Country report - 3. Nepal

Posted: 24 April 2001

Author: Susan Simone

Nepal's pipe dream

Work has begun on a plan to pipe water from Nepal's mountains down to the Kathmandu Valley. But some local water engineers regard the whole scheme as an unrealistic 'love affair' with foreign dollars and inappropriate technology, as Susan Simone reports in this personal reflection on the city's water crisis.

The Nepali word for water is paani pronounced with a low, elongated feel to the double "aa" sound. I like the word because the extra vowel reminds me of the flow of the water itself. It has a lyrical, longing to its sound that matches the place of water in this part of the world where dry months alternate with the summer monsoon.

Paani, as the confluence of physical, social, economic, and mystical forces, is embodied in the sacred Bagmati River, which runs through the Hindu Temple complex, Pashupati Nath. This temple is the second most sacred holy place in the Hindu religion after the waters of the Ganges in Varnassi. Pashupati Nath is the "head of the Buddha", Varnassi the feet. The most important funeral ghats (for cremation) are on the edge of this river. To take one's last breath at the side of the Bagmati in Pashupati Nath is an honour, an auspicious omen, and a final act of devotion.

Today, the Bagmati River is also the most ugly, toxic, filthy body of water I have ever seen. It is a thick grey colour laced with rubbish and sewage. Even the pilgrims no longer wade deep into the river. They come down the temple steps and reach into the water, trying not to look too closely, trying not to breathe.

The dangers of over-crowding and the politics of neglect have infected the man-made water sources as well. All over the valley, there are deep, stone pokhari - steep and square-sided stone structures, something like a Greek or Roman ruin. Some of the pokhari are filled with water. This water was once clear, reflecting the golden statues in the centre, but now they are a dull brown with a murky sludge finish. There are also dry pokhari, never intended to hold water but to receive it. They look like very deep, empty swimming pools. Ancient stone taps line one wall. This is where people who do not have access to running water go to wash their clothes and bathe.

Dry pokhari in NepalĀ© Susan SimoneWith this sacred and murky water all around, it is not hard to be obsessed with water and to spend an inordinate amount of effort preparing water to drink. In our house, the water is boiled and then poured through ceramic filters. My water faucets have taken on an ominous quality. Untreated water is my enemy; however, except in the most extreme and remote mountain areas of Nepal, paani, cool, clean, onomatopoetic water, is rare and precious.

Technology to the rescue

I once read a fantastic proposal for the resolution of the pollution in Mexico City. To rid the valley of pollution, enormous fans would be placed at one end of the valley in order to blow the air trapped in the valley out between the mountains on the other side. The plan is to build a 6-kilometre tunnel to carry water from the mountains to the valley. This tunnel, known officially as the Malemchi Water Supply Project (MWSP), will cost an estimated $400 million and the first steps, including a road along side the lower part of the Malemchi River, have been initiated under the supervision and support of Norwegian firm Norplan.

Lest you begin to think the water project is less fantastic than over-sized fans sucking air out of the valle de Mejico, consider that with current technology here in Nepal, it would take some 15 years to dig this tunnel. By that time, given the rate of population growth, the 'solution' will probably be inadequate. I collected this information at a talk given by Ajaya Dixit and Dipak Gyawali, two Nepali water engineers who filled in the water supply story.

They explained that the system of pipes that carries water underground throughout the city is so porous that there is a 70 per cent loss of water. In other words, if you compare the volume of water entering the system and the actual volume of water received in homes and at public taps, there is an enormous discrepancy. The expected water loss in a functioning system in Europe or the United States would be about 10 per cent or less.

The delivery system is further complicated by the fact that many of the public taps are part of an ancient system - some 1000 or 1500 years old. These taps are located in the deep square "baths" near the temples where they feed water through pipes that are embedded in elegantly carved concrete dragons. Their source is completely untraceable. The result: no maps, no plan, no information.

Dipak and Ajaya's conclusion: The Malemchi Tunnel is the perfect complement to institutional blindness. Bring in money from outside development projects, create temporary jobs, siphon off funds to interested parties, generate good statistics about water supply and water resources, and construct an enormous concrete band-aid that leaves the city water system essentially as it was. In their view, Nepal is engaged in an institutional love affair not with the needs of her people but with the size, scale and dollars of the Melamchi Tunnel.

I don't know what to propose. The scale of the problem is overwhelming. But, just as I look up at the Himalayan Peaks in awe, I must look down at the needs of the people and be shaken. The contradictions between the incense and the sewer challenge my faculties. A simple glass of water that reflects my thirst has become an ocean reflecting a desperate world.

Susan Simone is a freelance writer and photographer, now living in North Carolina. In 2000 she spent seven months in Nepal. For more information on her work, visit www.purplevalley.netRelated link:Dry Season Grips Thirsty Kathmandu