The only reason this city is not completely uninhabitable is that traditional waterspouts built by the Malla kings 400 years ago to bring water through underground channels from the Valley rim are still functioning. The few water mains that exist were laid down during the Rana period nearly 100 years ago to pipe water from Sundarijal and Pharping.
Yet, new 17-storey apartment blocks are going up, housing colonies are spreading across the suburbs, highrise office blocks are sprouting everywhere. Kathmandu's urban water demand has exceeded 200 million litres a day, when supply is only 45 million litres a day in the dry season. More than half of that supply is lost due to leaky pipes.
For many, the only recourse is to buy water from private tankers, or drilling deep into the aquifer. A recent survey estimated that private tankers supply up to 40 million litres of water to customers daily, and more than 60 million litres of ground water a day is pumped up from wells. With extraction far outpacing recharge, the water table has fallen alarmingly, and many traditional wells have gone dry.
Subsidence is already becoming a problem, with the Nepal Telecom building in Jawalakhel dipping into the ground. If the current rate of water extraction continues, experts warn, Kathmandu's ground water crisis will reach a tipping-point and sinkholes could devour neighbourhoods.
Political meddling, corruption, and gross incompetence have left the capital powerless and waterless. Instead of investing in increasing mains capacity, reducing leakage, constructing monsoon storage reservoirs on the Valley rim, the state decided 25 years ago to lavish half the country's entire annual budget on a grandiose project to bring snowmelt from the Melamchi River water to Kathmandu through a 27km tunnel. And even that project is stuck.
Melamchi has been mired in controversy, allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and lack of coordination among donors. After the Norwegians, Swedes, and the World Bank pulled out of the project in the past decade, the $600 million project finally went ahead with a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The latest in the long Melamchi saga is that the government this week terminated the contract of the two Chinese companies working on the tunnel, citing non-performance. This means the project could be delayed by a further five years, provided the re-bidding goes smoothly. Melamchi could have been made more feasible, and egalitarian, if it had been a multipurpose project to generate electricity and irrigate the Bagmati valley downstream. (See: Revisiting a multi-purpose Melamchi, #379). But, of course, decisions here are not made on the basis of logic, rationality, and economic viability. Cheaper alternatives are ignored because larger projects have larger kickbacks.
In a way, justice is being served on Nepal's pampered capital. Kathmandu may deserve to suffer from an acute water shortage just so its denizens are reminded what the rest of the country has to endure. Melamchi is a political disaster, and engineers can't solve problems created by politicians messing things up so badly.
For now, we may have to look up to the heavens for an answer. Just as many have turned to solar power to cope with the electricity crisis, the only short-term solution to the water shortage maybe to invest in household rainwater harvesting.
The Melamchi side of Melamchi, DANIEL M MAXWELL
Benefit sharing of Melamchi water revenues with local communities will set the precedent for future mega-projects in Nepal