Kathmandu creeps up surrounding mountains

As Kathmandu reaches the limits to its growth with nearly every square metre now built up, developers are moving to the slopes on the Valley’s rim to set up housing colonies. This is affecting the aquifers, and increasing risk of landslides for residents.

Gokarneswar is located directly below the forests of Shivapuri National Park and nearby is Sundarijal, the source of fresh water for much of Kathmandu. These villages had perennial springs that fed household taps and irrigated fields. 

In the past year, the springs have all gone dry. Residents blame it on real estate developers moving in with heavy machinery and carving up the slopes into plots for new housing colonies.

“I am 60, and I have never seen the springs go dry, even if there is a trickle, it is all muddy,” says Ramsharan Bhandari. More than 200 families of Wards 2 and 3 of Gokarneswar face water shortages, and many are thinking of moving out

Locals say the developers have bought up terrace farms, and encroached on dry streams and community-owned land. After the trees were cut and excavators tore up the slopes, the last monsoon saw destructive landslides. This has affected the groundwater that used to replenish the springs at the base of the Shivapuri.

When a team from Nepali Times visited the village of Sultakhana last week, excavators belonging to real estate developer Dipak Bista were gouging out the slopes. After buying the land, the contractor first mines the sand and quarries stones to sell to construction companies in the city, and then plots out the property to sell to individual buyers.

“Till two years ago these slopes were all green,” says another local Ramkumar Bista. “It was after the dozers tore up the slopes above us that the springs went dry.”

The steep slopes are made up of sand on top of bedrock, both of which are valuable for contractors. Once the terrace farms are levelled, the slope is shored up with sand bags and sold, even though it is still too steep and unstable to build houses on.

“So far, we have mostly suffered from springs going dry, but the mountain above us is now so unstable, we dread the landslides that are sure to happen in the monsoon,” says Madhusudhan Bista, a resident of the neighbouring village of Baluwa.

Even in the 2020 monsoon, the Suryamati River burst its banks after moderate rains led to slope failure. Shankar Bista, 65, says a pasty mixture of sand and water flowed down the mountain and washed away everything in its path.

“We see increased sediment load in rivers, and without tree cover the water does not seep into the ground but runs off, causing a lot of damage,” says Basanta Raj Adhikari, a professor at Pulchok Engineering Campus, who has been researching landslides on the valley rim for the past 20 years.

Along with Gokarneswar, the phenomenon of contractors mining and quarrying the mountains and then selling the property for houses is going on at the base of mountains all around the valley—in Chandragiri, Budanilkantha, Godavari, Lele, Nagarkot, and elsewhere.

“This rampant destruction is affecting the nature and ecosystem, making slopes unstable and reducing the recharge of the Valley’s underground aquifers,” says researcher Adhikari.

There has not been a comprehensive study of Kathmandu Valley’s groundwater, but a Japanese research project in 1994 concluded that the northern end of the Valley was critical for groundwater recharge. The study showed Kathmandu Valley could sustainably pump out only 20 million litres of groundwater, but the city is already extracting 70 million litres a day through pumps and deep tubewells.  

That study led to the establishment of the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park to protect the watershed. However, the unchecked destruction now taking place at the edge of the park and in the buffer zone will reduce monsoon recharge, and lower Kathmandu Valley’s water table, which has already been depleted by over-extraction.

“The northern fringes of the Valley are made up of sandy slopes and forests which absorb rainwater and let it percolate into the ground, but all this construction is affecting the seepage,” says retired Tribhuvan University professor and water management engineer Ashutosh Shukla.  

Locals in Gokarneswar say they have taken up the water shortage issue with their mayor Santosh Chalise many times, but nothing has been done. In fact, they suspect the mayor himself is in partnership with real estate developers.

“The contractors get permission to flatten slopes for housing, and do whatever they like,” says Buddhi Bista, a local. “If the mayor wanted, he could have stopped them then and there. It is hard to believe that he is not hand in glove with the developers.”

Chair of Ward 3 Rajendra Bhandari is also frustrated that whenever he takes the complaints to the municipality, there is no one willing to listen. “I have written to the ministry in Kathmandu, to the municipality, to the national park, I raise the issue in meetings, but no one listens,” says Bhandari.

We asked Mayor Chalise why all this was happening during his watch, but he instead blamed locals for selling off property to real estate speculators for quick cash. “If I try to stop them selling their land, they oppose me. If I let them sell their property, they blame me. None of the contractors have encroached on any community land,” Chalise said. “The locals sell the land, they are the ones driving the dozers, they are responsible.”

Last week, a team made up of the Kathmandu CDO, District Coordination Committee, the National Park conservation chief made an inspection visit. CDO Kali Parajuli ordered an immediate stop to the excavation of the slopes. When no one took heed, the Home Ministry stepped in and the excavation has stopped for now. 

Locals suspect the encroachment will resume as soon as the gaze of officials turns elsewhere. “We do not just want the destruction to stop, we want the perpetrators to be punished,” says Buddhi Bista.

Laxman Poudel of the National Park says: “The slopes do not fall within the park boundary, but because of the impact on the watershed, we have written to the local government to immediately stop this destruction. It is now up to them.”

Flushing the Bagmati

Even with the imminent arrival at Sundarijal of water through a 26 km tunnel from Melamchi, Kathmandu Valley’s population has grown so rapidly that it will not be enough to meet demand.

Which is why the government has started building two reservoirs on the Bagmati tributary of Nangmati within the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. The construction activity can be clearly seen in recent Google images (pictured).

The reservoir at Dhap has a 25m high rock and concrete dam that can store up to 850,000 cubic metres of water. When construction is complete later this year, the reservoirs will discharge up to 400litres per second of water to replenish and flush the Bagmati.

The Bagmati Civilization Integrated Development Committee will then build another reservoir 4 km downstream on the Nagmati. Project engineer Nischal Chhatkuli says the environment impact assessment of the NRs.510 million project with support from the Asian Development Bank is nearly complete.

Also read:

Drawing a line in the sand, Bhrikuti Rai

Trickledown corruption, Editorial

Bulldozing democracy, Om Astha Rai