Kathmandu Residents Face a Long Wait for Drinking Water

 

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Seven years ago, Mohan Pokhrel, 60, left his home in Biratnagar, a village in southeastern Nepal for Kathmandu, the capital. With his entire family in tow, Pokhrel says they were looking forward to accessing the facilities they assumed would be available in the country’s only urban city. But their hope soon faded as their home lacked the most basic amenities, including running water.

At first, Pokhrel says he woke up early and stood in front of the tap with a bucket – waiting – but not a single drop of water trickled out.

Seven years later, the taps are still dry.

Daniel Rai and Salim Shrestha, Pokhrel’s neighbors, say his water problem isn’t unique. Their taps are dry, too.

“This problem plagues all the houses in our neighborhood,” Rai says.

Ten years ago, the government launched a project aimed to increase access to water throughout Kathmandu neighborhoods, but the project continues to stall and little progress has been made.

So the people of Pokhrel’s community, Bagdol, organized to form the Neighborhood Improvement Committee to pressure the Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited, KUKL, the public company responsible for the management of the Kathmandu Valley’s water supply and sanitation system, to solve their water problem. In response to the group’s protest, KUKL has recently made more pipelines available in Bagdol. The locality also raised money to install additional pipes.

Pokhrel confirms that his taps sometimes receive water now – for one hour a day, once every six days.

Residents say they appreciate the progress, but one hour of water per week does not meet even a fraction of their needs.

“The water flow is very weak,” Pokhrel says. “It’s not even enough to fill two to four buckets. How can we continue with our daily lives like this?”

Residents across the Kathmandu Valley say they have little or no access to water in their homes and must spend hours trekking to public taps, where they still don’t extract enough for basic household use. Officials from the public water company here attribute the shortage to a lack of water sources, employee strikes and outdated distribution systems. The government began a major project to increase the water supply in 2001, but it’s still years away from completion. Meanwhile, wealthier citizens have been pursuing alternative solutions, which the average Nepali can’t afford.

According to UNICEF, 88 percent of Nepalis use improved drinking-water sources, or technology that produces safe water. Yet many Nepalis surrounding the capital say that just because they have taps in their houses – the basis for the statistic – doesn’t mean water comes out of them. Affordable alternative sources are not available to most as more than half of Nepalis live below the international poverty line of $1.25 USD per day, according to UNICEF.

Bagdol isn’t the only neighborhood suffering from the water shortage.

“The problem of drinking water is prevalent in other parts of the capital, as well as almost every ward faces this problem,” social activist Shyam Thapa says. “Nearly every other person in the capital has some sort of problem with the water supply.”

In order to get water, many walk for two to three hours a day, lining up to collect water from the few public taps that aren’t dry.

Sarita Neupane of Gongabu, a Kathmandu locality, says she wakes up at 3 a.m. to trek to a natural source of water two hours away from her house. She says she waits in line for hours in order to collect just 20 liters of water.

“Sometimes, by the time I get home, it is already 8 o’clock,” she says. “When can I find relief from this water problem?”

Rana Maya Magar, of Dhapasi, another locality, says the shortage has affected her job at a local construction site. She says that when she starts work at 6:30 a.m., she earns 375 rupees, $5.20 USD, per day. But she says that on the days she has to spend the mornings searching for water, she can’t start work until the afternoon, which reduces her earnings to only 250 rupees, $3.50 USD.

“Due to the water shortage, I lose income worth 125 rupees [$1.75 USD] every day,” she says.

Laxmi Thapa, a housewife from Sukedhara, another locality, says the water shortage is affecting her marriage.

“I go fetch water from a tap situated half an hour from my home,” she says. “Sometimes there is a lengthy queue. By the time I get back, my husband is running late for work. When can I cook?”

She says she always fetches the water, which leads to quarrels almost every day with her husband, who never gets it.

“Even getting the children ready for school on time has become difficult,” she says.

Jharna Khanal, of Kalanki, another locality, says there’s not enough water to meet basic household needs.

“Water flows out of the tap in my house for only an hour per week, which does not even amount to 300 liters,” Khanal says. “What all can I do with only that much? How can I stretch it for all the household purposes?”

Bipul Ghimire, of Kirtipur, another locality within the Kathmandu Valley, says water is a basic right.

“It is said that one of the first rights of a person is to be able to get drinking water,” Ghimire says. “But it has been three years since a drop of water fell from the tap in my house. When can I get this right?”

What’s more, Ghimire says the state installed a tap in his home and collects a monthly fee for the service. Although his taps are dry, he still pays KUKL 55 rupees, 75 cents USD, per month, which should pay for the use of up to 10,000 liters of water.

“The state has installed taps in our houses and collects money from us, but when will we get water from those taps?” Ghimire asks.

Kalyan Singh Thapa, KUKL acting executive chief, attributes the water woes to a lack of water sources, frequent strikes by the staff, and an outdated and unscientific water distribution system.

“The demand for drinking water in Kathmandu [right] now is 320 million liters,” Thapa says. “However, production is just 90 million liters in the dry season and 160 million liters in the rainy season.”

He says that the uneven geological landscape of Kathmandu Valley also causes difficulties in ensuring the equal distribution of water.

He says that the obsolete and unscientific water distribution pipes and system make leakage another major problem. In the older settlements, pipes were laid down in 1924 and have yet to be updated. These pipes have cracked in several places, resulting in leaks and contamination of the water by dirt that seeps in. 

“About 40 percent of the water is wasted due to leakage,” he says.

Prem Nidhi KC, a sociologist with the Projects Implementation Directorate of KUKL, says that even though no reliable and scientific study regarding leakage has been done yet, it is common knowledge that leakage occurs.

Purna Das Shrestha, deputy executive director of Melamchi Water Supply Project, the government project under the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works to increase water access, says that thanks to a rapidly growing population, experts predicted this water crisis back in 1982.

“It was considered that it would be most feasible to bring water from Melamchi River, which is four hours’ drive away from Kathmandu,” Shrestha says. “For this a 26.5-kilometer tunnel needed to be dug under the hills, which lay in between.”

He says construction on the road to Melamchi, the search for donors and the selection of contractors began in 2001. A decade later, it’s still years from completion.

“Although several donor countries and institutions, including the World Bank, had agreed to fund the project, many of them withdrew their support after the then-monarch took power from the democratically elected government in 2006,” he says.

He says the project was restarted in 2008 after the Asian Development Bank, the Japanese government and several other international institutions agreed to fund it. KUKL and the contractor for the tunnel construction entered into an agreement in 2009 to finish the project by 2013. 

“However, as the construction work progresses slowly, it does not seem likely that the project will finish on time,” he says. “There is a possibility that the duration of the project might have to be extended.”

Shrestha says that only 1,800 meters of the 26.5-kilometer tunnel, the main part of the project, has been constructed. Once the basic infrastructure for the tunnel construction is complete, the tunnel-digging process needs to progress at the speed of 150 meters per day, but the current pace is just 11 to 14 meters per day.

Shrestha says that the contractor has attributed the delay to lack of manpower, problems between the laborers and contractor, and strikes and protests by the people in Melamchi to voice their increasing demands for certain benefits, such as education, health and income-generating activities, in return for taking the water from their locality.

“There is a possibility that the project duration will exceed the earlier deadline by a year or two,” he says.

Yadav Bhattarai of the Melamchi Water Supply Project says that political instability and interventions by political parties have also contributed to the delay in work.

Meanwhile, many residents await the project’s completion.

“I am hopeful that after the Melamchi Project is done, water will flow through the taps every day,” Khanal says. “But when will that water come?"

Shrestha says that even after the project’s completion, the supply won’t meet the demand. He says the project will bring an additional 170 million liters of water, which will amount to only 260 million liters on top of current production during the dry season. He says demand, currently 320 million liters, has risen tremendously since the initial plan was drafted.

“This project [was] initiated with the estimate that the population of Kathmandu will reach 3 million by 2030,” he says. “However, it is estimated that the population has already reached about 4 million in 2011. The problem has arisen because of the unpredicted mass influx of people from villages and districts outside Kathmandu Valley into the capital due to conflict and centralization.”  

He says that if water from rivers close to Melamchi – the Yangri and Larkey – is channeled into the new tunnel, 510 million liters of water per day could be brought into Kathmandu.

Shrestha says the government has sponsored a feasibility study on this solution but that no action has been taken yet.

Pokhrel says that wealthier households fulfill their daily water needs by purchasing water from tankers that bring water in from the outskirts of Kathmandu. But this costs 2,000 rupees, $28 USD, for 6,000 liters of water, which the average Nepali can’t afford. The residents of the areas where these water sources are located have also protested the transportation of their water, so tankers have had to search for new, often farther, sources of water.

Several houses in Kathmandu have also bored into their compounds to dig wells for alternate sources of water. But usually there is no space to do the boring, and often water is not available even after the boring.

Even if the well yields water, it’s not sanitary enough to drink and can be used only in the bathroom. For drinking, people buy mineral water in jars.

“We purchase mineral jars for drinking water, tanker water for other household purposes and we use the water from the water pump bored into our compound for cleaning the toilet,” Dil Maya Shrestha, of Gongabu, says.

But Shrestha says the pump water is nearly unsuitable for even the toilet.

“The yellow water bored from the ground has stained the toilet tiles yellow as well, and I am tired of trying to remove the stains,” Shrestha says.

Most Nepalis also can’t afford to dig their own wells or to buy jars of mineral water.

Other residents in select localities say water hasn’t been a problem at all.

“In our locality, the water flows, albeit weakly, through the taps almost all day during the rainy season,” Anita Rimal, of Kalo Pul, says. “Even in the dry season, water flows at least once a day. I hear of a lot of people facing drinking water shortages, and I consider myself lucky.”

Thapa of KUKL attributes this to the villages’ positioning.

“A huge pipe bringing water from Sundarijal to Kathmandu passes through Kalo Pul,” he says. “Kalo Pul is also situated at a lower level, and hence the water collects there more easily. As a result, water is more readily available in the area.”

But residents here say they wonder for how long.