Whenever water shortage hits the Kathmandu Valley, which is most of the time, the subject of Melamchi invariably comes up. Melamchi is whispered in hushed tones, as if it is manna from heaven. Successive gangs of politicians since 1990 have sold Melamchi as the panacea to the capital's perennial water problem. Melamchi has already entered the vocabulary of Kathmandu's socialites as a synonym for water. "Can I have a glass of melamchi, please", or "Make mine Scotch with melamchi". Halfway through pontificating on the Valley's water crisis, politicians on the podium reach for a glass of melamchi.
With a population reaching nearly a million and a half, Kathmandu needs 150 million litres of water a day. Present supply is officially 80 million litres a day, although unofficially it is known that His Majesty's Government's undertaking, the Nepal Water Supply Corporation, pumps only 60 percent of that amount. Leakage and pilferage is conservatively estimated at 40 percent. That means a shortfall of a whopping 110 million litres a day. No wonder some neighbourhoods are on the verge of rioting.
Taps are now dry all year around, you don't have to wait for April. If it wasn't for groundwater, Kathmandu would have been uninhabitable. It may soon be anyway because shallow tubewell water is now contaminated with sewage and chemicals. For the short term, the Valley's water supply can be substantially improved by demand management, supply management and reduction of leakage. Our investigation in this issue shows that the 6- and 8-inch Rana-era pipes of the Tri-Bhim and Bir Dhara networks are still the mainstay of the Valley's water distribution system. Many of the storage reservoirs on the outskirts of the town are nearly a hundred years old, but they are still functioning. It is the latter-day tubewell pumps that have broken down and not been repaired.
Production engineers told us widening the intakes on the Nallu, Mahadev, and other streams that flow down to join the Bagmati, doubling the capacity of existing reservoirs, adding new ones with small 20-metre dams on the higher reaches of Bishnumati, Kitni, Nakkhu and other kholas, and replacing the antique 8-inch pipes with bigger trunk lines would easily take care of Kathmandu Valley water supply for now. Cut leaks and pilferage by half and you can boost supply by a further 15 percent.
This is the tragedy of modern Nepal: we'd rather build monumental follies than improve efficiency first. After all, monumental follies carry monumental kickbacks, efficiency is only good for the nation.
Even so, we have to admit that the way Kathmandu is bursting at the seams, the springs on the valley rim are not going to be enough in the long term. (Come to think of it, with a capacity of only 170 million litres a day in its first phase, Melamchi itself may not be a long-term solution either). Source augmentation by trans-basin transfer seems to be the only way out for the future. But as our politicians have now painted themselves into such a tight corner by raising public expectations of Melamchi it would be suicidal for them to back out now.
In the even longer term, there is really no other alternative to reducing this crippling urban pressure on Nepal's over-centralised capital. The growth of this valley is turning malignant. To protect its unique heritage, its precious ecosystem and its astonishing natural beauty, urban pressure has to be reduced. And doing that will automatically take care of water demand.