Chaos in Kathmandu

The Kathmandu Valley often evokes images of the mystical, fabled paradise of Shangri-La. Today, this depiction could not be further from the truth. Nepal ranks 149 out of 180 countries in environmental performance, according to Yale’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, and more than 75 percent of the population is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

The water situation is equally dire. About 45 percent of households in the valley are not connected to the central water supply network. For those that are connected, water is only supplied for a few hours, several days a week. The main water operator, Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), can only fulfil one-third of the demand. Most people are forced to rely on private water tankers and public taps, and the quality of the supplied water is questionable.

Kathmandu has fifteen water treatment plants; of these, eleven are equipped only with the most basic facilities. Some of the pipes from the water reticulation system are more than 100 years old and urgently need replacing. One-third to half of the city’s water is unaccounted for, either from leaks or administrative losses such as unpaid bills or incorrect amounts charged. After a diarrhoea outbreak in 2004, water quality tests revealed that more than half of the tested water samples were contaminated with excess levels of faecal coliform.

In a 2015 study by the Institute of Water Policy (IWP), Professor Dale Whittington and his team of researchers estimated that households are paying an average of 1,420 Nepalese Rupees (US$15) every month to cope with the unreliable and poor quality public water services. This represents a 30 percent increase in coping costs in comparison to a corresponding survey in 2001 and a significant portion of monthly income.

More recently, IWP’s Dr Leong Ching led a foray into Kathmandu to investigate public perceptions of the water supply situation there by employing the Q Methodology. Conversations and semi-formal interviews with local residents reveal a high level of frustration and hopelessness among the general public with the entire situation and particularly with the Melamchi Water Supply Project. This project, which involves the construction of a 27.6 km tunnel to divert 170 million litres of freshwater daily to the valley, began 7 years ago but remains just over 60 percent completed.

This research does not seek to produce prescriptive proclamations of how the perception of the public can be effectively marshalled into water resource governance strategies. Instead, the research team hopes that the attitude and sentiments of the public, as distilled from this perception study, can be considered by the Nepalese water authorities to catalyse closer ties and greater cooperation between the state and stakeholders towards building a better water management system in Kathmandu Valley.

Joon Chuah is a research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 


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