How can we justify fining desludging trucks for dumping fecal waste in the sewers when authorities turn a blind eye to millions of litres of untreated wastewater (including fecal waste) being dumped in our rivers every day?

Local governments in Kathmandu Valley are cracking down upon desludging trucks for dumping fecal sludge into sewers, issuing hefty fines. What, on the surface seems like a highly commendable task, has also another side to it. First, the lack of fecal waste treatment plants in the valley, which forces such trucks to dump fecal waste in the drains. And second, the irony of the fact that due to lack treatment plants, untreated wastewater (including fecal waste) of millions of Kathmandu residents is already being discharged without treatment into Kathmandu’s rivers.

In 2022, Aawaaj News had extensively explored and reported on how the lack of treatment plants in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur districts allowed untreated wastewater to enter the rivers of Kathmandu – posing health and environmental hazards.

Fecal waste management is a vital, yet often overlooked topic. In Kathmandu Valley, there are two methods for treating fecal waste. One, if your house is connected to a sewered network, then the water you flush travels through a drain to the nearest river. There is supposed to be a wastewater treatment plant in between – however, with only one functional wastewater treatment plant in Guheshwari, chances are your wastewater including poop is being dumped directly into the river. For houses which are not connected to the sewered network, which is usually in the emerging municipalities of Kathmandu Valley, many houses are yet to be connected to sewered lines. Houses rely on on-site sanitation, and fecal waste is collected via a septic tank. For houses without drain connections, septic tanks and desludging services are employed, requiring occasional manual drainage. Fecal sludge transport vehicles then collect and transfer the waste. But due to lack of a treatment facility, private fecal sludge tank operators are in a dilemma.

While lack of treatment plant to safely manage fecal waste is a pressing concern, private companies working in sanitation management are also faced with other issues which range from lack of proper legislation to worker stigmatisation. This article provides valuable insights from a personnel who has been working extensively fecal sludge management in Nepal (Drain Expert Nepal), shedding light on operational aspects and the challenges faced by workers in the field. The person has chosen to remain anonymous, but for this article, we will call him Anup.

During our conversation with Anup, we uncovered an issue stemming from the lack of regulations governing fecal sludge transport vehicle registration. According to him, their firms face complications when attempting to register at the ward office due to the absence of authorized waste disposal locations. Consequently, they live in constant fear of vehicle seizures and hefty fines. Additionally, he highlights the inability to categorize their vehicles as sewage trucks in official records, resulting from the lack of specific regulations regarding registration at the transport office. As a consequence, they often face fines from traffic police, including those for vehicle modifications, which carry the highest penalties.

Additionally, most sewage workers operate under the constant fear of stigmatization – which is more common than one would expect. In addition to the overall lack of public awareness on the subject, they fear unnecessary persecution by authorities. Because of this reason, they are led to believe that they are in the wrong and live in continual fear of losing their jobs.

A team from Drain Expert Nepal desludge a septic tank in a private school in Bhaktapur. (Image: Drain Expert Nepal)

A team from Drain Expert Nepal desludge a septic tank in a private school in Bhaktapur. (Image: Drain Expert Nepal)

Moreover, Anup shares a range of challenges frequently encountered in their work. He emphasizes instances of misconduct by metropolitan cities, the police, and the department of transportation, further increasing their difficulties. Inefficient garbage disposal is another major issue stemming from the lack of suitable dumping sites. Additionally, the absence of clear guidelines and cooperation among workers complicates the determination of fair wages, fostering unhealthy competition. These significant challenges delay operations and create a climate of uncertainty for those in the industry.

When asked about their involvement with the Guheshwori Wastewater Treatment Plant for sludge cleaning, Anup reveals limited engagement, stating the discontinuation of their work once the High-Powered Committee for the Bagmati Civilization discovered an illegal waste site. As a solution, Guheshwori has resorted to drying the sludge on their property and subsequently transporting the dried waste to an approved dump. In light of this development, Anup proposes an insightful idea: utilizing the dried sludge as organic fertilizer instead of discarding it.

Guheshwari Wastewater Treatment Plant (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung)

He further stresses the significance of proper septic tank waste management and urges the prompt establishment of rules and construction of suitable treatment facilities. He recommends that the government either utilize its own sewage trucks or continue collaborating with existing commercial enterprises. By developing specialized dumping facilities and allowing regulated sludge disposal, revenue can be generated through taxes. Furthermore, Anup emphasizes the need to address the reliance of not only homes, but also schools, offices and hospitals on external solutions, such as hiring individuals to supervise disposal sites, as this critical aspect of waste management must be managed internally. However, this issue remains unresolved. He also emphasizes the necessity for rate regulation to combat unfair competition.

Regarding their operations during the pandemic, Anup discusses initial challenges resulting from strict inspections and work-related concerns. Despite the closure of their typical disposal location, they continued their business while maintaining physical distance from customers and following safety procedures, including wearing face masks, to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, their sewage trucks operated without hindrance both inside and outside the Kathmandu Valley. He further questions the recent pursuit and treatment of their activities as if they were involved in illegal practices and demands clarification on the inconsistent enforcement strategy.

Drain Expert Nepal transfers fecal waste from a septic tank at a private residence in Kathmandu (Image: <a href="">Drain Expert Nepal</a>)

Drain Expert Nepal transfers fecal waste from a septic tank at a private residence in Kathmandu (Image: Drain Expert Nepal)

Currently, an estimated 40 septic disposal tanks operate in the Kathmandu Valley, dumping the waste in access chambers connected to the municipal sewer system by constructing temporary structures. According to local authorities, not more than 17 septic trucks are permitted to operate in a day. It is ironic that a sizable portion of the city’s wastewater, including fecal waste, is still being directly thrown into the river in Kathmandu despite the failure of wastewater treatment plants to be completed on schedule. Given this fact, it is reasonable to question the justification for fining desludging vehicles for disposing of waste in the same river.

Wastewater is seen entering the Bagmati River at the confluence of Bagmati and Bishnumati River (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung)

Wastewater is seen entering the Bagmati River at the confluence of Bagmati and Bishnumati River (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung)

As of now, there is a lack of dedicated fecal sludge treatment plants, and using existing wastewater treatment plants for septic tank sludge disposal is prohibited. Although multiple treatment plants are supposedly being built within the valley, septic tank workers continue to operate under constant uncertainty due to the persisting unanswered questions and ineffective measures.

The expert underscores the importance of the government prioritizing sewage workers by providing special services comparable to other government professions.  They advocate for fair salaries that align with the value of their labor. Extensive awareness campaigns targeting the general population are deemed essential to bridge the knowledge gap. Such initiatives can inform the public about the value of all professions and foster the understanding that every form of work deserves equal respect.