Need for Better Policy Alternatives: Water Crisis in Kathmandu

On May 18, 2016:

Recent estimates by Groundwater Resource Development Board (GRDB) show that groundwater level in different areas of the Kathmandu valley has significantly declined over the last five years. While massive exploitation of natural resources and unmanaged industrialization have led to a drastic decrease in water levels, what’s more alarming is government’s nonchalant attitude towards taking urgent steps. Unless a quick policy reform takes place, a severe water crisis will persist and affect millions of lives throughout the country.

Groundwater comprises half of the total watershed area and continues to be an essential source of water supply in the Kathmandu valley. One of the studies carried out by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) claims that groundwater delivers nearly half of the total water supply during wet season and almost three-quarters in the dry season. Anecdotal evidence further suggests that haphazard development of ground water in the recent past emanates from government’s lack of ability to account for efficient spatial resource distribution across different time periods. Under these circumstances, tragedy of the commons is inevitable, with staggering levels of annual groundwater extraction exceeding recharge.

Denizens of the Kathmandu valley, unfortunately, can’t anticipate respite from existing water crisis despite the Melamchi Drinking Water Project (MDWP) hoopla swirling around in recent months. In spite of a huge investment of 16 billion rupees so far, MDWP is estimated to serve only one-third of the total demand even when it completes. Consumers, both residential and commercial, have consequently shifted to groundwater extraction instead. With majority of five-star hotels extracting more than 10 million liters of groundwater on an average every day, total amount of groundwater extracted sums up to about 120 million liters a day in the Kathmandu valley.

Notably, rampant extraction of groundwater resources has brought about several adverse consequences, including degradation in groundwater quality and reduction in aquifer volume on account of land subsidence. Although no existing research study documents the prevalence of subsidence, spillovers of over-exploitation of groundwater are visibly pandemic. For instance, groundwater in shallow aquifers is more likely to be contaminated with E-coli and nitrates, while deep aquifer is infected with ammonia, arsenic, iron and heavy metals.

Sadly, the government has previously enjoyed being a mute spectator in the midst of environmental crises. The state-level response towards the problem faced by villagers in the district of Siraha two years ago is a case in point. Strikingly, people residing in north of the East-West Highway in Siraha faced an acute shortage of water, with water levels receding and tube wells drying up. Yet, the government failed to take any concrete action to serve the affected communities. This, in turn, led the villagers to leave their ancestral homes and gave rise to massive migration to the south. What’s more, the recent governmental decision to allow mining of stone, gravel, sand and boulders from riverbeds, conservation areas and national parks without carrying out the environmental impact assessment (EIA) paints the same picture.

Although the 7th National Groundwater Symposium organized two months back is a welcoming step, more needs to be done at the policy level. More important, efforts aimed at shifting consumer’s substitution pattern appear inadequate. The governmental wing, Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), unfortunately is a major culprit. To meet a steep demand of 360 million liters of water a day in the Kathmandu valley, KUKL manages to supply merely half of the estimated demand and obtains 50 percent of water via shallow and deep tube wells. This further bolsters the need to publicly disseminate the findings of past research studies carried out on hydrogeology and groundwater quality, and perform additional inter-disciplinary research for sound policy-making in near future.

In recent years, the perennial problem of water shortage in the valley has encouraged environmentalists and social entrepreneurs to propose alternative solutions. That the valley arguably receives more than three-quarters of approximately 1,700 mm of annual rainfall during regular monsoons has promising prospects for rainwater harvesting. Furthermore, this translates to potential harvesting of at least 1400 liters per square meter on a rooftop, before taking into account the measures of efficiency. Given strong seasonality trends, tremendous benefits of rain water harvesting to recharge the aquifers in the valley cannot be overstated.

As the World Environment Day approaches this year, leaders need to exhibit serious commitment towards devising effective policies aimed at managing groundwater sources in a more sustainable manner. Moreover, the existing void between think tanks and policy makers can be filled with continuous interaction among economists, scientists and relevant stakeholders. In addition, consumers are least likely to stem over-pumping in near future even if they are cognizant of potential climate risks. They will, however, most likely substitute to alternative sources of water, such as river harvesting, once a well-structured incentive scheme is set-up.

While the next steps will be daunting, there exists no alternative to sound policy design that accounts for unintended adverse consequences of exploiting natural resources. Unless the government acts now with sincere dedication, depleting groundwater level will trigger a disaster in near future.