icon/64x64/climate Climate

Thirsty Kathmandu waits for water that never arrives

One of the most rapidly urbanising cities on the planet, the capital city of Nepal is struggling with old projects sabotaged by controversies and bad strategies as its people go thirsty
<p>A woman selling water in Patan of Kathmandu valley [image by: Ramesh Bhushal]</p>

A woman selling water in Patan of Kathmandu valley [image by: Ramesh Bhushal]

In May of this year the residents of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu formally established a forum and staged a protest in demanding drinking water supply to their taps. Named as Valley Drinking Water Victims’ Struggle Committee, its Facebook page has already gathered 3000 followers.

Nepal is one of the least urbanised countries in the world, but it is amongst the top ten in its pace of urbanisation. Much of that is concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley, which has been reeling under a water crisis but is yet to find any solutions. The current water supply from the government utility is about one fifth of total demand in winter and less than one third during the wet season. “For years, our taps have been fetching air instead of water and we are forced to live a terrible life. It’s our right to get clean water and we must fight for that. For long, politicians and bureaucrats took advantage of our silence,” said Prakash Amatya, a member of Valley Drinking Water Victims’ Struggle Committee.

According to Kathmandu Upatyeka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), a public private entity managing Kathmandu’s water supply, water demand reached 377 million litres per day in 2017 while the supply was just 120 million litres per day in wet season and only 73 million litres per day in dry season. As a consequence, the mineral water business has increased massively. There is no reliable data on the figures because much of it is not regulated. Hundreds of water tankers trundle every day in the city, there are tube wells in every other house, leading to the ground water table declining and traditional stone spouts fed by springs dying out.

From water abundance to water emergency

Nepal has a long history of piped water distribution. The initial use was for the ruling elites in 1891 and expanded to the general public in 1920. The country should have been celebrating a century of public access to a secure water supply system; instead there is only frustration and fear. The problem spiked in the 1990s – Nepal went through a civil war from 1996 to 2006 – and by 2000 there was serious water crisis. Now it has become a matter of emergency, whether the government wishes to declare it as such or not.

For about 70% of households in Kathmandu valley tap water is the primary source of water but it is severely inadequate to fulfil daily needs. Some case studies suggest that an average household receive 1.5 hours of water supply every five days from the public utility. About 15% of people now depend on water tankers that supply water privately. “We are bound to pay a premium price of around 15% to tanker-water as compared to tap-water source,” said Suman Shakya, Managing Director of Smartpaani, a company that focuses on rainwater harvesting.

Ironically the country’s water resource stands at billions of cubic metres and Nepali has among the highest amount of water per person in the world – it is just not available in their taps. Approximately 224 billion cubic metres flows through Nepal, from the mountains to the Bay of Bengal. That would approximate to 9,000 cubic metres (9 million litres) for every one of the 30 million people living in the country. Today, though, getting 9 litres a day has become an unachievable dream for many. “We haven’t learnt lessons to conserve, harvest and store water. Misuse and inefficiency are high, and precious water is blatantly abused,” said Ajaya Dixit, a water resources expert.

Many see this self-proclaimed richness as a problem. “We aren’t water rich. We have water but fail to manage it. Making use of every drop of water that falls during four months of monsoon is one of many solutions. That’s why we started working on rain water harvesting technology,” added Shakya.

While available solutions were not given priority, leakage not controlled, ground water recharge not even on the radar of water management, the only promise to solve the water crisis lay on the controversial project called Melamchi. The project to divert the Melamchi river 30 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu valley and funnel the water through a 27 kilometre tunnel, was supposed to provide the city with 170 million litres of water per day.

A man at protest rally holding sign demanding water from the delayed Melamch water project.
A man in a protest rally demanding water from the delayed Melamch water project [image via: FB of Kathmandu Valley Water Victims Struggle Group]
But the project envisioned in 1990s and started in early 2000 is yet to fetch a single drop of water. “Multiple water institutions, from the national to local levels, have overlapping, competing, and conflicting roles, often functioning in parallel to one another. Such a lack of synergy has diminished the capacity of institutions to focus on challenges of urban water scarcity; indeed, much of the institutional energy is wasted on keeping their legacies intact,” said Hemanta Ojha, Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Canberra in Australia and part of a team that recently undertook research on urban water security in Nepal.

Melamchi’s tale: a long wait for nothing

“Melamchi ko pani, Kahile aaune nani, Tanker ko Pani, Kinera Khani (Hey girl don’t know when would water from Melamchi reach the valley, so buy the tanker water and drink for now),” water tankers  that trundle through the valley have this poem printed on their back. They are the lifeline for about 15% population of the city. The three decade old dream project to fetch water to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu has got everything except water. There are songs about Melamchi, jokes on trucks, speeches from political leaders, and promises from international organisations.

“Politicians have gotten a cake to share during every election and an easy promise form them to make is, ‘If you vote me, I will bring water to your tap.’ Poor us, paying money, casting votes but not quenching our thirst,” added Amatya, from the Kathmandu Valley Drinking Water Struggle Committee.

In 2001, Asian Development Bank approved the funds to divert the river and several other agencies, including the Nepali government, contributed to the funds. The project lay idle until the end of the civil war in 2006. When the peace agreement was signed, there rising hope that thirsty Kathmandu would receive water. But when the project started, but so did the controversies. In 2012, the Chinese contractor China Railway 15 Bureau ran away without completing the tunnel. A year later, the contract was awarded to Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti (CMC) di Ravenna to construct the 27 kilometre tunnel to divert the river but it also decamped after disputes with the government in 2018.

In August this year the government again selected another Chinese company, Sinohydro, to the complete the tunnel but there is no surety as to when it will be completed. The minister for water supply, Bina Magar, said, “We will fetch water to the valley within the next year,” she said.

This is latest in a row of many deadlines that were given by the authorities and past ministers. “We won’t believe in the deadline unless water appears in our taps,” said Amatya. Officials at the Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board, which serves as a nodal agency to deal with water, were not available for comment despite multiple attempts.

In the words of popular play writer Abhi Subedi, Melamchi has begun to resonate with the sense of non-arrival of an unseen person named Godot, referring to the play by Samuel Beckett in which the title character never arrives. He wrote in the Kathmandu post “Two bored characters Vladimir and Estragon, like us in Kathmandu Valley waiting for Melamchi water, are waiting for Godot, who sends a message through a boy that he would come only tomorrow, not today.”

Even if Godot, or the Melamchi water, arrives, this will not solve the problem. The city has expanded rapidly, with its population increasing by 400% in the last three decades, many of them moving to the capital to avoid the hardships of the civil war.

In 1988, the demand was 35 million litres per day. This increased to 155 million litres per day in 2000 and then 370 million litres per day in 2015 and is still increasing. The plan of the authorities is to divert another river called Yangri into the Melamchi in the second phase. This may not be what is required.

“Managing the water supply requires putting in place strong governance mechanisms that can handle infrastructure, technology, fair distribution, quality control. The valley’s water crisis will not be solved by just adding number of rivers to the tunnel, it needs better institutional coordination and management,” said Ojha.

Dying stone spouts, depleting ground water

Sixty-two years old Laxmi Dhakal runs a farm and makes her living by selling milk in Sainbu in the south of Kathmandu valley in Lalitpur district. A stone spout just about 50 metres away of her farm produces water round the clock. It is the only source of water for farming and drinking.

The stone spout “system uses gravity and rainwater to transport and store water through wells, ponds, canals, pipes, and conduits,” writes Nicholas Griffin in his research on the system in 2014. But this system is breaking down.

stone spout in Bhaisepati, South of Kathmandu Valley
A busy stone spout in Bhaisepati in the south of Kathmandu valley [image by: Ramesh Bhushal]
Dhakal finds the spout crowded these days, and it has started dry to out for few months in the winter unlike its perennial service in the past. “Nowadays I have to wake at about 3 or 4 am in the morning to avoid the crowd or wait till 10 pm to get water from that stone spout,” she said. “It won’t go for long, see water has dramatically decreased in the tap,”

Griffin cites studies that show that there were 389 functioning stone spouts in water distribution network across the Kathmandu valley. Out of these 45 no longer exist, 68 have run dry and 43 are illegally connected to city supply lines. “Remaining 233 still flow naturally serving as independent water sources catering to approximately 10% of Kathmandu’s population as they provide about 3 million litres of water per day in dry season and about 8 million litres per day in we season,” wrote Griffin.

This is only one part of the complex water crisis as encroachment and groundwater depletion exhaust water resources that have been relied on for generations. A study conducted in 2001 had warned that if the ground water extraction remains the same as of 2000, the valley’s ground water will be used up within 100 years. Groundwater extraction was less than 0.04 million cubic meters a year in the early 1970s but went up to 12.2 million cubic metres in the late 1980s, and over 25.5 million cubic metres by 2009. In 2014, the ground water balance of the valley had shown a deficit of about 30 million cubic metres

As the city started to grow rapidly in 1980s the public utility chose the “easy solution” of extracting water from the deep aquifers. It was taken as the panacea for the growing water crisis, but it is now destroying old water systems.

Experts see Kathmandu’s hydraulic paradigm of supply focused water policy as the main issue. “The hydraulic paradigm focuses only on the technical aspects of water management. It assumes that extraction of groundwater is based on water demand management, however, it does not focus on sustainable supply-side management,” added Ojha.

Until this changes, no matter how many rivers Nepal diverts, or how much water it pulls out of the ground, its people are likely to remain waiting for Godot.