Our Kamal PokhariKathmandu Valley's ponds need to be revived, not just restored
Ghanshyam Rajkarnikar still has fond memories of the wide pond near his house in Kathmandu. As a child, he played along the edge of Kamal Pokhari, named after the lotus that once grew profusely on it.
The lotus does not grow anymore, the pond has shrunk, and in the past months its water has been drained to make way for commercial development. Wild grass has taken over the dry bed where a fisherman used to take his boat out to catch fish to sell in the market.
“We would ask him to pick us some lotus flowers from the middle of the pond,” recalls Rajkarnikar, now 80, and whose family owns Krishna Pauroti Bhandar, one of the oldest bakeries in town.
Ever since Mayor Bidhya Sundar Shakya of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) tried to repeat what he tried to do in Rani Pokhari, heritage conservationists have been up in arms to stop the use of concrete to ‘beautify’ a water body that served to recharge Kathmandu’s groundwater and had cultural significance.
Mayor Shakya’s team calls it a ‘fusion’ project to merge modern urban needs with traditional heritage. But activists have been up in arms about the use of concrete, and the construction of a ferro-cement lotus in the middle of the pond.
“If you do not allow aquatic plants and animals to grow naturally, they will die and that is why the use against concrete is dangerous for biodiversity,” says land and water management engineer P S Joshi.
There have been previous efforts to revive Kamal Pokhari. In 2017, Nepali Congress MP Gagan Thapa worked with environmentalists to revive the pond and to stop garbage dumping.
But by 2019, Kamal Pokhari had turned into a wasteland, and the KMC announced plans to develop the area into a recreational space with an artificial lotus. The plan has been met with stiff resistance from activists.
“Currently, the swampy soil bed is the lifeline of the pond, it retains water," says architect and activist, Susan Vaidya. He explains that in situations when a pond is left dry for a long time, it loses its ability to retain water.
Deconstruction reconstruction, Alok Siddhi Tuladhar
“It is not about how much concrete is being used, it is about destroying the natural water levels,” says Vaidya, who, along with other activists, has met Mayor Shakya to try to make him understand local sentiments.
Nepali Times asked Shakya to respond to the criticism. He said, “Kamal Pokhari was already a lost case, sewage and garbage was being dumped. As soon as the contractors finish their work we will fill it up with water.”
The KMC says it will “beautify” Kamal Pokhari and will retain its originality. The water will be recycled so that it does not gather algae.
Engineer Prem B Shrestha Ranjit is coordinator of the Kamal Pokhari Restoration Project, and says, “There will be smaller ponds at the four corners of the pond where lotus flowers will be grown to ensure that the pond retains its identity.”
Ranjit disclosed that the pond will be first filled with 25 million litres of Melamchi water, and topped off with water pumped from a deep well.
Activists say all this is proof that the KMC has no idea about the ecological and cultural importance of Kathmandu Valley’s network of ponds like Kamal Pokhari and Rani Pokhari. They point to Gahana Pokhari in Handigaon which was also lined with concrete in the name of ‘renovation’.
According to the Ancient Monument Preservation Act of 2043, using concrete in a historical monument is prohibited and is subject to penalty. When approached, Ram Bahadur Kunwar of the Department of Archaeology refused to comment.
Sanjay Adhikari of the non-profit group Pro-Public has filed a petition at the Supreme Court to stop reconstruction at Kamal Pokhari. But three months have passed since, and there have been no hearings.
As the struggle between the city and heritage activists drags on, Kamal Pokhari is dusty and overgrown with weed. Stray dogs roam about, and neighbourhood children play in the dry bed.
“Ponds act as diaphragms, they allow the intake of rainwater into the groundwater which helps maintain the groundwater table,” says Joshi. “When the surface is sealed with concrete, rainwater cannot reach the ground and the groundwater table drops.”
Without ponds and open fields to ensure that Kathmandu Valley’s groundwater is recharged, there is the danger of sinkholes and land subsidence. The valley’s early inhabitants had created a network of ponds to recharge aquifers, so water would be stored underground for use in the dry season through wells.
While most big cities in the world are located on a sea coast or alongside rivers, Kathmandu Valley had its own unique system. Beginning from the Kirat period, people settled on elevated land and the fertile river banks were strictly for agriculture, and for flood control. This knowledge was passed down to the Lichhavi and Malla periods.
The ancient kingdoms built an elaborate network of rajkulo canals that channeled water from springs on the Valley rim to ponds, hiti water spouts, and wells. The Newa people of the valley created three types of ponds with varying functions too maintain the hydrological balance.
Ponds upstream from towns acted as buffer reservoirs that stored rainwater, and recharged the aquifers. They also helped reduce the risk of floods in the settlement during the monsoon, and in the dry season provided water for irrigation and household use.
The ponds built within settlements were smaller and used mainly to recharge aquifers and for rainwater harvesting. The recently restored Pim Bahal Pukhu in Patan, Purna Chandi, Khicha Pokhari and Byasi Pokhari are examples of these local ponds.
Ponds downstream from settlements had flood and landslide control functions, with Chaysal Pokhari in Patan being an example.
Kathmandu Valley was hydrological civilisation that understood the value of water conservation, and had an intricately engineered water management system suited to the topography. It dated back to the Kirat and Lichhavi era, 1,500-2,400 years ago, and passed down to the more recent Malla period.
Hitis and dug wells in the towns were fed through aquifers, and to ensure that there was flow of water even during the dry season, ponds were built as reservoirs to recharge the groundwater. These ponds were in turn fed through rajkulo canals.
In the 1800s, the Ranas introduced piped water, replacing the traditional water system. But the modern systems were not able to cope with the rapid urbanisation of Kathmandu, especially in the past 50 years.
“One of the reasons Kathmandu Valley civilisation thrived in the past was because of its intricate water system, of which ponds were an important part,” explains Joshi.
Much of this network of canals and ponds are now destroyed. The stone spouts are mostly dry. The Ring Road expansion destroyed much of Patan’s underground rajkulo canals. And the ponds started going dry because of the loss of replenishment through the water channels, and encroachment.
Heritage conservationists say that Kamal Pokhari and other ponds in Kathmandu Valley need to be revived, not just reconstructed. This means restoring their original water channels and the natural soil characteristics with an understanding of their ecological and cultural importance.
Lost lotus ponds
The sky is overcast. Bhaktapur’s Kamal Binayak is dotted with people enjoying the serenity of this ancient pond (above). Sixty-year-old Chandra Bir Prajapati walks past them, pushing a trash trolley, collecting litter.
He has been the sole caretaker here for decades, employed by the Kamal Binayak Sudhar Samiti to ensure the lotus pond is clean. In the next few months, this historic pond will be handed over to the Bhaktapur Metropolitan City by the Nepal Army, and it wants to draw more visitors and augment local income.
Heritage activists, historians and water heritage conservationists have hailed Bhaktapur as an example of how heritage should be preserved amidst rapid urban expansion. The city’s efforts to revive its ponds and cultural sites has important lessons for Kathmandu, Patan, Thimi and Kirtipur.
Patan’s Kamal Pokhari, for example, was buried under a parking lot by the Lalitpur Metropolitan City itself. And its idea of beautification is to line the remaining pond with glazed tiles and a fountain in the middle.
The Kamal Pokhari in Bode, Thimi is embroiled in a legal battle between the public and one Gyalpo Sherpa, who claims that he had bought the pond from a woman called Kanchi Podini. The locals argue that she had been contracted the pond for fish-farming during the Panchayat years, and would have no legitimacy for its sale.
Elsewhere in Kathmandu, there are only memories of extinct ponds. Few know that the Dasrath Stadium is built over a vast lotus pond. Other ponds now have structures like the Chhaya Centre built over them, with the locals still protesting. With the ponds gone, so have the rituals, festivals and folklore that were associated with them.
Kathmandu’s ponds were not just woven in the sentiments of the local Newa people, they were a well-thought-out plan by people of the past, who understood the valley’s ecology. The loss of these ponds is the effacement of indigenous knowledge in a world, that is fast being lost to invasive urban development.