…of dumping everything down the drain

Sherab Lhamo


April 25, Tuesday.  It is 9:30 am. Dawa Tshering receives an alert message on his phone. ‘Sewage overflowing near Changlam Plaza,’ says the message.  A few pictures of the blockage and the exact location follows.

Dawa Tshering, the supervisor, signals to his team. Three of his workers hop into a car to handle the first mission of the day. At Changlam Plaza area, they waste no time. The supervisor takes out an orange cone to indicate the overflow. Wearing black boots, casual trousers and a windbreaker, Jagat Bdr Tamang,  one of the workers, puts on his gloves and takes out the tools from the trunk.

With an iron rod, Jagat hooks it to the sewage lid and opens it. Then he takes out the crowbar and pry open the lid.  The sewage overflows faster to the surrounding area near it. Passers-by cover their nose with whatever cloth piece the found on their body.

Just as he was fixing the blockage,  another manhole started overflowing about a hundred metres away from the one he was clearing. Jagat is used to the work. He first takes out the floating garbage – plastic cups and bags and white clumps of oil (due to cooking oil), probably from commercial kitchens. Next, he grabs a bamboo pole, a quick fix for minor clogs. He shoves it down, hoping to dislodge the blockage. But no such luck.  A metre-long iron rod was brought, still no movement.

He adds another rod, then another, connecting them end to end as the four rods plunge into the sewage. The last one, is different with a curve handle, that rod is used to twist and push the clog. Finally, a sound — a gurgling groan–glug glug, followed by a gush – the overflow starts to sink.

With the help of other workers, he pulls out the rods, and there twisted to the tip of the first one, a kid’s t-shirt and white clumps of oil. Dawa said this area is frequent.

He points to a restaurant nearby. “The kitchen and sewage drainage are connected leading to white clumps of oil, the root cause of the sewage blockage,” he says. Dawa shared that it is only around the area near the Farmers Market that has such issues. In other locations, as it is prohibited to link wastewater to sewer lines, issues like these don’t occur.

In clearing the city’s drains and sewer lines, the workers are tired. They are not seeing changes in what is flushed or forced down the drains. “It is the same – sanitary pads, diapers, and condoms,” murmurs one.

He shared his grievances as the crew faced misplaced blame from a few building owners for not coming on time, treating them like they deliberately caused the clog. Their workday starts from around 9 am to sometimes midnight, always on call.

Dawa said they don’t get time to eat lunch most of the time, as they have to reach the location when they receive a blockage message. Even on weekends. Sunday is off day, but if there are blockages near double lane areas, Motithang, Norzin lam and Zilukha — they must go.

Adding to the woes are those building houses or contractors.  Dawa said that although there are regulations on dumping waste and construction materials, not many heeds to it.  Empty sandbags and gravel left behind are another cause of the blockages.

Recently a sewer line burst in front of iBest Institute at Changzamtog. The crew took a day to unclog the sewage. Dawa said that when clearing, they filled up two to three big sacks with plastic wastes.

If what blocks our storm drains, sewer lines and other drains is a reflection of how we treat our waste, the capital city’s residents need to be educated on proper waste disposal. A thromde worker said that the educated building owners and office-going tenants needs to be educated on waste disposal. “Even I don’t flush my pads down the toilet,” said one.

The most common non degradable waste clogging drains are pet bottles, plastics of all sorts, old clothes,  toys and balls, glass bottles and sand and dirt washed away into drains.

Passang Tshering, the founder of the Bhutan Toilet Organization shared that the reason for the overflow is due to the old sewer lines and because of overcapacity. Another reason he pointed out was irresponsibility of the people.

He shared that if people could install drainage sieves in all the outlets in their kitchens and toilets, they can ensure that no solid object gets into the sewer line.

The crew has asked that community to not flush things in the toilet, but the blame game erupts, finger-pointing with no culprit emerging from the trenches.

The maximum blockage they cleared was nine in a day, on average they cleared four to six blockages.

A Thromde official shared that as sewage blocks are frequent and need immediate clearing, the workers are not getting what is written in the regulations.


Safety and risk

Working with untreated waste is a risk to health.  The thromde workers are not well-equipped with enough safety gears as they deal with the capital’s waste – from kitchen to sewer.

The thromde provided workers with a crowbar, other tools, boots, gloves and gumboots and a high viz safety uniform. Jagat who joined three months ago has not received the high viz suit yet.

The crew wished the  thromde provided them gloves once a week, as the gloves easily tore when using the metal tools.

Dawa Tshering, said the thromde did provide them with a packet of masks a year ago.

Jagat said that while working for the first few days he got  headache and fever because of the pungent smell. “After a few weeks you get used to it and your body adapts to it.”

As per Chapter 6 sub section 1.3 of Thimphu Thromde Workforce Service Rules and Regulations employers should facilitate and conduct annual health check ups for all the workforce. According to the crew, they  have not received the said health check up.

According to Thimphu Thromde’s regulations, workers are entitled to an hour of meal break which is also integrated into their working hours. If a worker works more than 8 hours a day or 48 hours a week, they should be provided overtime pay.

Dawa said other than him, other crew members are not provided overtime pay.

“If thromde could increase their salaries as they are equal to those working in road maintenance, it will help motivate them to keep working,” said Dawa.

Jagat said the reason he and many others are working with the thromde is because of the free housing provided. The work is dirt enough to call it quits and the residents are not changing their habits.