As the monsoon approaches, Kathmanduites are terrified of rains and subsequent swellings of rivers and streams, often resulting in inundation of roads, fields and homes. At first sight, we blame global warming and climate change. But deeper inspection reveals a different cause-and-effect relationship.
Let us first see how we have treated our surroundings. Recent population growth, urbanization and hike in the land prices have resulted in the occupying and capturing of river banks, the guthi lands meant to support religious, cultural and social activities. The open space is being encroached upon by nearby settlements, skyscrapers, squatters or even government agencies.
We don’t respect history. Set aside are the altruistic wishes of the donors that such land be used for a defined public benefit—as in the case of Sohrakhutte Pati, the traditional hut and adjoining stone spout built in Bikram Era 1862 and 1864 respectively by Bhottu Pandey for the benefit of remote travelers visiting ‘Nepal’, the Kathmandu Valley. In the name of development, the land and structure have been sacrificed to build roads and god knows what else. The founder is long gone, the creation cannot argue for itself, and bystanders are free to decide the fate of something they do not own. Some locals sought the intervention of the Department of Archeology, requesting the application of the ‘Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956’ and to stop the Pati’s demolition—in vain. Likewise, the 2,000-year-old open space Tundikhel Square is getting fragmented, partly concreted and ‘closed’ to commoners. Even the Pashupatinath Temple has experienced encroachment, physically and culturally.
Ponds, spouts and streams
Once, Kathmandu Valley was a fertile land, covered with greenery that would wear a white frost in winter dawns, slowly giving rise to a transient thick fog, which would disappear under golden sunrays, resulting in a cool clear day. Man lived in harmony with nature. Until half a century ago, the man-water interactions were mainly friendly; they respected each other.
Water was considered a source of life. Wells, ponds and streams were sacred, had to be kept clean, therein lived naagas protecting bodies of water. Defecation and urination near a water source was prohibited. No one would think of discarding waste near standing or flowing water. Settlements had to maintain some distance from the waters, and such provisions were enforced with the popular saying that a stream changes course every 12 years. Safety from streams was sought by keeping ample distance and planting reeds on the banks. But slowly man began to conquer nature. Traditional outlooks became myths, superstitions and even contemptible.
Settlements continued to expand. Combined with population growth, two inventions fuelled the valley’s water crisis. The invention of cement and subsequent culture of covering courtyards with a waterproof layer gave rain water less opportunity to moisten the soil, fill the aquifer. The drilling of deep boreholes and installation of pumping machines began to suck a large amount of groundwater. Now, the water table is sinking, leaving some spaces void that can collapse any time and sink the city above. This is also a reason for drying out of many traditional springs.
If the above-mentioned problems are a byproduct of our endeavor to create clean and easy life, the following ones are different. We began to harness the streams and rivers with concrete embankments, sometimes snatching significant chunks of traditional territory of the rivers. The big boulders in the banks were split and taken away, pebbles and sand rampantly removed, such activities sometimes being auctioned by government bodies. Inspecting the banks that have grown green in the many years since the last flood, we began to think the river would not swell again. Had we utilized the banks for tree-plantation and agriculture, no problem of scale would emerge. Instead, we began to reclaim the land for construction of homes, hospitals and other structures. It is seen in the sweeping away during early monsoon this year by Melamchi River, a source of Kathmandu Valley drinking water project, of police stations, project camps, and government buildings.
Our greed for land has gone to such an extent that some rivulets are simply confined inside large-sized reinforced concrete hume pipes, covered with soil and roads built on top, houses on the previous banks. Others are not covered completely, but harnessed in a way that the stream gets just a few feet of passage and are prevented from flowing sideways by a few meters tall concrete or gabion walls. Nobody tends to their unhappy-but-serene voices in ordinary years, but some day in decades they rage. It pours over the nearby hills and in the city, water forms a flash flood as soon as the first drops of the rain hit the ground. The hume pipes and Corinth Canal-like passage cannot fulfill the conventional duty the unharnessed Manamati, Hanumante, Tukucha and other rivers were carrying out. Clogging of hume pipes or falling of walls over narrow streams are just excuses to conceal severe underlying causes. Engineering failures are second to wisdom failures.
The above-mentioned are not the only sort of problems. Rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, public spaces including squares, temples, roadsides and footpaths have become dumping sites. Sewage is drained in ailing streams and rivers. Polluted air, dusty roads and deformed water bodies now characterize the Valley. The hope the Valley could again be inhabitable was regained only during the Covid-19 lockdowns. No surprise that recently ‘Green Kathmandu, Clean Kathmandu’ has become a sellable election slogan.
Climate change, then?
Yes, global warming and climate change do impact us. But in the case of Kathmandu, they are scapegoats. Whenever some agitating group imposes a general strike banning vehicular movements and industrial operations, the air clears the next morning. This means, basically, our local activities and attitudes determine our environment.
It is pleasing to note that Nepal is a carbon negative country. However, it does not mean that Kathmanduites have access to fresh air. Not only do man and plants exchange air. All living beings, rocks and rivers, industries and vehicles, walls and buildings breathe. It is only the manmade, the artificial, that pollutes the air. All others, though some of them may seem to pollute the air at first sight, ultimately contribute to its cleaning.
We are paying attention to global warming and cooperating with the international community in minimizing the impact of climate change. This is good. But there are also things we can do on our own to quickly produce sustainable benefits. This involves looking to our own roots, firmly holding our environment-friendly philosophy in dealing with nature, realizing that man is trusted with unparalleled power not only for his selfish needs. We have committed many blunders. We need to correct ourselves.
Let us begin by allowing water to become clean again. Let our interactions with water be friendly. Once we respect the ponds and streams, they will reciprocate. Let the water cycle be restored. Let streams breathe.
The author is professor of pharmacy, Tribhuvan University