KATHMANDU, NEPAL — The water tap in front of the Public Service Commission building in the heart of this city is small, but dozens of buckets, jars and pots are lined up near it.
The line is so long that people tend to leave one jar and return home to fetch another, so they’re ready to fill two when the water begins flowing.
Sometimes, that strategy fails.
“I came earlier,” says Pankaj Chaudhari. “Why was my jar moved behind?”
Not a day goes by when there isn’t a quarrel at the water tap, he says.
Chaudhari lives in the neighborhood with his wife, son and younger brother. He’s a day laborer, he says, and he can’t always afford to buy water.
“You cannot hope to get your turn if you leave the water tap and go somewhere, even for a minute,” he says. “I have returned home with an empty bucket many times.”
It can take hours for the line to move, he adds.
Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
Chaudhari says he considered moving his family to another part of the city, where in-home taps get water for at least a few hours per day. But then he heard that a long-awaited pipeline project was scheduled to connect his neighborhood to a main water line.
The pipeline, the key piece in what is known as the Melamchi Drinking Water Project, will provide an estimated 84,000 Kathmandu households with water, says Lila Prasad Dhakal, spokesman for Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited, which oversees water delivery in the Kathmandu Valley.
“People do not need to pay a single rupee for this,” Dhakal says, emphasizing that the water will be free.
The $287.4-million pipeline project has been in progress for 17 years – a dozen years longer than the original timeline of five years. Now, project managers say the pipeline is nearly complete.
Chaudhari and many other Kathmandu residents have heard that promise – it’s repeated all over the local newspapers – and are relieved that, soon, the water faucets in their homes will no longer run dry.
The water service will begin by mid-April in 2019, says Bhoj Bikram Thapa, deputy executive director at the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board.
Even though Thapa insists that the water will flow by then, he also notes that the water pipeline’s tunnel is still under construction. The first phase of the project also includes construction of a water treatment plant and related access roads.
The second phase of the project, which will provide additional water to the city, is scheduled for completion in 2023.
The government officials who manage the project say some household connections have been created, and more will come soon, but documents detailing the project, including the project’s website, state that household connections are part of the second phase of work.
It’s not clear how many Kathmandu residents have regular access to piped water right now. A 2011 census report from the Nepalese government states that just under half of all households in the country had direct access to piped water at that time. Another report, published in 2011 by researchers at the University of Tokyo, estimated that about 70 percent of Kathmandu residents were connected to the piped water network, but the water service was intermittent.
The Asian Development Bank noted in 2016 that just 23 percent of households in the country had access to piped water.
Clean, consistently accessible water has been a problem for years in the Kathmandu Valley, the region of Nepal that includes the city of Kathmandu. The problem is exacerbated by the country’s high urbanization rate. Nepal is among the fastest-urbanizing nations in the world, according to a 2014 United Nations study. Nepal’s urban population could double by 2050, that study noted.
And the longer the Melamchi project takes, the more people are moving to Kathmandu, which creates an even larger population needing clean water.
This year, reports suggested that city residents would enjoy water in their homes by Dashain, a major Hindu festival that occurred in mid-October. By late October, the project’s first phase was not yet complete, let alone the second phase, which is expected to take at least five more years.
The general plan for a pipeline project was originally conceived in 1972, Thapa says. Even then, the water supply system wasn’t adequately meeting the needs of Kathmandu’s population, he says. Stone taps and wells dried up, as more people moved from rural areas and used those water sources.
By the 1980s, the Melamchi River was chosen as a major potential source of water for the city. Planners determined that water from that river could be diverted from Helambu, an area north of Kathmandu, and sent through a 27.5-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel and into a reservoir and treatment center before reaching households in the capital, Thapa explains.
Serious preparation for the project began in 1998, but Nepal’s civil war, which lasted from 1996 until 2006, stalled the efforts.
Later, it became difficult to convince residents affected by construction that the work was necessary, Thapa says. Labor strikes happen frequently in Nepal, and this project was no exception, he adds.
A major earthquake in 2015 further delayed the project. More than 9,000 people died, and about 800,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. (Read our coverage of Nepal’s rebuilding efforts here.) Later that year, a months-long blockade of products from India, the source of many construction supplies, caused more problems. (Read our coverage of the blockade here.)
Meanwhile, the Chinese firm contracted to build the pipeline tunnel failed to stick to the schedule, Thapa says. That firm was replaced by an Italian company in 2015, he says.
Nepalese companies were not considered for that piece of the project because they lack the capital and capacity to perform on such a large scale, says Rajendra Prasad Pant, a senior divisional engineer at the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board.
The slow-moving project finally hit a milestone in April, when construction from both ends of the tunnel met in the middle, Thapa says.
So far, nearly 55,000 households are ready to receive water, Dhakal says.
Some Kathmandu residents don’t believe that the water will ever come.
“I was 15 years old when there used to be talk that water [from] Melamchi would be supplied to Kathmandu,” says Shyam Shrestha, who is now 60.
Even Thapa has doubts. With so many years passed since the project was planned, the original design is no longer adequate.
The Melamchi River can’t supply as much water as the city needs, Thapa says. Water from two other rivers, the Yangri and the Larke, should also be diverted to Kathmandu, he says.
Despite widespread doubt, many Kathmandu residents still eagerly await the moment when they can turn on faucets in their homes.
Chahana Adhikari says she spends 5,000 Nepalese rupees ($43) each month to buy water for her family of six. The cost is burdensome, she says.
“Sometimes we feel that we should leave this place immediately,” she says.
But her four children attend school in the city, she says, and her husband’s job is here, too. She’s heard talk for years that the project would bring piped water throughout Kathmandu. Despite her doubts, water faucets began to appear in homes across the city.
Even as Adhikari continues to wait, she says she’s newly optimistic. Soon, she believes, the water will come.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.