Saturday Features

Fire and water

The ancient town of Sankhu doesn’t have a fire station of its own but it does have ponds. Now its residents are repurposing old technology to meet modern needs

- Astha Joshi

When a fire engulfed the top floor of the Share Market Building in Putalisadak in February this year, it took firefighters from the City Fire Brigade (Juddha Barun Yantra) a little under twenty minutes to bring the flames under control. The building, which straddles one of the Capital’s busiest streets, was spared from major damage in part because it is located just a kilometer away from the fire station that is capable of dispatching personnel within two minutes of receiving a distress call.

But not all fire incidents take place in locations as convenient as Putalisadak. In February 2015, it took first responders an hour to reach the site of a fire outbreak in a cotton factory in Balkot, Bhaktapur. By the time fire trucks from all three units in Kathmandu Valley arrived, the factory was completely engulfed. During the course of the six hours it took firefighters to bring the fire under control, some irate locals went as far as to pelting stones at the trucks. Nearly Rs 3.3 million worth of property was reduced to cinders in the incident.

International standards recommend that settlements maintain at least one firefighter for every 2,000 people and one fire engine for 28,000 people. In Kathmandu Valley, however, there are 12 functional fire engines servicing over five million people. Of these, the City Fire Brigade based in New Road has six fire engines and 34 firefighters; the Pulchowk Fire Brigade in Patan has four fire engines and 11 firefighters; and Bhaktapur has two fire engines, one water tanker, and 22 firefighters. In addition to servicing the dense urban clusters inside the city, the three fire stations are also tasked with responding to incidents in outlying settlements, sometimes as far as Nuwakot and Dhading.

The ancient town of Sankhu, for example, depends on the same fire station as the Share Market Building in Putalisadak. But unlike the centrally-located mall, Sankhu is 23 kilometers and over a dozen busy traffic intersections away from the central fire brigade in New Road.

“Whenever there is a fire in the settlement, residents have little recourse but to come together as a community to put out the flames,” says Pratap Man Shrestha, a local resident and historian from Sankhu. “Because our town was originally built as a traditional Newar settlement, the narrow gallis and alleyways are not accessible to fire trucks, even if they do arrive on time. Which is why, we continue to depend on wells, waterspouts, and ponds that were strategically built around the town. Whenever there is a fire, the quickest way to respond is to create a human chain from one of these water sources. That is how it has always been done.”

In a settlement like Sankhu where clustered row houses form the inner core of the town, fires can be costly accidents. “For us, the 2015 earthquakes was a big wake up call,” Shrestha says. “Apart from finding an open space to flee into, ensuring that there weren’t any gas leaks in kitchens was one of the biggest concerns. Should there have been a fire, it would have been a catastrophe.”

Sankhu’s ancient core and many of its heritage sites were severely damaged in the 2015 earthquakes, and like many settlements around the country, the town is still in the process of rebuilding. Many of its residents continue to live in temporary shelters. But along with the reconstruction of homes and temples, Sankhu’s residents are making a concerted effort to revive local ponds. As part of the project, the renovation of two ponds, Pala Pukhu and Kalash Pokhari are now nearing completion.

“If we keep waiting for the fire brigade, the houses will be burnt to cinders by the time they arrive,” says Radha Krishna Shrestha, the chairperson of Ward No 6 in Sankhu. “It’s absolutely critical that the ponds in Sankhu are in working condition.”

Asha Kaji Dhaubhanjar, a former firefighter who was with the Bhaktapur Fire Station for 21 years, agrees that local ponds are crucial during fire incidents. “There have been times where we arrived at a site to find the fire more or less in control, thanks to the efforts of the locals,” he says. “But more importantly, when a fire is raging out of control and we need to refill our tankers, having a pond nearby makes a lot of difference.”

The problem, Dhaubhanjar says, is dire in Kathmandu and Lalitpur where traditional ponds are in various states of disrepair, and fire trucks have to return to their stations for a refill.

Padma Sundar Joshi, an environmentalist and programme manager at UN Habitat, takes it further by claiming that water bodies, strategically built around every community, was what allowed Kathmandu Valley to flourish as an urban centre in the first place. “Ponds functioned as water reservoirs which would collect rainwater and water from irrigation channels,” Joshi says. These ponds accumulated the monsoon downpour which prevented flooding and landslides in settlements downstream, but then the water would be used for drinking, washing, cleaning, and firefighting.

“So, you see, ponds were not just built at random or just for religious or aesthetic purposes,” he says, “They were intricately tied to the urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley. The question now is how we can preserve and even repurpose the existing infrastructure?” 

Sankhu’s residents seem to have found an answer. The current revitalisation project not only seeks to revive the two ponds back to their original state, they are also repurposing it based on present needs. Both the Pala and Kalash Pukhus will be fitted with fire hydrants that will make it convenient for fire trucks to refill, or to fight fires with just a hose, if trucks cannot enter into a neighbourhood.  

“It would still help if the fire departments could be further decentralised and if Sankhu could have its own station,” Pratap Man Shrestha says, talking about the project, “But at least this way, we are seizing the initiative.”

Published: 2018-08-11 08:09:21