Darkling waters

The Bagmati loses its way in Kathmandu amid political vacuum and urban chaos

By Aditya Batra
Published: Saturday 15 October 2011

Darkling waters


In Kathmandu you can smell the Bagmati before you see it; in Sundarijal you can hear this river as it cascades down from its headwaters to nourish the paddy fields in the plains below the Shivapuri hills before it finds its way into the city, much abused and yet revered.

The chaos and urban sprawl of today’s Kathmandu have taken a serious toll on the stretch of the Bagmati and its tributaries that meet in the city. In the absence of clear guidelines regulating river water use and diversion, the city extracts some 30 million litres of water each day from this seasonal river to quench its thirst, even in the dry season. During the week-long festival of Mahashivratri, which usually falls in February, authorities resort to pumping groundwater to augment the river flow.

Much of the city’s garbage—and the city generates about 600 tonnes daily—is dumped directly in the river. A 2003 study by non-profit Environment and Public Health Organization found that the chemical-oxygen demand (COD) of Bagmati waters was 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 the heart of Kathmandu.

Another study the same year by the Asian Development Bank and ICIMOD, a leading inter-governmental research body, found that city discharges 21,000 kg of domestic sewage daily into the Bagmati, accounting for 42 per cent of its total BOD load.

In Kathmandu, the Bagmati is a cesspool that has no self-purifying capacity left. Ironic for a river believed to purify the souls of those who bathe in it.

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. The temples, ghats and cremation grounds were soon interspersed with squatter settlements, buildings and garbage grounds.

Formally established in 1100 AD as a walled city with 33 neighbourhoods laid out in the shape of a sword, Kathmandu once had a planned waste management system. Open defecation with clearly earmarked zones along small ponds was the norm from which wastewater was recycled back to the fields, says Padma Sunder Joshi, who is with UN Habitat and has studied the river’s history. This was done to avoid polluting the shallow aquifers feeding the hitis, or the stone water spouts, the main source of drinking water for the valley residents. Waste management practices were intertwined with designated days and festivals. For instance, storm water drains and open wells were cleaned on Sithi Nakha, the driest day in the driest month of May. The festival of Pichash Chaturdashi was dedicated for people to clean their courtyards.

Constricted by squatter colonies

Some 24 of the 40 squatter settlements in Kathmandu are on the banks of the Bagmati and its tributaries, as per a study by Lumanti, a non-profit working with the urban poor on housing rights.

It found 60 per cent of the squatter households pollute the river, by defecating on its banks or draining their sewage into it. Even settlements away from the river use the nearest storm water drain to dispose of their waste, which eventually finds its way to the river.

Lajana Manandhar, who heads Lumanti, resists allegation that squatters must be relocated to save the river. “Who is a squatter?” she asks. The government is sticking to 48-year-old survey maps. This is unrealistic because the river course has changed since, she says.

Rather than displacing people, Manandhar suggests establishing onsite waste disposal and treatment system, just like the one in Narayan Tole squatter settlement. Toilets in this community are connected to the system that uses a septic tank and a bio-filter. People are trained to locally manage the system.

Land encroachment is particularly acute along the Bagmati as the river frequently changes its course, creating new landlords and new encroachers. As per Nepal’s Lands Act of 2021 (2021 Bikram Sambat is 1964 as per the Gregorian calander) if the river changes its course, the legal title to the river land goes to the government. But in most places, the government does not physically possess such land; they are in private hands or encroached upon, says Bhushan Shrestha, a GIS expert who has prepared maps for various committees working to revive the river. A lot of river land was grabbed when the government changed its reference cadastral maps from 2021 BS to 2044 BS (1964 to 1987 AD). “You can still recover the land from squatters, but private encroachers with land deeds are the real problem,” Shrestha adds.

Public outrage

Over the past three decades, public outrage over the state of the river has snowballed. Activists like Hutaram Baidya, who sees the civilizational loss in the degradation of the Bagmati (see ‘A civilisational loss’, Down To Earth, August 16-31, 2011), to non-profits like Friends of the Bagmati have been championing its revival. 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.


The Nepal River Conservation Trust, started by a group of river travel guides, organises a two-and-a-halfmonth Bagmati River Festival each year, starting with Earth day on June 5, where they undertake river clean-up drives, plantation, heritage walks, films and art shows, cycle rallies and rafting trips to raise awareness.

Lawyers are also doing their bit to force the government to act. Prakash Mani Sharma, a lawyer with Pro Public, an environmental law non-profit, has fought many legal battles on behalf of the Bagmati. Many of Sharma’s cases against the city administration are to do with illegal dumping of solid waste along the riverside.

“In Kathmandu, municipal waste and medical waste are dumped together; it is a public health hazard,” he says. In 2002, Nepal’s supreme court had ordered the city authorities not to dump waste on the river banks without an environmental impact assessment. When Sharma found municipalities were openly disobeying the order, he filed a contempt of court case.

The court cracked down hard. Seven secretaries from different ministries, including environment, physical planning, local development and the prime minister’s office (PMO), were ordered to personally attend the Court’s hearings. The court constituted a committee under the chairmanship of secretary of PMO to ensure that its orders are followed in letter and spirit. Even so, there has been no let up in garbage dumping on the river banks.

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, and its scope was expanded to cover the entire valley.

Committee members admit that progress on rehabilitating the river has been slow. So far, it has constructed river training walls on some stretches upstream to contain the fickle river in its original course, and is laying sewer lines and conserving wetlands in the catchment area. 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.

Of the five STPs in the valley, Guheshwori STP is the only one that functions, though partially. The other STPS, belonging to the activated sludge family and located at Dhobighat, Sallaghari, Hanumante and Kadu, have been abandoned, their oxidation ponds now converted to playfields where children play football. The committee has built interceptor drains along 22 km of the Bagmati to collect and divert sewage to Guheshwori STP. It has dug a tunnel below the temple that empties treated wastewater at Aryaghat, downstream of the temple.

The 572-metre tunnel was built after the priests of the Pashupatinath temple bitterly opposed the plan to let the treated wastewater flow through the temple complex. “They said the treated wastewater of the Bagmati may be clean, but not pure,” recalls Bhushan Tuladhar, an environment researcher. “Maybe it was a smart decision, as the Bagmati today has less, but cleaner water flowing across the complex,” he adds. On most days, sewage is bypassed, or released directly into the river.

Frequent power outages are the reason the “state-of-the-art” Guheshwori STP functions below its capacity, says Ram Chandra Devkota of the committee. The extended aeration system of the STP needs 24-hour electricity supply, a tall order in a city used to 16 hours of load shedding in the dry season, he says, adding “whatever we have done till now is far behind the demand or necessity.”

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 haphazardly. 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. Over decades, dozens of plans for sewerage coverage were prepared; none were implemented in full.

Needed: integrated approach

The latest attempt to heal the Bagmati, from its origins in the Shivapuri hills to Chouva where it leaves the valley, was launched in 2008. The committee and the National Trust for Nature Conservation, an autonomous body, have put together the Bagmati Action Plan. Based on its water quality and settlement patterns, the plan, applicable from 2009-2014 with a budget of close to 15 billion Nepalese rupees, divides the valley into five zones and suggests different measures for each zone. This includes protecting the catchment area and checking illegal sand mining in the upstream zones one and two; building decentralised wastewater treatment systems in peri-urban areas in zones two and three (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. Zone five, an agricultural area in the lower reaches, would not need much intervention if the suggested measures are taken in upstream zones, the plan says.

As of now, it is only an inventory of activities, says Shrestha who led the GIS mapping in the plan document. Each suggestion will have to be subjected to detailed engineering studies to make this operational, he adds.

Chaos amid political vacuum

Each of the eight municipalities in the valley has its own authority and working plans. But there is no integrated land use plan for the valley, although they all share a river. “This is the main impediment to our work,” says Devkota. “A lower riparian municipality cannot easily enforce or ban activities in the upper reaches of the river; locals will protest.”

This is exacerbated with the political chaos in the country. With no local elections held in over 10 years, there are no elected officials handling municipal affairs in Nepal; all urban areas are run by executive officers nominated by the government. With no elected local body to talk to, the committee deals directly with people for land acquisition, laying sewer lines, or paying compensation for loss of standing crops. “We form community- level concern groups, ensuring representation from all political parties active in that area to reach consensus,” Devkota says.

Though formed by the order of the cabinet, the committee has no real authority. A bill was tabled in Parliament last year to give it the legal teeth but it is gathering dust amid political instability. Some in the committee were relieved by being hauled up by the court in a case filed by Pro Public, as the court’s orders would give them the legal teeth to remove encroachers.

“This city has too many masters,” says Dipak Gyawali, a noted water researcher, referring to the many master plans created over the decades. He says many details of how to revive the river should be left to stakeholders to work out among themselves. Instead of relying solely on civil engineering-dominated plans, he says the government should coopt the religious trusts and 136 tirthas (sites of pilgrimage) that control the temple lands along the river banks into this initiative. If it is to flow clean and pure again, the Bagmati must top Nepal’s social and political agenda.

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