "It'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. "It 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," Sharma later explains.
â€¨â€¨Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is also part of the human chain. "If all citizens, groups, parties come together for a common agenda, we can change anything," he says. "It's a people'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 doesn'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. "I have been doing this every week over the last 100 days," he says. "It used to stink a lot. But now it'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. "The pile of garbage was like Mount Everest," he says. "The piles of garbage were everywhere. All plastic. All wastes disposed of — human excreta, sewage from people'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€¨"Basically, two decisions we took in the beginning helped us: that there wouldn't be any officials — 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."
Bhanu Sharma also dreams of that day. "We 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 people's houses and tell them instead of picking garbage from the Bagmati, let's stop throwing garbage in it."