My Kind of Town: Muktinath and Kagbeni provide important lessons in minimising environmental impact

As an architect who has lived in London for almost 20 years I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn to places of extreme urbanity and density: New York and Tokyo. In recent years, however, I have found myself increasingly drawn to places that are the complete opposite of this. Places that are extremely remote and difficult to get to. Places with little connectivity, sparsely populated and with very few resources.

To be even more precise, I will always be drawn to the villages of Muktinath and Kagbeni in the Nepalese Himalayas, which I first visited almost 15 years ago while trekking around the Annapurna I peak. At that time, these villages were only reachable on foot. To get there it was either a two-day walk from the tiny, and rather scary, airstrip at Jomsom or a five-day walk from the town of Beni.

As a trekker, I was able to stay overnight in one of the many small guesthouses situated along the Annapurna trail. In addition to the often Spartan sleeping facilities, the guesthouses provided evening meals. The local staple food is dal bhat, which is a lentil soup with rice, but there was also a wide variety of foods and drinks available. I found this quite surprising, given the remote location. The glass bottle of Coca Cola that I ordered after five days walking up the trail had to have got there the same way I did. In fact, all supplies were carried up by a porter on exactly the same route I was trekking. All day long across the trail, I came across porters carrying up to 150 per cent of their own body weight up the mountain.

There are no recycling plants on the trail, and what goes up must, eventually, come down.”

In addition to the glass bottles of Coke, the porters carried all the food, and even livestock that was needed up the mountain – at one point I counted a dozen chickens on the back of a porter who passed me on the trail. Even the materials that built the guesthouses had to be carried up the mountain, including windows, doorframes, timber and furniture.

There are no recycling plants on the trail, and what goes up must, eventually, come down. As a trekker, you are forbidden to bring any waste plastics including bags, packaging and water bottles. There are ‘Safe Water’ drinking stations all along the trail so there really is no need to buy water. And any other waste must be carried back down, either by trekkers or the porters.

Besides the issues around supply and recycling, there are also major issues with energy in these remote villages. As they are completely off-grid, they need to generate their own power using micro-hydro power plants, solar panels, biogas digesters and wind turbines. One of the more interesting pieces of energy equipment is the solar cookers that are 50 per cent subsidised by the government. They are rather beautiful parabolic mirrors that can cook food entirely by concentrating the sunlight.

When I visited Kagbeni and Muktinath it was the first time in my life that I saw how my actions had a direct impact on the environment. Throughout the trek around Annapurna, I was very much aware of my own energy needs and the waste I created.

If humans are ever to live on Mars, one of the main questions must be how to create a sustainable settlement with minimal waste.”

Last year I had the opportunity to work on a project that was even more remote than the villages of Kagbeni and Muktinath – part of the NASA Centennial Challenge to design a 3D-printed Mars Habitat. At first you might think there is literally a world of difference between the villages of Nepal and a Mars habitat, but there are a surprising number of similarities. Just like the mountains of Nepal, Mars is really cold and there are very few natural resources. Equally, everything on Mars will need to be transported there, with great difficulty and expense, making efficiency and reuse critical considerations.

If humans are ever to live on Mars, one of the main questions must be how to create a sustainable settlement with minimal waste. If we do create waste, how can it be recycled and reused over and over again? For our Mars Habitat proposal, we suggested reusing all waste plastics to create furniture and tools. We also looked at how we could use local materials in a sustainable way; in order to protect astronauts from gamma radiation, for example, we designed shell-shaped shelters made out of 3D-printed Martian dust, or regolith, which is available in abundance.

Designing the Mars Habitat made me think back to trekking the Annapurna trail. Being hyper-aware of the direct influence we have on our environment is not a common feature of life in the big city, and this complacency can often causes us to overlook the direct effect that we as a humans have on our planet.