Urban growth pangs
Nepal’s urbanisation started only after the fall of the Rana regime in the 1960s, and nowhere was this growth so pronounced as in the Kathmandu valley. According to the 2001 census, 1.65 million people lived in the valley, a figure that will reach 3.4 million by the end of 2016, clocking an annual growth rate of 4.9 per cent; in some fringe areas it is doubling in less than five years. Unlike the early settlers who preferred lower reaches of the valley, leaving a buffer that separated settlements and the river and its tributaries, the new settlers rapidly encroached the riverbanks. Many point out that illegal squatter settlements have contributed to the chaos and river pollution in the valley.
More than 24 settlements are located along the banks of the Bagmati and its major tributaries – Bishnumati, Hanumante, Dhobikhola and Tukucha, very prone to periodical floods and exposed to extreme water pollution. There are 11 squatter settlements comprising 863 households along the Bagmati river alone.
According to Lumanti (an institution that works closely with squatters and various government bodies to rehabilitate such communities on-site or facilitate their relocation to other sites in the valley) 84 per cent of squatter households have toilets; others defecate in the open, often by the river bank. Also, half of those with latrines drain their waste directly into the river. In all, 58 per cent of all squatter households directly or indirectly pollute the river. Even those squatter settlements located away from the river use the nearest stormwater drain to dispose off their waste, which finds its way to the river.
Much of the city’s garbage – the city generates 600 million tonnes daily, is dumped directly into the river. A 2003 study by the non-profit Environment and Public Health Organization found chemical oxygen demand (COD) in excess of 400 mg/l within the city and immediate downstream areas – 10 times higher than what is considered safe. Biochemical-oxygen demand (BOD) levels were as high as 100 mg/l in Shankhamul, located the heart of Kathmandu.
Another study the same year by the Asian Development Bank and ICIMOD, a leading intergovernmental research body, found that the cities in the Kathmandu valley discharge 21,000 kg of domestic sewage daily into the Bagmati, accounting for 42 per cent of its total BOD load. Industrial pollution loads are increasing; a 2000 study by CEMAT found 3,151 kg of industrial BOD load was being discharged directly into the river each day.
The problem is that it is difficult to estimate the total sewage generated, when close to 60 per cent of the city’s drinking water is sourced from groundwater. As groundwater is unregulated, no one can accurately estimate the amount of wastewater the city generates each day. So STPs are designed with only ballpark figures, not hard data; sewage is estimated on a per capita basis.
Besides, septic tanks are the norm in this city. In the absence of a master plan and due to funds crunch, sewerage coverage has expanded incrementally, and in a haphazard manner due to a funds crunch. In many parts of the city, residents have, on their own, connected their domestic sewage hume pipes to the city’s sewerage network; leakages are common. Drains are not big; the natural slopes of the valley carry domestic sewage straight to the river. Over the decades, dozens of plans for sewerage coverage were prepared; none were implemented in full.
Today, there’s no reliable data on the sewerage network in the city. Kathmandu’s main water utility, Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited is now preparing an inventory of sewerage coverage in city in an ADB assisted project. They haven’t come up with any numbers as yet.
Although mining for sand was banned in 1991 after the collapse of the Thapathali bridge in Kathmandu, sand continues to be gouged out of the riverbed upstream. One study found 3103 m3 of sand was being mined from the Bagmati alone, accounting for 60 per cent of the valley’s annual demand for construction. Another study estimates 50 trucks of sand are excavated daily from the Sundarijal area alone. Sand mining deepens the water channel, increases water flow, scours the river bed and threatens the foundations of bridges and some of Nepal’s most revered ghats.
Over the past three decades, public outrage over the state of the river has snowballed. Perhaps the best known is the nonagenarians activist Hutaram Baidya, who founded the Bagmati Bachau Abhiyan (Save the Bagmati Campaign) in the early 1990s, and who sees the civilizational loss in the degradation of the Bagmati (see ‘A civilisational loss’, Down To Earth, August 16-31, 2011). Some have even resorted to public sentiment—in 1997, a group of 50 signed a declaration on the river’s ghats, asking for not immersing their cremated remains in the Bagmati. Others have championed the Bagmati’s revival, such as the non-profit Friends of the Bagmati, launched on the occasion of the visit of Prince Philip’s visit to the city in 2000.
High Powered intervention
With growing pressure from the civil society, the government in 1995 constituted a High Powered Committee for Implementation and Monitoring of the Bagmati Area Sewerage Construction/ Rehabilitation Project. It was later renamed High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization. Its main achievement is maintaining a 16.4 mld (million litres a day) sewage treatment plant (STP) at Guheshwori, a few hundred metres upstream of the Pashupatinath temple.
Committee members admit progress has been slow on rehabilitating the river. With an annual budget of NRS. 35-40 crore, the committee has its work cut out. So far, they have managed to build interceptor drains along 22 kms of the Bagmati to collect and divert sewage to the Guheshwori STP. Upstream, they have constructed some river training walls on some stretches to contain the fickle river in its original course, and have started laying sewage lines downstream of Pashupatinath, and conserved natural wetlands in the river’s upper catchment.
An integrated approach
The Bagmati Action Plan is the latest attempt to heal the river system, from its origins in the Shivapuri hills to Chouva where it leaves the valley. It was launched in 2008 for the period 2009-14, and proposes a budget of close to 15 billion Nepalese rupees spread over five years (in comparison, in 2008 – 2009, the total allocated for the Bagmati and its tributaries was Rs. 1,394.24 million).
Put together by the autonomous National Trust for Nature Conservation, and the high powered committee, the action plan relies on secondary data, field surveys, consultations with key people institutions together with exhaustive GIS mapping of the river basin to suggest a wide inventory of activities to revive the river and its major tributaries.
The action plan divides the valley into five zones and suggests different measures for each zone. For Zone 1, the natural conservation zone and the principal catchment area, the Plan recommends some catchment protection activities. For zone 2, the rural zone dominated by agricultural land where the water quality remains good, it suggests river training and monitoring illegal mining. Water quality deteriorates rapidly in Zone 3, the peri-urban zone in the Valley where the plan suggests decentralized wastewater treatment systems, as land here is as yet available (see map).
The plan’s main target is the densely populated and polluted urban zone four comprising eight municipalities. It recommends setting up several mechanical STPs, and other measures to deal with untreated sewage, solid waste and industrial effluents. It identifies the vexed questions of illegal encroachments, rampant construction along the river banks as well as the erosion of aesthetic, cultural and architectural values. The plan claim that zone five, an agricultural area in the lower reaches, would not need much intervention if the suggested measures are taken in upstream zones.
Chaos amid political vacuum
Each of the eight municipalities in the valley has its own authority and working plans, with little coordination among them.
This is exacerbated with the political chaos in the country. With no local elections having being held in more than 10 years, there are no elected officials handling municipal affairs in Nepal; instead, all urban areas are run directly by executive officers, bureaucrats nominated directly by the government. With no elected local body to talk to, the high-powered committee deals directly with people for land acquisition, laying sewer lines, or paying compensation for loss of standing crops.