The city is its people

Towards Sustainable Cities

Perception to reality

As Nepalis prepare to go for local level election seeking leadership, Kathmandu University’s environmental engineering students organized an event at which I was a keynote speaker. Here are some of my thoughts and ideas I shared.

The city is its people

The city is home for a very diverse set of people. They have different mind sets which need to be understood in order to succeed in creating a sustainable city. In present day Nepal let us take the following three samples, one group is completely hopeless till they get a visa and cross the immigration line at TIA. Then they are able to see water, even on Mars.

The second group see the bowl shape of the Kathmandu valley, for example, and use the power of gravity to bring water from the surrounding watersheds to ponds, wells and stone water sports at the centre of the cities. They work for centuries and even become tourist attractions.

The third mindset says that there is no monetary benefit of these old water systems. If we could use diesel pumps, then we could bill for imported fuels and the pump will need repair on a regular basis. That is how I will make money.

The city leader must be able to understand these three minds and many more into consideration in order to succeed. Corruption in cities is the result of the fact that many people who are in charge of improving life in the city cannot afford to live them.

Real problems have real solutions

The horrible armed conflict that Nepal went through should teach us that cities need to be inclusive. The widening gap between the haves and have nots will be the source of another conflict in the future. We need to celebrate diversity and not try to create a melting pot. This diversity is what makes a city vibrant.

The earthquake of 2015 has taught us that we need to save artists who are capable of recovering our monuments as they had done in 1934 and 1833 earthquakes. When heritage falls, the artists rise. Sustainability is not about building temples that do not fall, but having the people with the needed knowledge and skills to build them back again.

The earthquake also taught us that no matter how much “free” food arrives after a disaster, we have to save the seeds and plant them. When the “free food” ran out six months after the earthquake life was normal because the fields were full of crops, ready for harvest. If we had not planted the crops on time, Nepal would have faced a real disaster. Traditional wisdom teaches us “anikaalma beuu jogaunu”.  Seeds and hard work gave us sustainability and not “free” food sent to us as a humanitarian gesture.

The Indian blockade taught us to make sure that our supply chain is short. If we want sustainable cities, Nepal needs to move away from imported LPG cooking gas and switch to electric rice cookers powered by our very own clean hydropower. The on-going invasion of Ukraine should teach us to produce wheat and sun flower oils closer to home. Imported fossil fuels are not an option for Nepal, no matter how much we seem to be willing to pay.

The COVID – 19 pandemic has taught us that the virus is capable of separating our life and our livelihood. It makes us choose one over the other. The ancient festival of Chhaat teaches us that our life and livelihood should be based on the power of the sun, water and plants. These are the three sources of life on earth. We need to buy and use products and services that depend  on these three.

City planning basics

A sustainable city has to be liveable, and this is a function of good management. A well managed city is liveable. Management is dependent on how bankable a city is. There was a time when our cities were wealthy with trade revenue and the ability to sell and buy goods and services produced locally. Now we are dependent on aid and pity of the world.

The garbage trucks in Kathmandu are a good example of the state of affairs. The yellow ones are from Germany, orange from Japan, green from India and silver ones from China. Where did my tax money go? We get ambulance when India celebrates its independence day each year. Each of the 753 Palikas must become bankable and the means exist. To see the opportunities, we must say no to charity that keep us dependent and addicted to “free”. Nothing is really “free”.

In the meantime, the media tells us that Nepal officially imported 24,000 kg of gold in the last five years. We are not poor; Nepal is not poor. Nepal is poorly managed.

Art, music and cooking

In a sustainable city the top three professions will be art, music and cooking. These three professions will be the most sought after. Look at the choice people are making these days. They want to make a living off the sick. Further Nepal’s population growth is now going below replacement rate indicating that young people do not want to start a family and have children here. After decades of using the word sustainable to describe everything we do, we do not even have a sustainable child birth rate.


The key area for discussion, moving ahead, is how to attain convergence in our many conversations about sustainable cities. We teach one thing in class, read another in a book. We say completely different things at the tea shop and another at home with our families. Can we have one conversation? This will be the first step towards change and moving in the right direction towards sustainable cities.