Print Edition - 2018-09-22  |  On Saturday

Parched City

  • Kathmandu’s thirst for water is growing but large infrastructural projects, experts say, are not a cure all
- CHANDAN KUMAR MANDAL

Sep 22, 2018-

Bhawana Dhital, a resident of Nayathimi, Bhaktapur, had yet another difficult summer this year. With the water supply from public pipelines inconsistent and limited, Dhital had to rely on commercial water tankers to meet her eight-member family’s daily needs.

“As the summer wore on, the water supply became increasingly unpredictable. There was no option other than buying water from tankers, which, when priced at up to Rs 2,600 a trip, quickly adds up,” said Dhital. Her family burns through a 15,000 liter tank every three weeks or so.

At the other end of the Valley, Deepjyoti Shrestha, a resident of Manmaiju, is also feeling the heat as water shortage in the Capital exacerbates as the cost of water mounts by the day. With the water supply from government taps being sporadic at best, her community has pooled together resources to dig a shallow well for their day-to-day consumption. The arrangement, however, is far from ideal.

“These wells can pool up with water for three quarters of a year. The problem is that the water isn’t clean—it is barely useable,” Shrestha said, “So we use the water for cleaning and washing, while still having to depend on bottled water for drinking and cooking.”

Water scarcity is a persistent problem that binds together the residents of Kathmandu irrespective of where and how they live. From residents in the old quarters queuing up at Dhunge Dharas with as many plastic containers they can carry to owners of suburban bungalows paying black market prices for water deliveries during high season, the city’s water problem, to an extent, cuts through the differences cross-sections of Kathmandu. With that said, the poor are the ones that disproportionately endure the worst of the suffering.

Madhukar Upadhyay, an expert on watershed management, and a local resident of Gyaneshwor, can remember a time when water sources in the Valley were abundant. “There were water spouts or communal taps in every neighbourhood and most houses had wells too to supplement that. People would drink water from wells and use water from stone spouts and rivers for other purposes,” Upadhyay recalls.

However, after the Valley’s population exploded in the 90s and the urban sprawl spiraled out of control, it took a severe toll on the existing water resources that were not expanded or maintained to match the growing demand for water. As a result, water spouts dried up, ponds transformed into open field and rivers cutting through the valley floor became increasingly more polluted and clogged—many turning into open sewers.

According to a UN-Habitat study, of the 400 stone spouts that once operated in the Valley, 45 have disappeared altogether, 68 have dried up and 43 have now been connected to the central city supply network as their natural flow were either obstructed by other construction or had naturally changed course. “And as the traditional sources of water dried up or became polluted, people turned to drawing out groundwater as a quick fix,” Upadhyay says, “Today it makes up most of the water that is consumed in Kathmandu and is a lifeline for the residents of this parched city. But pulling water from the ground can have devastating long-term consequences, particularly when deep-boring wells are dug to satiate the thirst of large infrastructures like hotels, malls and hospitals.”

It is an assessment that Suman Shakya, managing director at Smart Pani, an organisation promoting eco-friendly and economical solution to Nepal’s water issues, agrees with. “The Valley’s residents have thus far been able to rely on ground water sources for their daily needs. But as the population increases, the limited resources are getting increasingly scarce. We eventually will not be able to rely on ground water, and that day isn’t a distant prophecy, for many it is already a reality,” he says.

The unchecked practice of digging deep-wells has forced Kathmandu’s ground water level to plummet, Shakya says, citing studies conducted to measure the Valley’s water table. The extraction of ground water in Kathmandu is currently higher than the amount of water that seeps back underground. As a result, the water table on average is dropping by one metre every year; of three ground water districts—northern, central, and southern—the southern district, that includes areas like Patan, has the lowest levels of ground water.

A 2014 study co-authored by Dipendra Gautam and Raghu N Prajapati estimated that the groundwater table lowered by twp to 10 m in the northern groundwater district during a six-year window, while the central groundwater district saw a one m to 10 m drop.

The report even compared Kathmandu Valley’s water level ‘drawdown’ to that of Mexico City—a city of 20 million people—that has already begun experiencing the long-term effects of drawing more water from the ground than what is seeping back in. Like Mexico City—which is sinking at the rate of 15 inches per year in places due to its lowering water table—the report has forecasted similar hydrological, hydro-geological and environmental impacts for Kathmandu if the current trend is to continue.

Likewise, another report on groundwater level prepared by the Groundwater Resource Development Board had recorded a massive 8 m fall in the water level in the Pepsicola area between 2008 to 2013, which also corresponds to the recent influx of people and constructions in the neighbourhood. This, Upadhyay says, should be taken as a major red flag.

“As the city becomes more populated, ground water cannot be recharged like they once used to be. Rain water is now channeled off into the rivers and paddy fields, which would hold water for months, giving extra time for water seepage into the soil, have either been left uncultivated or have given way to suburban housing,” says Upadhyay, adding that up to 70 per cent of Kathmandu’s surface is no longer conducive for groundwater recharge.

What is more, excessive cultivation of groundwater is not limited to households and private businesses. The Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), the government arm responsible for supplying water in the Valley, mines some of the water supplied through government pipelines.

The Kathmandu Valley—with its population inching past four million—needs nearly 400 million litres of water per day (mld) during the dry season. The current water supply remains below 100 mld. Even during wet season, the supply peaks at about 170 mld.

In this water deficit situation, Kathmandu’s residents like Bhawana Dhital have turned to tankers to satiate their water needs. According the country’s Tanker Association, with over 600 water tankers, private tankers supply 38 MLD in the dry season, which accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the total water demand.  

As a solution, the Melamchi Water Supply Project has long been touted as the silver bullet expected to quench Kathmandu’s thirst. In its first phase, the project will divert 170 mld of water to Sundarijal from the Melamchi River in Sindhupalchok before the water is directed to Kathmandu Valley. The Valley, however, will still fall short of its daily demand during the dry season. Also, the water will be supplied only within the Ring Road area in the first phase.

Which is why, Shakya doesn’t see the Melamchi project as a long-term solution for Kathmandu’s water woes, particularly if the city continues to the see the average 4 percent annual growth in population it has been witnessing for the past decade.

“Melamchi will provide respite but the water scarcity will still be felt during dry season—the project’s scope was, after all, envisioned for what the population level was a decade ago. But with the annual population growth, the project will not be able meet water demands, particularly because all of the water never reaches taps because of leakage in the supply pipeline,” observes Shakya.

Arrival of Melamchi will however take away the pressure off ground water excavation, believes Upadhyay, giving the city a chance to weigh in long-term alternative solutions.

“The Valley receives rainfall for just three months but we need water for the other nine months as well. There is no policy for preserving water,” says Upadhyay, “We have only looked at water from a hydropower point of view; we never look at it as the entire system incorporating ecology, economy and lifestyle.”

As a solution, both Uadhyay and Shakya recommend the promotion of rainwater harvesting and installing systems like recharge pits, wells and borings that recharge groundwater, along with biological treatment of ponds and wells.

“With the Melamchi project coming to a head it might be easy to lose sight of how acute Kathmandu’s water woes really are,” Shakya says, “But the sooner we are able to switch to more sustainable resources the better. If not how long will it be before we need to divert another river to satiate Kathmandu’s ever growing thirst.”

Published: 22-09-2018 07:32

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