Living rivers, dying rivers: Bagmati river in Nepal

The fifth lecture in the ten-part series titled "Living Rivers, Dying Rivers" was delivered by Dr. Ajaya Dixit and Dr. Dipak Gyawali.
Bagmati River at Pashupatinath Temple (Source:Wikipedia)
Bagmati River at Pashupatinath Temple (Source:Wikipedia)

Bagmati river in Kathmandu: From holy river to unthinkable flowing filth

Bagmati river, Nepal (Source:Bagmati Action Plan 2009-2014)

Ajaya Dixit initiated his presentation with a general account of how rivers shape the landscape and how riverine ecosystems have nurtured society and kept civilisations vibrant, cultured and creative. Dixit went on to discuss the basin characteristics of the Bagmati, a tributary of the Kosi that rises in the Shivapuri hills, north of the Kathmandu valley. Around fifteen percent of the basin area (3700 sqkm) lies in Nepal, while the remaining is in India. The average annual rainfall in the basin is 1400 mm and is more than 2000 mm in the hills. Bagmati is a seasonal river with rainfall and springs as its main source. Its mean flow is 15.6 cubic metre/second and low flow is 0.15 cubic metre/second in April.

Kathmandu lies in the Upper Bagmati basin and studies suggest that an ancient lake called the Paleo-Kathmandu lay within the Kathmandu valley as a lacustrine formation. Early settlers lived in lower slopes and used springs and river in the upper reaches. When they moved to the valley floor, they built dongia dharas, which are stone water spouts fed by the unconfined aquifers and delivered water through surface channels. Even today, dongia dharas dated back to 1500 years exist. The state built canals (raj kulo) tapped the upper stretches of the rivers close to the mountains. Rivers and irrigation helped recharge aquifers and ponds.

However, rising urbanisation has damaged these ancient artifacts. Over the last sixty years Kathmandu has expanded massively and its population has increased from 0.41 million in 1951 to 2.6 million in 2011. The city has a huge transient population aside from this, reducing it to a concrete nightmare. Seismologists suggest that Kathmandu is a rubble city in the making. Though the Bagmati river flow has not changed significantly in the last seventy years, the character of the river has been transformed significantly during the period 1970 to 1990. The river has been canalised while the dumping of the city’s garbage into it continues. Dixit identified a plethora of problems faced by the river such as upstream water diversion for drinking water needs, disposal of untreated liquid waste, disposal of solid waste, river jacketing for roads and commercial activities, sand mining and physical encroachment.

The state of the river is an outcome of the current approach to waste management particularly liquid waste management. Three types of waste water namely yellow water flux, grey water and yellow black flux are being generated and flowing water is being used as a vehicle to dispose these. The idea of a water based disposal system e.g. flush toilet embedded in Victorian engineering has led to a technological lock-in with the result that the notion of a natural hydrological cycle has undergone a fundamental transformation.

All the same, the bulk of the load in the river is biological though there are some factories releasing effluents. In the last 20 years some of them have been closed or relocated and the river now stands a chance of being salvaged.



Water resources management: Actions and actors in the terrain

The Government of Nepal took a World Bank loan in the early 1970s for developing an improved drinking water and sewerage system in Kathmandu. With no water quality/ supply improvement in sight people started raising concerns in the 1980s. Growing pressure from the Press led the Government to form an independent Commission (Pokhryal Commission) in 1986. The Commission made recommendations of a fundamental nature such as decentralisation, creation of municipality, restructuring of the Board/Utility and formation of a Tariff Commission among others. Unfortunately the report was gathering dust for almost ten years. During that period resources and foreign aid continued to flow in. Between 1990 and 1995, UNDP alone invested close to USD 10 million to study Kathmandu’s water supply system. In the meantime, water supply service further deteriorated and dumping of solid waste on the riverside continued.

The onset of democracy in the 1990s opened up political spaces for articulating voice, thoughts, ideas and actions. The pressure from civil society organisations grew and so did public sentiment. In 1997, around fifty eminent individuals in Kathmandu – writers, journalists, professionals  got together and signed a statement that after their death their remains be not offered to Bagmati. This was a way of expressing indignation and was in sync with public opinion. The Government of Nepal had earlier in 1995 constituted a High Powered Committee for Implementation and Monitoring of the Bagmati Area Sewerage Construction/ Rehabilitation Project. The Committee’s scope was subsequently expanded to cover the entire valley. A Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) had been constructed upstream of the Pashupatinath temple, on the eastern bank of Bagmati given the religious significance the river has for Hindus. It functions partially while the other STPs have been abandoned.

According to Dixit, the immediate issues that need to be addressed to restore the Bagmati are quality drinking water services, sewerage and wastewater treatment, solid waste disposal, squatters and slums, sand/river mining, regulations and laws, and sustainable urban development. There is a need to look at the historical context within which modern development and technology in water/irrigation and hydropower and the institutions that manage them have come up in Nepal. This reflection needs to accomplish the following not only for Nepal but for all of South Asia:

  • Improved public health system
  • Pu an end to mixing of the three types oh water in freshwater
  • Uncoupling of human and economic development from a fixation with water based waste disposal system
  • Enable the city infrastructure to become a net contributor to ecosystem services and
  • Be robust and resilient under a changed climate future

To begin with, we need to ask questions on how the city’s infrastructure be developed and the natural capital and ecosystem services restored to levels before the city began experiencing a degradation in services. Can we begin to re-engineer our urban landscape and infrastructure to make living spaces for good living? How feasible is it to conceive of a cityscape from such a point of view? In South Asia, where we have differences in the notion of physical and spiritual purity we can begin with a new slogan 'No human waste in the water cycle'. 

Wicked problems, uncomfortable knowledge and clumsy solutions

Bagmati river (Source:Bagmati Action Plan 2009-2014)

Dipak Gyawali’s lecture focused on the historical, socio-cultural and institutional context in which water is used and managed. The current crisis in water management is due to institutional failure and this is why we have failed to prevent rivers from becoming sewers despite their holy status. Gyawali notes that wicked problems need to be tackled with uncomfortable knowledge so we do not end up with clumsy solutions. 

The World Bank entered the urban water supply sector in Nepal by funding the first water supply project in 1973 which developed over a period of 12 years into three projects (I/II/III) covering twelve major cities. The project was aimed at improving the water supply system (24X7), building sewerage systems and cleaning up of the Bagmati river. At the end of the project, water supply shrunk and the Bagmati remains as polluted as ever. There was an average of seventy percent loss in the system as a whole. The Government of Nepal faced difficulties when the World Bank insisted on raising the water tariff. The first casualties in countries with donor driven development are the institutions. In this case the pani goswara system which had been created was bypassed to create a Water Supply Board and later on a Corporation. A new system was brought to override the old thereby creating a mess in the process. The Pokhryal Commission was set up to alleviate the institutional failure.

Sewerage systems were the forgotten end of the business and the focus continued to be on water supply augmentation. Following the exit of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) jumped in. There has been no attempt to control the loss or deal with the mess in the municipal system because the institutions that were created are essentially construction oriented outfits designed to disburse foreign aid and are not equipped to manage or distribute water. The water bureaucracy got stuck with the Melamchi water supply scheme, a mega project which entails the construction of a 30 km long diversion tunnel excavated by drill and blast method to bring in raw water from Melamchi river to Sundarijal outlet.

Gyawali suggests that there is a need to take a holistic approach to water resources management and minimise risk by allowing multiple institutional forms (private or public) to co-exist. There is a need to reflect upon what kind of an institutional arrangement (state run, market led and those run by temples and religious trusts) will allow cities to be a force for good.

Gyawali highlighted efforts by individuals like Bidur Poudel who have worked towards restoring the river to its original pristine condition. Plain technical arguments about the river while necessary, are hardly sufficient to clean up the rivers. The sociology of the Rhine clean up was discussed to explain this. The inter-governmental arrangement between six countries of the Rhine basin was informal and non binding. Gyawali also noted that water is seen in a multiple sense--private good, public good, common pool good and even club good.


Ramaswamy Iyer noted during the discussion that the rivers have self cleaning properties but with increased extraction we reduce their capacity to deal with the enormous amounts of waste, be it domestic sewage, chemical pollution, industrial effluents or agricultural residues. Multiple approaches are required to tackle these. Industry has to be forced to follow some sort of recycling or reuse, so that they move towards the goal of zero effluents and zero net water budget in the long run. Some industries are doing it in their own interests.

Chemical pollution can be controlled, but non point pollution from agriculture is difficult to control. There is a need to change the character of the chemical intensive green revolution led agriculture. As regards STPs, two answers have been suggested – extensive decentralised sewage treatment instead of huge centralised STPs. The other is to lay interceptor sewers so that the sewage does not end up in the river. There are multiple answers and through a combination we have to reduce the kinds of pollutants that go into the river. The whole idea of first reducing the river into a sewer and then undertaking massive projects and programmes for cleaning them is complete madness.

Aditya Batra of the Centre for Science and Environment noted that the STPs were not functioning for awhile owing to problems with electricity, lack of engineering capacity or money to run these. There are doubts regarding how the engineering led approach of shifting the population away from septic tanks to sewerage systems is going to pan out.

Playlist: River Bagmati in Nepal

The lecture in various parts can be viewed at Youtube here:

The lectures in the series can be viewed here:

India Water Portal is grateful to Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer and the India International Centre for allowing it to record the lecture and share the videos online.