Nepal must keep water on its land

Our ancestors knew how to store monsoon runoff for year-round use, we must learn from them

Lagankhel in the mid 1920s from on top of the Ashoka South Stupa. The road in the foreground goes to where Sat Dobato is today.

Kathmandu Valley used to be a lake. When the water drained out, it left  ponds, lakes, wetlands and, later, flooded paddy fields and irrigation canals. Seeing water on the land then would have been the most natural sight.

The Newa Civilisation maintained ponds for lotus flowers, ducks and fish which recharged groundwater, allowing the soil to filter the water that could then be extracted from wells. Rainwater washed the streets of waste which flowed down to terraced fields, fertilising them.

Along ridges and mountain saddles across Nepal, there are still some ponds left in which buffalos wallow. These store monsoon runoff, allowing it to slowly seep into the topsoil and keep the slopes below moist.

The best examples of the Valley’s ponds were in Lagankhel and Pulchok. They took in all the rain and stored it underground for use year-round in Patan’s ancient wells. Today, both have been encroached upon and filled over to make way for a concrete Municipality building, an army base, a petrol pump, schools, shopping mall and a tourist bus park.

Now, when the monsoon rain falls as it did last week in buckets, the water has nowhere to go but flow down the streets turning them into muddy torrents, carrying away children and motorcycles.

Deprived of rainwater recharging, the town’s wells and ponds run dry shortly after the monsoon. The ancient water spouts are reduced to a trickle. Open fields that allowed water to seep into the soil are now covered by asphalt roads, cement terraces and tin roofs. The water rushes down into rivers already constricted by embankments, where water velocity increases, causing destruction downstream.

A view of Ashok Stupa at Lagankhel and the surrounding area in the picture taken by Rich Pfau in 1968 and of the same location today (right) taken by PS Joshi.

Gravity is Nepal’s great source of energy. Falling water is a renewable source Nepal has in abundance, but it needs to be husbanded properly. Once water has flowed down river, we need pumps to get it up again. Our ancestors understood this well, and stored water at high points: the shrinking lotus ponds in Chhauni and historical ponds like Rani Pokhari, Eekha Pokhari and Kicha Pokhari.

Fortunately, there is now a belated realisation about the importance of ponds. Bhaktapur, Kirtipur and Bungmati are reviving their ancient water storage and recharge systems. Citizens have risen up against land-grabbers who try to usurp ponds. It is stupid to think that land will be worth anything without water.

The Himalaya is not just Asia’s water tower, it is a gigantic sponge. We must keep the sponge wet by allowing indigenous tree species to allow seepage through their roots. Roads should be so designed that they do not destroy natural recharge systems.

Pulchoki and the holy Nau Dhara and Panch Dhara at its base in Godavari have year-round flow because of the well preserved watershed. After it was protected, Shivapuri National Park gives the valley residents 30 million liters of freshwater every day.

Such ecosystem services are not available elsewhere in the Valley. In the Mahabharat and Chure mid-mountains, springs have gone dry because of indiscriminate road constructionsand mining, quarrying and logging. This is why the Tarai towns are either flooded during monsoon or face acute drought the rest of the year because of falling groundwater levels.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the ancient pond around the South Stupa of Ashok at Lagankhel should be restored. This will bring a huge change to the lives of the people of Patan by preventing annual flooding and recharging the ground water all year round. Every urban and rural municipality across Nepal should be mandated by law to similarly protect one major watershed, dig lakes and ponds on high ground. Given our love for earth movers, this should be an attractive proposition for mayors.

It is one thing to attend conferences on climate change and spout words like ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, but another to act. Visit the community around Pimbaha in Patan to learn how local action can restore ancient water storage systems, while contributing to tourism and local wellbeing.

Our goal should be to ensure that as much water as possible is harvested and stored in Kathmandu Valley and across Nepal. Let’s keep the water on our land.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc

Read also:

Nepal's silent emergency: springs going dry, Ajaya Dixit

Put back what you pump out, Sonia Awale

Anil Chitrakar


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