The dead rivers of Kathmandu

Urban sprawl is driving a deepening water crisis in Nepal’s capital. Ramesh Prasad Bhushal reports as part of a chinadialogue series on urbanisation in the Himalayas.

Editor’s note: today, continuing a special series on urbanisation in the Himalayas, chinadialogue presents the voices of local journalists in Nepal and Bhutan, who describe some of the challenges facing their growing mountain cities.

Ramesh Prasad Bhushal describes the deepening water crisis in
Kathmandu, where pollution is destroying rivers and groundwater overuse is literally sinking the valley. And Dawa Wangchuk offers a rare glimpse into the reality of the Kingdom of Bhutan, where the capital Thimphu is sacrificing its own environmental resources in a furious endeavour to catch up with the modern world.

Putting his hands on his forehead, 70-year-old Sadhu Bhai Maharjan explained how he and his friends used to swim in the Bagmati River, a few minutes walk from his home in Kalimati, at the centre of the Kathmandu valley. The valley has witnessed rapid urbanisation in the last few decades and Maharjan is among the few people still engaged in agriculture for their livelihood in the core of Nepal’s capital.

Clipping small bundles of vegetables, he said: “Now people don’t believe us, but we used to swim in the river flowing nearby a few decades back and enjoyed fishing. The water was used for drinking too.” These days, almost all rivers of the valley, including Bagmati – the holiest of them – are as good as dead.

His neighbours, who were farmers until a few years ago, have shifted to urban life. The owner of the large chunk of land next to Maharjan’s plot decided to lease it to a college two years ago. A huge building stands there now. “We used to bathe in the river before the crack of dawn and foxes used to howl at night. Those days are no more than memories now,” Maharjan added, while the stench of garbage swept in from the river.

Here, large sewerage pipes act as tributaries to the rivers, as most nearby dwellers dispose of their sewage directly into these streams. All rivers in the valley have been turned into dumping sites. The worst have become narrow canals, as more and more people encroach on the riverbeds. The population of the 899-square kilometre valley has increased fivefold in the last 60 years, from 197,000 people in 1952 to 997,000 by the time of the 2001 census. Meanwhile, the built-up area has increased by 134%, from 24.54 square kilometres in 1989 to 57.32 square kilometres in 2006.

have declared the rivers “dead” as hardly any fish can survive in them anymore. Recent studies show that the fish population has been completely wiped out in the 10-kilometre to 15-kilometre stretch of the Bagmati River that flows through the city centre. And this is Nepal’s holiest waterway, which flows past the Pashupati Nath Temple, one of the most sacred Hindu shrines in the world.

Not only is the surface water polluted, groundwater depletion is also very high. Siddhartha Bajra Bajracharya is executive officer at the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and team leader of the Bagmati River Action Plan (2009-2014). He said: “Most of the water [of the Bagmati] has been tapped for drinking purpose near the source of the river in Shivapuri National Parks hills in the north-west of the valley and the ‘concretisation’ has restricted the groundwater from recharging [further downstream]. This has caused the drastic reduction in the flow of water in the rivers of the valley.”

The valley requires around 220 million litres of water every day; but the supply is less than half of that – approximately 100 million litres a day. And an estimated 40% of the water supply is lost through leakage from old, rusty and broken pipes. The shortfall is met by people pumping out groundwater themselves. Experts are warning that, if the present groundwater extraction trend continues, then the soil of the valley itself may subside within a few decades.

“Our study has revealed that the groundwater table has been dwindling by 0.7 to 1.7 metres a year,” said Nir Shakya, senior hydro-geologist on Nepal’s Groundwater Resources Development Board. “This is an alarming trend. The valley is becoming more prone to subsidence.”  Subsidence – the sinking of land caused by excessive groundwater extraction – is a common problem in cities that swell in size without any water regulation or proper infrastructure. But Nepal’s government still has no plan to address the problem.

Water is not the only natural resource at risk in this beautiful country of high mountains and panoramic vistas. Massive deforestation and rapid, poorly planned infrastructure development have become critical threats to flora and fauna. The bird population in the valley is dwindling at an alarming rate. “The habitable banks of rivers have turned uninhabitable, which has reduced the water bird population by at least 90% in the last two decades. Other birds are also facing a huge threat,” said Hem Sagar Baral, senior ornithologist at conservation institute Himalayan Nature and writer on the birds of Nepal.

The only good news is that many years ago conservationists persuaded the Nepali authorities to declare the sandstone mountains which encircle the valley as an official protected area. So the mountains from Phulchowki in the south-east, Chandragiri and Champa Devi in the south-west, Shivapuri in the north-west and Nagarkot in the north-east have been preserved. Today, the people of Nepal earn more money from tourism in these areas than they would have if these mountains had been covered with concrete. Perhaps that will convince the authorities that, in the long run, preserving the environment profits everyone.

Ramesh Prasad Bhushal is a Kathmandu-based journalist. 

Homepage image from Phil @ Delfryn Design  

Also in this series:

Urban peaks in the Himalayas

Kashmir’s urban jungle

Bhutan’s modern face