Waste management is not just an issue for the towns. Highland communities like Soe and Lingzhi are grappling as much with the mounting waste around them.
But unlike the towns, waste collection is not a problem in Soe. Residents volunteer to clean and collect waste along the trails at least three times every year. Their problem is – transporting the collected waste. With Soe hosting the upcoming mountain festival, residents are expecting the community to generate more waste.
A health assistant, Dawa Gyeltshen, said transporting the waste on horses from Soe to the road point in Shana, Paro is expensive. “It costs Nu 900 for each horse until Shana and to transport the existing stored waste, we would need about 50 horses.”
From Shana, the garbage truck of Paro municipality collects the waste.
Each chiwog has a garbage pit and he said it would require about 10 horses to transport the waste of each pit, all of which has not been transported for the last one year.
Soe’s waste was last carried down to Paro in 2017. Soe Gup Kencho Dorji said about 40 horse loads of waste was transported. A horse can carry 50 kilograms of load.
He said that previously they adjusted the transportation charges from the gewog grant.
“We could not continue it because gewogs receive grants based on its size and being one of the smallest gewogs in the country, our grant is not much,” he said. “If we spend it for transporting waste then we won’t be able to carry out any other developmental works.”
He said the money earned from selling recyclable waste is minimal and no one is keen on taking up this work. “We earn only about Nu 2,000 from selling about 10 horse loads of waste.”
The collection of the waste, he said was initiated by the health assistants in Soe and Lingzhi a few years ago. In the chiwogs, the tshogpa coordinate the cleaning campaign quarterly.
Besides health officials and residents, he said forest officials also monitor the waste issue in Soe since the area falls within the Jigme Dorji National Park.
With the mountain festival to be held soon, the gup said it would add to the mounting waste in Soe. “We would like to transport waste to Shana soon.”
The collected waste comprise of bottles, plastics and other recyclables.
“The 28 households in Soe cannot produce so much waste. Most of the waste is left by the travellers since everyone including those going to Lingzhi have to pass through the gewog,” Dawa Gyeltshen said.
Waste issue comes up in every meeting but he said that every year they struggle with the budget to transport the collected waste.
Other waste like papers are buried because burning them is believed to defile or upset the local deities, which would result in disharmony in the village.
“We thought it was just a blind belief and we did burn the waste once after which strong winds blew off the roofs of our houses,” he said. “After that, we never dared to burn waste again.”
Gup Kencho Dorji recalls the 2014 incident. “After burning waste, cattle started dying in mass, residents fell ill and there was disharmony in the village.”
He said the astrologer confirmed that the local protective deities were defiled. “So, we had to carry out rituals and restore the purity of the village.”
Karma Namgay, 40, from Gongyul said the issue is similar in Lingzhi. “As the pit fills, we pack the recyclable waste and store it. Other kinds of waste are buried.”
The cleaning campaign done once every three months is also coordinated by the tshogpas in the chiwogs.
A representative from each household comes for the cleaning campaign. “If a household misses the cleaning campaign then they have to pay a fine of Nu 500,”he said.
Karma Namgay said that most of the waste along the trails includes pet bottles, milk powder packets, which they use to bring in packed lunch, tissue papers and packaged food covers.
“We did discuss with the park and health official in Soe to adjust the transportation charges,” the gup said. “We have to find a way to transport the waste before the festival, if possible. Otherwise, we will have to transport after the festival.”
The gup said they would require at least 20 horses to transport the waste.
“We had several talks with the Tourism Council of Bhutan on the waste issue,” the gup said. “They said they would not be able to give the budget but through them, we have two tour operators, Yangphel and ABC volunteer to collect the waste at least twice a year, once before the tourist season and once after the tourist season ends.”
The tour operators bring about 40 to 50 people and they collect and transport the waste. The gup said the households have to segregate and take care of their own waste.
“People trekking to Lingzhi including tourists pass by Soe and the waste in Soe is mostly disposed of by the travellers,” he said. “When we say travellers, it is not the tourist but Bhutanese travelling with them.”
He said beer bottles and pet bottles make up most of waste, followed by packaged food wrappers.
“We suggested TCB that the travellers leave their waste with the in-charge at the campsite along with the collection charge but it is not happening,” the gup said.
They could file a complaint with the TCB but monitoring is a challenge. “We are hopeful that we get some funds after the festival to transport the waste out of Soe.”
Dechen Tshomo | Lingzhi