Setting out to the Melamchi Valley on foot from Kathmandu allows for the chance to see firsthand many of the core components of the Melamchi Water Supply Project - an ongoing initiative to divert water from the Melamchi River in Sindhupalchok District, Nepal to meet burgeoning demand in the Kathmandu Valley. The climb out of the Kathmandu Valley begins at Sundarijal - the site where the Bagmati River leaves the Shivapuri foothills to enter urban Kathmandu. The Bagmati was once a traditional lifeline for Kathmandu Valley inhabitants, supplying not only domestic water, but also serving a spiritual role for Kathmandu's largely Hindu population. Pashupatinath - Kathmandu's largest Hindu temple is located several kilometers downstream from Sundarijal along the Bagmati's banks, and serves as a site where practices such as funeral and cremation rituals are performed.
In recent years, rapid population growth has contributed to the degradation of water quality in the Bagmati, while limited oversight of water withdrawals has resulted in sharp drops in the river's water level in many places.
Yet, here in Sundarijal at the tail end of monsoon season, the river runs fast and relatively clear as it drops sharply out of the hills to enter Kathmandu. On top of a small bluff overlooking this stretch of the Bagmati, massive construction works are underway. Sundarijal is the end point for a 27.6 kilometer tunnel that will bring 170 million liters/day of Melamchi River water to Kathmandu once complete. Once the imported water reaches Kathmandu it will be processed at a new water treatment facility in Sundarijal that's almost complete. From there, it will be pumped through the Sundarijal pumping station into urban pipes and water mains, with surplus water discharged directly into the Bagmati.
Given that Kathmandu's municipal water supply network is still being developed, it is estimated that roughly half of the imported Melamchi water will initially be released into the Bagmati. This is expected to have the effect of restoring water levels to near what they were before the valley's rapid urbanization, though the long-term effects of this scheme are still somewhat unclear. Plans to extend piped municipal water to Kathmandu residents will occur on a gradual basis with many areas along the city's periphery located outside the initial municipal water scheme.
Back in Kathmandu, residents currently rely on a wide variety of methods to access domestic water. Many older neighborhoods near the city center - even some affluent ones - rely on private tanker truck deliveries to fill large storage tanks, often located on the roofs of buildings. Elsewhere, traditional borewells are still in use, though many of these have dried up in recent years due to falling groundwater levels and withdrawals that exceed recharge rates. Many areas of the Kathmandu Valley only receive running water for two hours per day or less, with delivery times unpredictable and often occurring in the middle of the night. At my own flat in Samakhusi, I am among the privileged few. Here, 24-hour piped household water is available with no tanker deliveries required - a rarity in this part of the world. Nonetheless, water quality is inconsistent, with high levels of sedimentation occurring at certain times of day. The Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) is meant to remedy many of these challenges, though its implementation also raised many questions about how this will affect social stratification, with many of the city's urban poor living in neighborhoods that will not see immediate benefits from the project.
The MWSP is a joint initiative between the Government of Nepal (GoN) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the latter of which is heavily controlled by delegations from the United States and Japan - the only two countries that effectively hold veto power over the bank's decisions. Originally conceived back in 2002, plans to divert the Melamchi River to Kathmandu faced a number of early obstacles that delayed the start of project construction. Back then, international lending organizations touted marketization and private sector investment as a panacea and cure-all for implementing water delivery systems in low and middle-income countries. The original plan was backed by the World Bank and required private construction firms compete for contracts to build the necessary infrastructure, and mandated that private, for-profit entities be responsible for eventually managing the municipal delivery system .
The initial plan failed to attract sufficient interest from foreign investors and eventually the World Bank withdrew from the project altogether. After many years of political wrangling over the details of the project, a new plan was eventually crafted that featured a hybrid approach with private firms still bidding for construction contracts, but that also provided a role for the creation of new public institutions to manage the Kathmandu Valley's water resources with an emphasis on incentive-based approaches for public actors. As of the time of my walk to Melamchi, 25.9 kilometers of 27.6 kilometers of tunnelling had been completed, although no further construction progress has been made since August, raising questions about whether the end-of-2017 date for water deliveries to begin is too ambitious a goal.
Leaving the Kathmandu Valley, the geography and the fabric of social relations changes drastically over short distances. Here, community- and kinship-based ties shape social life without the anonymity and sense of cosmpolitanism found in the ethnically diverse Kathmandu Valley. The biggest shift in cultural and ethnic practices of the villages occurs when crossing the threshold where rice can be grown. Depending on local geography this occurs somewhere in the range of 1800-2000 meters in this part of Nepal. Above this threshold, most residents practice variants of Tibetan Buddhism and have much stronger historical ties to Tibet and Central Asia, more generally, than they do to the predominantly Hindu lowlands. Near the upper limit of where rice can be grown, there is often a blending of both cultures with residents of villages like Pokhari Bhanjyang on the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley observing elements of both religions. In the lower reaches of the Melamchi Valley, villages comprised of various Hindu caste groups populate the landscape, with a large concentration of Bahun (Brahmin) and Chhetri villages, along with many others.
Even though the Melamchi and Kathmandu Valleys are very close to one another in distance, the landscape is quite different in each one, owing to each valley's position relative to the Himalaya. The villages in the upper reaches of the Melamchi Valley receive more than three times as much rainfall as Kathmandu with monsoon season still in full swing when I visited, even though Kathmandu has already been drying out over the past few weeks.Most villages here rely on water flowing down in small springs and streams from the mountain, which is generally abundant and of high quality. Indeed, at the diversion site between the villages of Doring and Gwakhan, the Melamchi River itself meets international drinking water standards without the need for further treatment. Yet only a small share residents of the Melamchi Valley rely directly on the river water, with most accessing their water through the abundant number of perennial springs and streams in the area.
High up on the eastern ridge of the Melamchi Valley, I am invited home for lunch by Tscheling - an ethnic Lama - a group closely related to the Sherpa, Tamang, and Tibetans. I sit cross-legged on the floor next to the wood-burning stove while water is collected from a spring right outside the front door to cook the lunch of rice, potatoes, and buffalo meat.
Residents of these villages have often been relying on these same sources of water for centuries, and while climate change may indeed pose a long-term risk, one likely scenario is actually an increase in run-off due to global warming, as the snowline gradually edges higher and more glacial water flows down into the stream. I chat with Tscheling a little bit about the village, the crops they grow and the changes he has seen before heading onward along the valley's rim inching closer toward Langtang Glacier - a 7227-meter peak that is the source of the swift, clear Melamchi River.
While many residents of the villages here are unlikely to experience any direct impacts from the diversion scheme on local water supplies, there are some areas of the valley where this risk is higher. Downstream from the diversion site lies many areas of riparian farmland - mostly rice - located directly on the river's floodplain and fed by the abundant water of the Melamchi River. These areas may face lowered productivity, in the event that river levels fall significantly after 170 million liters/day is pumped to Kathmandu. The other two places that also face some risk are the villages of Doring and Gwakhan - the two nearest the diversion site. The ADB loan for the MWSP does include funding to support a water monitoring porgram in these villages, but my role here will be to talk to the villagers themselves and try to understand their own perceptions and experiences related to the project. At the core of these conversations will be an effort to understand whether such villages feel the project is fair, and how they perceive changes in their own material conditions of water access.
Back in Kathmandu, I will pose similar questions, both to residents of marginalized groups and to political actors and policymakers who are driving forces behind the project's implementation. I will post another entry with more details on policy issues related to urbanization and development in Kathmandu in a subsequent entry.
For now, I remain deeply grateful for the hospitality of the many people I met along the way who invited me into their homes, and for the several people in the Melamchi villages who offered me food, drink, and even a taxi ride without asking for anything in return. I cannot wait to return to these villages and get to know the people, and lives and experiences there. I only hope to discover new insights that can help make new large-scale public works projects, like the MWSP, more inclusive and receptive to the needs of poor and marginalized groups.
I will try to post a few entries a month from now on, but unfortunately the website editor takes a long, long time to load so I may not be able to add as many photos as I like.