Saturday, March 26, 2011

sustainable urban living in nepal

Swayambunath- an ancient Buddhist temple seen from my brother-in-law's roof.  Note the water tank in the foreground

I promised in my comments on another blog (much better than this one) that I'd post some photos of sustainable urban living in Nepal- my wife's country of origin.  Specifically, photos of the solar hot water heater, since that was the topic of the John Michael Greer's posting this week.

While I was sure that I had taken pictures of the solar array, now I'm unable to find them in my huge pile of digital photos amassed on my computer.  What I do have is a few good photos of the water collection and pumping system, which is a really ingenious response to a lack of infrastructure for provision of drinking water.  Something which is considered innovative and radical in the US- collecting water that falls on your roof, saving it in a cistern, and heating it with solar energy- is seen as nothing too remarkable in Nepal.
My brother-in-law's houses, side by side.  Both have flat roofs, though it's hard to tell from the street.

The pump and filter system which conveys water to the tanks on the roof

Almost every house has at least one water tank, some are elevated like miniature water towers
My wife's family is well-off by Nepali standards.  They are not among the wealthy, who live on inherited wealth in the city center near the (former) royal palace, but in the middle or upper-middle class of Nepal.  They have to work for a living, and live on the outskirts of town, but in nice houses by any country's standards.

The largest problem for Kathmandu, and really all of Nepal, is the overall lack of infrastructure.  There are few paved roads, most of which are in the center of Kathmandu.  There is no municipal water service, and as far as I know, no sewer service.  Electricity is available, but is spotty.  It tends to go out for several hours each night, when it is used most.  Phone service is the same.  I'm not sure whether there is any cable service available. There is no natural gas service anywhere. 

What is interesting, is how people in Kathmandu make use of what it available and find creative means to provide for everything else.  You can see above how drinking and cleaning water is managed- With rooftop collectors, cisterns, pumps, filters, and for some- solar hot water heaters and an insulated tank.  It's complicated and expensive to install, but very sustainable in the way its usually understood here.  The alternative is to buy water from tanker trucks which make their way around the neighborhood- an option which is expensive, and doesn't guarantee quality drinking water.

a hand-mill for grinding spices and grain

The way that people deal with sporadic electric service is interesting as well.  My brother-in-laws both had a cluster of 12 volt or 24 volt batteries and an inverter.  The batteries would charge off of the power during the day, and begin powering the home grid via the inverter as soon as power shut off during 'load shedding' as it's called there.  I didn't see any solar PV systems in Nepal.  Because electricity is relatively cheap, it is more efficient to charge batteries off of it than to try to generate it on-site.  So long as the grid provides power some of the time, there is no incentive to be off of it.  It's possible that the added load from so many batteries charging during the day adds to the load shedding at night, but since I'm not an electrical engineer, I will leave that question to people who know more about this than I do.

Phone connection is sporadic only because the phone lines are occasionally stolen and sold, I assume, for the copper.  My wife was unable to reach her brothers over their land line last year for a while for that reason.  Cell phones are the obvious way around that issue.  Getting cooking or heating gas is also dealt with in the private sector.  Propane is used for cooking, unless the family is poor, then methane generated on-site with animal dung in a closed container (I've heard about it, but haven't seen it) or wood is used (and probably smells better).

Garbage collection is handled by an old man on a bicycle who comes by every day or so and takes trash for a fee.  This points out the very low volume of garbage generated by Nepalis overall.  Some of it ends up in the street, but it seems that people will re-use, burn,compost or simply not create much waste in the first place.  People eat more fresh foods, and there is less packaging for the processed foods that people do eat.

It's a fascinating country, and very different from the US- particularly as infrastructure goes.  I'll post another time on rural Nepal, and talk a bit about self-sufficiency of small farms there.

the crowded market in the center of Kathmandu

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