Picture this: The year is 2027. Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and the biggest city is growing fast and expanding rapidly. The city’s population of little more than 100,000 has more than doubled and, with it, urban poverty aggravated by rising unemployment and lack of affordable housing.

Failure to manage urban growth has led to environmental degradation of the kind that we have never before seen. Buried under the mounting waste, the city’s proverbial splendour and blissful tranquillity are stories of distant past. Crop failures and supervening predicaments are no longer occasional interjections in the general narrative of the nation faced with myriad modern challenges. In the city’s once pristine rivers, sparkling stream and tinkling rivulets there is little sign of thriving lives.

The idea might easily be dismissed as a wild stretch of imagination, but save the proclivity for a while. Waste is already the single biggest problem facing the capital city, while the management strategies continue to flounder. When simple and potentially effective solutions like banning plastic bags to reduce waste go in vain repeatedly, the spectre of waste getting out control sooner than later is not altogether an unlikely picture.

Eight years is not a lot of time. By then, Thimphu’s solid waste production will have increased to 124 metric tonnes a day. The city’s only landfill in Memelakha, which has long outlived its capacity, is still the only disposal site for the city’s growing population and solid waste production, and poorly managed at that. As the nation prepares to reinforce plastic ban from April 1, comprehending the scale and magnitude of challenges in hand is critically important.


Missing link

Because waste had already become too big an issue to be handled by the thromde single-handedly, private waste management companies were encouraged. In 2010, Greener Way stepped in to recycle waste in Thimphu in an efficient and environment-friendly manner. Almost a decade into the business, the firm’s proprietor, Karma Yonten, recently celebrated his 180th month as “garbage man”. It was a sobering event; he never experienced such a mess in his life.

“November and December 2018 were the worst months of my life. I was broke and could not pay my staff,” he says, chain-smoking like a bronchial train. “We are now sort of getting back in shape.” Thimphu Thromde gives Greener Way Nu 1 million every month for staff salary, fuel and maintenance of the 13 garbage trucks. However, only five garbage compactor trucks do the rounds in the city everyday. The rest are lying there, quite out of shape and long dead. “They are now garbage themselves.” He brings this out in a manner of joke but doesn’t laugh.

Thimphu’s waste is not unmanageable going by the stats available and consumption pattern that is changing by the day. The real problem is too much duplication in the corridors of bureaucracy. So, there is the dzongkhag administration and the thromde in disagreement. Why, for instance, should bringing waste from the outskirts of city be a problem for recovering firms?

Waste is a common problem but managing it not. Thimphu’s dzongkhag administration, for instance, has two garbage compactor trucks that has been grounded since August 2018. Residents outside the thromde so bring their waste to the Greener Way. A government report says that there is today an urgent need for combined and determined efforts from both the government and the private to find an amicable solution towards the ever-increasing garbage problems in the towns.

“The bureaucracy doesn’t look at the problem as we do. The many conferences and meeting at big hotels are a waste, pun intended,” says Karma Yonten. The solution is simple, he adds. “If we encourage community policing with heavy penalty, the waste problem will go away the next day. It has worked elsewhere and it will in Bhutan. The sad thing would be when our national flower will be plastic bags hanging on our trees. ”


Waste as they come

The prospect of taking a ride on a garbage truck isn’t appealing. But if you want to see what constitutes the biggest amount of waste, where they come from and where they go, it’s both beautiful and sad.

Ass-man picks me up from my office. It is early morning. I laugh at his name but it’s all right. He knows the joke people make out of it. So, the legendary Ass-man takes me on a ride in a Greener Way’s compactor truck.

“Patience if you haven’t, cultivate, Sir.” Ass-man speaks to me in haiku. “Rough people, animals, come and go.”

Norzim Lam, Thimphu’s great thoroughfare, is accommodating on a Tuesday morning. Not a lot of garbage, a quick run. One can understand why people complain about timing. When the garbage trucks arrive and wait, there is shockingly not many people coming out with their dirt and craps. But when they do, some come with all manner of waste, muck from the drain even.

“Hey, you, what the….?!” exclaims Ass-man. The man’s thrown into compactor a bag of sand. “You do this again, as if you haven’t done it before, on your head shall I throw them.” There is a heated argument, almost a fight.

Ass-man tells me that people are being unreasonable. The city would need 200,000 garbage trucks to work with the timing of the residents.

“This is normal, sir. I have seen worse,” he says. “But we have got to take it because it is our job.”

Plastic bags are the most common waste that go into the compactor’s heavy jaws. Many like Ass-man endure hardship 12 hours a day without a break for lunch or a snack in between. But there are also those who appreciate garbage collector’s job. They invite for a quick break – tea, coffee, or a whole lunch.

“This, sir, is our typical day. But we could do worse. We have a family to look after,” says Ass-man, a trash philosopher.

Real problem

When waste is the issue on the table, budget constraints is the most likely reason anyone will hear. Even the reports have it pinned as the main hiccup. Civic sense is the other – the city residents do not have it. Dustbins placed at locations are vandalised. But these are problems that can be easily solved.

Get it right who is going to do what and where. Kill duplication of efforts. Why can’t the dzongkhag administration and thromde talk and figure out a way? Solving garbage problem isn’t a rocket science, after all. Where is the budget for waste management going if there is perennial shortage of budget? How many environment officers are we keeping on the payroll to do nothing?

Next week, waste handlers from across the country are meeting in Wangdue to thrash out issues and to advise the government. These young entrepreneurs are the ones feeling cheated and neglected by the nation’s indifference to the problem of waste.

“Something radical must happen in to system to address the problem of waste,” says Karma Yonten. “We are doomed otherwise.”

Jigme Wangchuk