Solution to Kathmandu’s water crisis


Haphazard urbanisation, a continually growing population and long delays in the finalisation of the Melamchi Project have resulted in an increasing water scarcity in Kathmandu Valley. 

But these are not new issues. What is new is that they have become the subject of renewed discussion during the Covid-19 outbreak. The state authorities have repeatedly told people over the last few months to reduce transmission of the virus by washing their hands ‘properly’ (michimichi), scrubbing with soap and water. 

That this is very difficult to do without easy access to water. Also, this new demand for water comes on top of the usual requirement for safe drinking water and water for other household uses. 

Most residents of Kathmandu Valley own or rent small dwellings, and only a few are able to find the space for a storage tank on the roof, in the garden or underground. 

More than 70% of the Valley’s population relies on piped underground water sources officially maintained by the local authorities. Just before the monsoon started this year, the Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) was distributing piped water once every 11 days. When the monsoon is over in a month the situation will become acute. 

Last year’s annual report of the agency shows that the average water supply, after deduction of the 20% losses through leakage, is 103mld/day (million litres per day) as against the total requirement of 430mld/day. Kathmandu has only a quarter of water that is needed (see chart).

Source: KUKL 2018-19

Kathmandu Valley has been suffering from a shortage of water, especially drinking water, since at least the 1980s, and the situation has been getting worse year by year. Policy-makers, engineers and others consider the Melamchi Water Supply Project as the long-term solution. 

The project was designed to divert fresh water to Kathmandu Valley from the Melamchi River in Sindhupalchok District through a 26km tunnel to Sundarijal. Work on the scheme started in 1998 and it is still under construction, having suffered innumerable delays owing to problems with lending agencies, contractors, and corruption, and, most recently an accident in the tunnel that killed two staff.  

When completed, the Melamchi project will be able to supply about 170 mld/day of water, but this will not meet even current demand, let alone future requirements. 

Since the state utility has not been able to meet water demand, people have come to rely on alternative sources, including wells and boreholes. An  increasing number of households now purchase water as a matter of course from commercial water tankers or, for drinking water, buy plastic jars. 

Some still rely on ‘traditional’ sources, such as springs, wells and rivers, water spouts or tanks. Many of these underground water sources, however, have been damaged by the development of urban infrastructure and extraction of underground water on an unprecedented scale in the past three decades.  

The unregulated extraction of underground water by both private operators and KUKL, has lowered the groundwater table. Similarly, new construction has reduced the open spaces that would allow recharge of the water table. 

One consequence is the destruction or degradation of traditional water systems that have dried up stone spouts and wells that had served the people of the Kathmandu Valley for hundreds if not thousands of years. 

This water supply system in Kathmandu Valley can be traced back at least to the Licchavi era more than a thousand years. It was not built during a single regime, but gradually improved upon over the centuries. It is only in recent times that it is threatened.

The major source of water for the stone spouts was the raj kulo (Royal Canal) which started from the foothills on the Valley rim, and fed into ponds which stored and recharged water for the aquifers, which were themselves largely dependent on rainwater. 

A single stone spout may have had a single or multiple sources of water. Many were fed by either an individual spring or a local aquifer. Some sunken spouts were fed by shallow aquifers using percolated surface water, others were located near or far from a source. A single aquifer might supply water to a single spout, or to multiple spouts serving a number of communities. 

Water was channelled through burnt clay or wooden pipes to the stone spouts through passages so that the water could flow easily. Most of the stone spouts had a base platform to capture discharged water, and a drain it through the side which served to supply another stone spout downstream, or irrigate nearby farms, before finally flowing into a river.  When the springs and other water sources went dry and the water level in  shallow aquifers went down, the stone spouts also discharged less water or became dry. 

In this way, a complex and heterogeneous system was gradually developed over the centuries that utilised water from different sources, channelled it, often over considerable distances, and discharged it eventually through the spout, acting as a tap, for use by local communities.

Centuries after they were built, water from these sources are still being used by households, hotels, restaurants, factories and tanker operators, for laundry, personal hygiene and cleaning vegetables. Residents fall back on the traditional systems when there is not enough available water from the government piped system. However, the water is not potable anymore.

It is late, but not too late, however, to recognise the potential value of these systems with their multiple water sources, complex distribution channels and stone spouts. With proper conservation, they continue to supply much needed water to people of the Kathmandu Valley, in addition to maintaining an important archaeological heritage and the rich cultural associations of these living monuments, particularly for the Newa people whose forebears built them.

Since people in Kathmandu Valley still use these water sources for cleaning, washing, bathing, irrigation, they could play an important role by integrating them with modern technologies. Water from these historical systems could contribute to a sustainable solution to the Kathmandu Valley’s increasing water scarcity. 

The first pre-requisite is that there is no interruption in the water’s source, route and eventual outlet at the spouts by new physical infrastructure. An effective system needs to be devised for adequate water storage in reservoirs or tanks to maintain water supply throughout the year. Along with storage, the water must also be treated appropriately. 

If these prerequisites are met, water from these age-old spouts could be easily accessible, of good drinking quality, and be free of cost. Given the right storage, the spouts can supply water continuously, complementing the official piped water system or public water tankers -- particularly for low income households which cannot afford to buy water.  

Iku hiti where water from stone spout is still being used for drinking, bathing, washing and cleaning. Photo: RIISHTA SHRESTHA

One working example of just such an outlet with a viable storage system is Iku Hiti in Dhobighat of Lalitpur, where water from the sunken spout flows into a storage tank of 80,000 litres operated by the KUKL, and distributed to people in the nearby communities. 

Shree Krishna Dongol of KUKL says water is distributed to communities every alternate day from 5AM- 6.30AM, in addition to its own supply which is once a week. Water supply is extended to 9AM-12.30 and 2-4PM during the monsoon. The same pipe is used at homes to distribute water from both the sources and the communities pay according to the meter fixed by KUKL at their homes. 

The management committee also charges Rs5 / jar for those who collect water for restaurants or hotels. Families pay less, and those who live near the area do not pay at all. The money is used for cleaning and maintenance of the stone spout and its premises. The committee is also constructing a separate pond to wash clothes so that the stone spout area can be clean and safe.

Washing facility at the Iku Hiti with water from the spout. Photo: RISHTA SHRESTHA

There are grounds to justify serious initiatives and additional efforts by state and local authorities, non-state entities, private organisations and local communities, to protect, rehabilitate and renew these traditional water supply systems, and to ensure their survival and maintenance, so that they can, once again, meet the needs of the modern residents of Kathmandu Valley. 

David Seddon has undertaken research and consultancy on development issues in Nepal over several decades.

Ranjan Prakash Shrestha, PhD,  has research experience in climate change and indigenous knowledge and practices related to urbanisation and sustainable water resource management.

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