Planners were perturbed enough when Kathmandu Valley´s population growth rate was thought to be 4.8 per cent a year. Recently released data shows that the figure is more than 5 per cent. This means that every year, about 23,000 new residents make demands on the Valley´s services and extremely limited resource base. Both land and water are limited in Kathmandu Valley, but it seems likely that we will run out of water before we run out of land.
The limits to Kathmandu´s growth in terms of the availability of drinking water were set millions of years ago by evolving Himalayan geology. Kathmandu is a “hanging valley” far above the snow- fed abundance of the Indrawatt and Trisuli rivers on the east and west, which flow 750 m and 1,000 m below the Valley floor. The Valley´s own Bagmati River and its tributaries rise in the surrounding hills and are spring-fed.
If the Valley´s rivers provide but a trickle, the amount of money that has been pumped into its water supply system may be likened to a flood. And it is not for want of spending that Kathmandu´s water supply remains poor and erratic. The Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC) is well into its fourth credit package from the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank affiliate that provides soft loans to developing countries. A total of NRs 1 billion has been digested since IDA first opened its purse strings, and the most recently sanctioned ban is for “network rehabilitation” and is worth U$ 60 million. Due to extraordinary ineptness in their implementation, none of the earlier loan programmes met their targets.
It was not always so, says Rabindra Man Shrestha. an engineer who was with the Corporation in the early 1970s, before the IDA largesse was showered on the NWSC. “We did not have much money then, and the approach was hands-on, and the goal was to improve water quality. Every visible leak used to be checked and repaired, and we learnt a lot about the water supply.” It is Shrestha´s view, shared by many other engineers and managers, that the Corporation allowed its own institutional experience to lapse when the big money arrived.
The First lDA credit package was sanctioned in 1974, the second in 1977, and the thud in the early 1980s. Programmes meant to install a functional water distribution system in the capital city became unsustainable exercises marked by negligence and the dominance of big money. To take just one example, out of the 34 tube wells planned to be installed by the end of the third project in 1985, while how many were actually sunk could not be ascertained, only eight are operational today.
WATER QUALITY AND WASTE
There are physical limitations to what the Corporation can do in trying to provide potable water; it has only two treatment plants, one at Sundarijal and the other at Maharajganj, while water is collected from a variety of physically separate sources. The problem is compounded by the leaking sewers laid along the water mains. To improve the quality, NWSC relies on simple chiorination, using both bleaching powder and gaseous chlorine at selected points, but this has limited use in treating Kathmandu water. Says microbiologist Achyut P, Sharma, “In the presence of high organic contaminants in the water, the microbial activity of these compounds is lowered by almost 80 per cent.” The bleaching powder used to disinfect the water is often so adulterated that the low chlorine content is not enough for purification.
In many areas, residents would be happy just to receive water in their taps, whether clean or dirty. Illegal connections and leaky old pipes account for as much as 70 per cent of water loss from some neighbourhood taps, according to a 1988 report by an Austrian consultancy firm. The Corporation, when pressed, will maintain that leakage is only 40 per cent, but the figure is highly suspect. Binnie and Partners, UK consultants who have been associated with Nepali water for 16 years, recently reported leakage at about 65 per cent.
Besides being diverted illegally for household purposes, Kathmandu´s “treated water” is also used for non-consumptive uses such as washing wool and carpets, and even to irrigate fields. One of the goals of die recently sanctioned IDA loan is to rehabilitate the urban water network by the year 2000 and to ensure that leakage is brought down to 35 per cent.
The IDA is not the Corporation´s only benefactor. The governments of Norway and Austria have agreed to provide grants and “commodity, assistance” in the form of pipes and fittings. In addition, the Japanese are set to augment the surface water supplies and to improve quality. Given the Corporation´s past record, it is not clear whether this infusion of foreign aid will be well utilised.
ASK THE USER
The water supply programmes as a whole have failed because the intended beneficiaries were never consulted. Decisions have all been made in Government board rooms. As the Government´s 1991 Drinking Water Sector Review and Development Plan states, “Sustainable improvements are seldom achieved through a lop down approach where governments or project teams plan and implement projects and beneficiaries have no role in planning, construction or financing.”
Proper management of the drinking water supply must involve the users, but as yet there is no procedure to ensure this involvement. The Corporation Board consists exclusively of Government bureaucrats. A beginning could be made by including in the Board, representatives of the city council, the chambers of commerce, hotel, management and medical associations, as well as consumer activists. As things stand, there is little public confidence in the Corporation and even less willingness to believe its assertions that things will turn rosy after 2000.
To make life a little harder for the Corporation, Bal BahadurRai, the new Minister for Housing and Physical Planning asked it to present a concrete plan for supply improvement by early 1992. However, an effective pi an for the supply improvement is unlikely within such short deadline since the NWSC management does not even have a mandate to exercise its legal authority.
The Water Supply Corporation Act of 2046 empowers the NWSC to prosecute illegal connections in municipalities within its jurisdiction, but it still does not have the legislative where with all to do so. Even the rights to some water sources have not been secured by the Corporation and conflicts with local farmers continue. One sen ior Corporation official laments, “We spend the day plugging the holes in the transmission, at night they are all broken.”
Certainly, no amount of foreign credit and grants is going to change the fact that the problem of Kathmandu´s water supply is essentially managerial and political. The Corporation´s habit of hiring foreign experts for every task under the advice of donors will lead it further up the wrong creek. Expatriate consultants are best used in technical areas where they have expertise that the Nepalis lack.
In order to improve water supply, the Corporation must: a) strengthen operation and maintenance capability through better supervision, b) enhance revenue collection and proper cash accounting, and c) institute administrative reforms. An effective management must be developed to meticulously monitor the proposed US 60 million rehabilitation programme.
Unfortunately, the tendency of the Corporation and its advisors has been to shirk basic groundwork in favour of pompous promises of high-visibility water- treatment plants and other grandiose quick-fixes — such as the gigantic Melamchi Project, which holds the Corporation in thrall. No one in the Corporation is asking crucial questions, such as whether entire Nepali population should be made to pay for the privilege of supplying Kathmandu´s urban residents with snow-fed water. That, in essence, is what would happen if Nepal decides to go in for the US 400 million Melamchi, which would be paid not out of Kathmandu Valley´s metropolitan budget but from the national treasury. Incidentally, Melamchi would take away one-fourth of the investment costs which would be required to extend water supply facilities to me rest of the country.
“Kathmandu needs water, but not to be turned into a major industrial city,” says Suresh Raj Chalisey, a Nepali environmental scientist, Kathmandu does not need to be deluged with water, from remote Melamchi or anywhere else. Instead, it would suffice if the Valley learned to conserve its own resources. It does not make sense to bring a gigantic project to “flush” the Bagmati — a claim that is actually made for Melamchi — when proper waste management would be more effective. Similarly, savings made by plugging leakage and ending water theft could bring significant improvement.
In the end, should Kathmandu be pampered with expensive showcase water projects and programmes when it has not even seriously tried to save and conserve what it has?