Saving the waters of life

Nepal’s lakes and ponds need urgent protection to ensure water supply and preserve ecosystems

The monsoon is progressing on schedule in Nepal from east to west, and there is water everywhere. It falls from sky rivers on the mountains and plains, the rivers are full, the groundwater is being replenished, and dried-up springs are flowing again. 

The monsoon is four months of too much water, but in the other eight months Nepal suffers from a lack of water. We take water for granted, but adapting to climate change means storing monsoon precipitation to last all year round.   

Water can be stored by household rainwater harvesting, building dams, or it can be stored underground by recharging the aquifers. The indigenous knowledge of Nepalis to replenish groundwater with ponds and lakes is being lost, and with it the capacity to adapt to weather extremes induced by climate breakdown.  

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LAKE DISTRICT: Rupa and Begnas lakes in Kaski do not just enhance tourism and fisheries, but also recharge groundwater. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

In eastern Nepal, if the sacred Mai Pokhari in Ilam loses its water, the district will be almost inhabitable. If Morang’s Rajarani and Rajkumari ponds dry up, its rich aquatic flora will be gone.  

The lakes of Rupandehi and Kapilvastu are repositories of wild rice and rare plant species, and a rich wetland habitat for birds. Ghodaghodi Lake in Kailali is a biodiversity hotspot.  

Pokhara’s big lakes were formed about 800 years ago when a gigantic debris flow from the Annapurnas blocked tributaries of the Seti, but today the lakes are shrinking due to sedimentation and human encroachment.

Lakes below 3000m

It is not just in rural Nepal that wetlands, lakes and ponds offer invaluable ecosystem services, Kathmandu Valley’s hydraulic civilisation built water channels to feed stone spouts that are functioning to this day and are marvels of engineering. 

The ponds that dotted Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur also served to recharge the aquifers so community wells did not go dry and were filled with naturally filtered water.  

Nepal’s lakes, ponds and rivers have traditionally been regarded as holy because the ancients understood their importance to human survival. They have inspired poets and singers because of their beauty, but also because we used to understand their importance as storage systems. 

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A water buffalo wallow pond in Kavre in 2001. Many such ponds have disappeared in the past decades. Photo: MOHAN MAINALI

But modern Nepal is losing this traditional knowledge. Ponds have been allowed to dry up so cities can spread over them, lakes have shrunk, wetlands have been filled up. Rivers are polluted with waste.

This year’s World Environment Day on 5 June had the theme ‘Our Land, Our Future’. But land has no value without water. To restore land, prevent desertification and make it resilient against drought, we need to ensure adequate water for plant and animal life to thrive, and for farm and household use. 

Saving the waters of life NT

Nearly 20 years ago, the people of Tansen dug a big pond up on Srinagar hill above the town. It was designed to prevent runoff in the monsoon that used to flood the downstream settlements, and also to replenish the groundwater table so that the springs would flow all year round. 

The people of Palpa had revived local knowledge about water conservation to ensure that the growing district headquarter had adequate supply. However, down the hill from the new pond the people were throwing rubbish into the existing Kamal Pokhari until it was completely covered. Then townspeople started building houses on top of it.

The irony of the Palpa experience is that even while the town was building a new pond, it was destroying an old one. Such destruction of essential waterbodies is happening all over Nepal. 

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Kamal Pokhari in Palpa in 2016.Photo: MOHAN MAINALI

Human civilisations have collapsed because they ran out of water due to poor planning and preparedness. It can happen again unless we restore our ponds, lakes and rivers. Reviving traditional knowledge about water will also conserve the water we do not see: underground water. 

But we in Nepal are doing exactly the opposite. We are cutting off our lifeline in the name of infrastructure and modern living.

How many lakes and ponds?

Of the 626 big and small lakes in Nepal below 3,000m, 21 have been degraded, and 300 are in a critical state. Only 96 are in good condition and even these are threatened by encroachment and pollution. 

There is no information about the state of 209 lakes. Hundreds of new lakes have popped up above 3,000m due to global heating.

Using data from Nepal’s topographical maps from 1992 to 2001, Ukesh Raj Bhuju counted 5,358 natural ponds and lakes all over the country. Since natural ponds are rarely perfect squares or rectangles, manmade ones were not counted. Bhuju used to work for the National Lake Conservation and Development Committee which made an inventory of 3,131 lakes in 67 districts up to 3,000m elevation. 

But the most recent survey 10 years ago showed that this number has shrunk dramatically to only 626, mainly because of encroachment and most of them in the Tarai, where 53% of Nepal’s population lives. Many more lakes and ponds have probably disappeared in the past decade.

Depleted ponds

Topographical maps used to show that Kapilvastu district had the third largest number of lakes in Nepal. Most lakes are now gone, and there are only 327 of them.

These lakes and ponds are not just important for Nepal and India for groundwater recharge. They have global significance, being vital stopovers for migratory birds that travel every year back and forth from Siberia to Africa, and from Central Asia to Southeast Asia.

Of these, Rara, Kosi Tappu, Mai Pokhari, Phoksundo, Bishajari, Ghodaghodi, Gokyo and other lakes are the most important for birdlife. Mai Pokhari, Bishajari and Pokhara’s lakes are being threatened by encroachment and pollution.