We arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal in April 2009 to continue our photographic journey documenting the Tibetan culture. What we came back with was the start of another photographic journey far removed from our original intent. Instead of traveling high into the heart of the mystical Himalayans renowned for its nature beauty and authentic Tibetan villages, we ended up in the underbelly of Kathmandu.
The Underbelly of Kathmandu consists of the new slum areas popping all over the valley. These areas are made up mostly of people displaced from their hillside villages due to the Maoist conflict in the recent years or people from the lower caste (Dalits) who are just too poor to afford properties. These people are considered “squatters” with no land rights by the local government. These are the new urban poor of Kathmandu.
The infrastructure in Kathmandu is taxed to the limit. It is estimated that at least 1/3 of the population in the valley have inadequate access to safe water, and inadequate access to sanitation, not to mention only several hours of rotating electricity a day.
It is ironic that in Kathmandu, with the Himalayan Mountains on the horizon, that there is an insufficient amount of water supply in the area. Many communities remain dry for many hours, if not days. Even areas with water, the water quality is so poor that it must be boiled or filtered in order to make it drinkable. Women lined up in the streets with their plastic buckets for hours waiting for water to be turned on from the public taps.
One of the main reasons for the poor water quality is the lack of waste disposal facilities, sanitation facilities, and water treatment plants. The two main rivers, the Bagmati and the Bishnumati, which pass through the city of Kathmandu, are absolutely filthy with raw sewage and garbage. Raw sewage and solid waste are often disposed of on the banks or in the rivers by locals who have no access to sanitation facilities or waste disposal and also by the municipalities. The sad thing is that these river areas are often the place where the poor find space to build their homes.
Kathmandu being the urban center of Nepal, is also quickly becoming the urban slum central. As we travel through Kathmandu Valley, it was not the majestic Himalayan Mountains that captured our attention, but the rapidly deterioration of the whole valley and the endurance of the people living there. We saw roads that are crumpling before our eyes under the onslaught of vehicles. We traveled along what were once pristine rivers now permeated with the stench of raw sewage. The once clear mountain air is now filled with pollution that clogged our sinuses and made our throats raw. We endured, along with the majority of the locals wondering when the electricity will come on or if there will be gasoline at the petrol stations around the corner.
The Underbelly of Kathmandu is a series of the photographs of the urban poor in the valley. The people of Nepal are what bring visitors back to Nepal over and over again. The gentleness and resilience of these people is quite amazing despite the simmering crisis that exists. The Underbelly of Kathmandu is little Nepal on its own, consisting of people from all areas of Nepal, all looking for a better future for their family, all looking towards the new government to lead them there.