Water for the ages

Kathmandu’s ancient water spouts provide more reliable supply than the $700 million Melamchi project

Jhuma Limbu used to wake up at 3AM every morning to queue up for water from a municipal tank in her neighbourhood of Patan. In the dry season, she got home three hours later carrying a jar of water.

But this spring, Limbu and her neighbours have been pleasantly surprised that a 700-year-old water spout across the road is gushing water even in the dry season. Usually, the hiti water spout used to have water only during the monsoon months from July to September.

“It was so amazing to see the sparkling clean water flowing continuously,” an elated Limbu told us as she filled her plastic jar at the spout with the alligator-like मकर mythical animal carved on it.
“I don’t know why there is water this season, but it has made my life a lot easier,” she added.

Water for the ages NT

The Misa and Kwanti Hiti spouts at Baglamukhi Temple in Patan have religious and cultural significance. A ritual is performed for the spout and it attendant monks every July when the फूद्योः (supreme being) is transported to the temple amidst much fanfare. Devotees then bathe in the sacred waters of the sunken spout.

Elsewhere in Patan, water spouts like Mang Hiti, Chhayabaha Hiti, Chyasa Hiti and Narayan Hiti are now better maintained and fully-functional even in the dry season.

Experts are not sure why these centuries-old spouts suddenly have water flowing again, when the $700 million Melamchi water supply scheme that brings glacial melt through a 26.5km tunnel from Langtang National Park is not providing regular supply.

Water for the ages NT
Water for the ages NT

But urban development expert Padma Sundar Joshi thinks there may actually be a link to the Melamchi project. Even though water from Melamchi is supplied through the mains on a rotational basis, it has meant that families are not using traditional wells to draw water as much, allowing the water table to rise and make the spouts flow again. 

“If the Valley’s population continues to increase and extraction of well water resumes, the water table will fall again and the spouts will go dry,” explains Joshi. “It is crucial that we come up with a plan to ensure perennial water supply at the hiti.” 

Ancient water spouts are considered great technological achievements of the Kathmandu Valley Civilisation. The Malla-era spouts are outlets for underground conduit basins that allow drinking water filtered by the soil to flow non-stop. 

Water for the ages NT

In the 6th century CE Kathmandu was the only city in the world to have mastered the technology to provide drinking water to its inhabitants deep in core residential areas.

Centuries after they were built, these systems still support the growing urban population of Kathmandu Valley because modern water mains are so unreliable. But unplanned urbanisation of Kathmandu in recent decades has threatened this historic network of sunken spouts.

Many water sources have been buried by construction, ponds that used to recharge ground water have been built over. The underground channel that used to bring water to spouts have been destroyed, like the one supplying Sundhara in Patan which was damaged during the construction of the nearby Employees Provident Fund building.

Read also: Kathmandu’s ancient water spouts still functioning, Alok Siddhi Tuladhar

Water for the ages NT

“The main reason these spouts have gone dry is because of the rapid growth of Kathmandu Valley’s population,” says Joshi, who urges the municipal governments to invest in the surviving hiti so neighbourhoods have water 24/7 all year-round. 

Storing monsoon rain in recharge ponds is the most effective solution to augment wells and spouts. Says Joshi: “Because 80% of rain falls in three months, we can store monsoon runoff in recharge pits and make use of existing wells for storage as well.”

A new system of channels is being built to amplify the water flow to Patan’s water spouts from a distribution centre in Khumaltar, and it is set to come into operation in a few months.

Says Chandra Kumar Shrestha of the municipality’s Project Implementation Directorate: “If water supply from Melamchi is more regular, it will help recharge ground water and revive our dry hiti and benefit more people.”

Water for the ages NT

“Respect our ancestors by saving the hiti they built.”

Padma Sundar Joshi

In the last 30 years, many hiti in Patan and elsewhere in the Valley have gone from being perennial sources of water to becoming completely dry. First, the flow of water decreased. Then the water began to flow only during the monsoon, before stopping altogether.

Unregulated construction because of the Valley’s population density destroyed both the sources of water as well as the underground channels connecting water sources to the ancient hitis.

Water for the ages NT

People in the valley began drilling tube wells to ensure water supply, but this lowered the water table and dried up the hiti. Now, with the Melamchi water supply, many of those wells are not used as much. This, in turn, has meant that the water table has risen, reviving the flow in the ancient spouts even in the dry season.

However, if Kathmandu Valley’s population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, it won’t matter how much water is supplied from Melamchi, Yangri, or Larke. There simply will not be enough water. Managing urban growth must be the priority.

A hiti’s age is often cited as the reason for it going dry, but that is not the case. The Mangal Hiti in Patan has been providing water continuously for 1,500 years. How long a hiti has existed is immaterial as long as it is managed and protected. And that means not only making the sunken spouts more attractive, but to strengthen its functionality. 

Water for the ages NT

A key to making water flow again in the Valley’s hiti is to bring back the recharge ponds and lakes which have been built over. But conservation of our ancient water supply system has been neglected because it is deemed too expensive. In fact, water should be an election agenda, and elected leaders must fulfil their promises. 

The good news is that many of our hiti have been flowing again, even in the dry season. This reminds us that heritage and nature conservation go hand in hand, both must be protected. 

Kathmandu’s hiti define our civilisation and our place in history. To disregard them is to disrespect our ancestors.    

Water for the ages NT

Read also: Solution to Kathmandu’s water crisis

Padma Sundar Joshi is an urban development expert and the author of Hiti Pranali, a book on his research into the ancient hiti system.

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