For all the talk of a concrete jungle and the fact that public parks are rare, Kathmandu Valley has a surprising amount of greenery. In fact, comparing period pictures from the 1960s of central Kathmandu to today, shows a lot more trees growing in between houses and office blocks. On the Valley rim, the protected forests of Nagarjun and Shivapuri and the community forests on the hills south of Bhaktapur are much more verdant.
But in inner-city Kathmandu, the roots of Kathmandu's green revolution are being laid by groups like Save the Environment Foundation (SEF) and the Environment Division of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. They are busy planting trees along roads, traffic islands and vacant lots. SEF has been working since 1994 to set up green belts around the Ring Road and along the city's main thoroughfares. The effort is gaining momentum, especially with private firms chipping in to maintain the greens. Many flowering traffic islands and young trees are prominently donated and maintained by companies like Carlsberg and Toyota who realise that such publicity works to everyone's benefit.
To be sure, Kathmandu is still far from being a green city. SEF's Chanda Rana knows this better than most. "Unfortunately, planting trees in areas like New Road is completely unfeasible because of the amount of urban congestion already present," she told us.
Just outside New Road, on the ever-shrinking Tundikhel, there used to be two 80-year-old gingko trees shaped like giant bonsai. Every Gai Jatra its branches would accommodate scores of locals who climbed it for a better view of the parades. Unfortunately, both fell prey to road expansion and only one survived the translocation to Godavari. Other trees like the beautiful pipal near the Nepal Rastra Bank in Baluwatar was simply axed down. For what it's worth, the roads are wider now and we have more overhead pedestrian crossings.
The good news is that SEF recently planted 400 gingkos right around Tundikhel because the trees are good air purifiers and their strong roots gives them the best chance of survival on the sidewalks. The rare trees date back to the Jurassic era and may not have survived had it not been for Buddhist monks in China and Japan who lovingly preserved them. Gingkos are also incredibly resilient, even surviving the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.
Rare old trees can still be found in pockets of Kathmandu. Tree lovers can behold awe-inspiring specimens inside the British and Indian Embassy premises where the forest is so thick, a family of foxes has made it its home. Trees have continued to flourish on the grounds of the Narayanhiti Palace, Singha Darbar, Baber Mahal, the prime minister's quarters at Baluwatar, Neer Bhawan, Kiran Bhawan and the enclaves of other foreign embassies. The gardens of Keshar Mahal, currently undergoing renovations ('Renaissance of romance', #152) also houses some veteran trees.
It takes vision to plant trees because they are an investment that takes time to mature. The best part about taking the initiative to make our Valley greener is that individual effort makes a big difference. On hot summer days most people find welcome relief under the shade of the magnificent jacaranda trees that line Darbar Marg (see pic, top). They were planted by the Late Princess Jayanti Rajya Lakshmi Devi Shah to beautify the road leading to the palace on the occasion of visit Nepal Year 1998. Today, the trees have grown and spread, giving the boulevard a leafy look that is a poignant symbol of her foresight and dedication.
Small things also count, like individual efforts to grow a few gingkos in school premises, restaurants and private gardens. A consortium of private companies located around Tinkune could take the initiative to adopt the unsightly triangle and turn it into a beautiful park. Or, people could support private-public partnerships by supporting efforts of organisations like SEF.
Contacts: SEF - 4375858
Kathmandu Metropolitan City Environment Division - 4231719/ 4227240
Save the trees!
The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) and other conservation groups this week renewed a 10-year-old campaign to save the trees lining the Arniko Highway near Bhaktapur. The trees are being uprooted this week by the municipality citing safety reasons, but KVPT says they should be trimmed and not cut.
Activists are now moving to court and getting a stay order to halt the ongoing destruction of trees along the highway. Some 150 of the trees between Bhaktapur and Thimi have already been uprooted, and the trust says that at this rate most of the remaining trees to Sanga Bhanjyang will be gone by the end of the monsoon.
"We are telling them, Kathmandu is becoming a concrete jungle, let's keep these trees, cut the dangerous ones and trim the rest," said the KVPT.
In 1993, KVPT started a similar campaign when the Roads Department awarded a Rs 10,000 contract to remove 7,000 trees between the Ring Road to Sanga. That campaign was successfully halted after only 400 trees had been destroyed.
The poplars lining the Arniko Highway outside Bhaktapur are so stately that their shadows can even be seen in this picture taken from from 270km up in space by space shuttle astronauts at noon in February 1987 (see pic).
The Roads Department says storms caused several fatalities in Kathmandu Valley this year from trees falling on vehicles, and add that the trees will pose a danger to the trolley bus lines when the service starts in September. The authorities used the safety argument to go on a logging spree recently to destroy 50 majestic eucalyptus along the Chabahil Road. "No reasons were ever made public (and with no public resistance), and Kathmandu was deprived of one of its unique ecological landmarks next to one of its important historical sites at Chabahil," says KVPT.
The trees along Arniko Highway were planted in the early 1970s and are an example of environment engineering, giving shade and visual comfort to an increasing number of people who use this road both on wheels as on foot. KVPT admits that the poplars may not have been the best choice but they should be trimmed, not uprooted.