In the land of 6,000 rivers, a contamination crisis: Nepal’s water nightmare

In the land of 6,000 rivers, a contamination crisis: Nepal’s water nightmare

The 2015 earthquake ruined water and sanitation infrastructure across Nepal, turning access to clean water into a nightmare. Get Real looks at the issue.

NEPAL: Every day, Daya Laxmi lugs home pots of water from a nearby well for her daily needs. The water is contaminated with the E Coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria but she still uses it to wash and cook food for her children.

The water is so dirty that after Madam Laxmi washes her rice, the grains sometimes turn black.

The E Coli bacteria can cause severe diarrhoea, kidney failure and even death, but this mother of two has little choice. The family is living in a temporary government camp after the April 2015 Gorkha earthquake destroyed her village and killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal.

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Those who cannot afford to buy water, like Daya Laxmi, have to make do with murky well water.

As the government stopped delivering water to Madam Laxmi’s camp three months after the earthquake, she now relies mostly on the water from the well.

“They gave excuses like the shortage of petrol and stopped bringing water. I feel that the government has abandoned us,” she said, adding that when she approached local officials for help, they asked her to buy water instead.

But buying water is an expensive luxury for her when she is surviving on US$1 a day.

WATCH: Nepal's water crisis (2:06)


WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE, AND NOT A DROP TO DRINK

About 30 other destitute families like hers depend on contaminated water from the well. Ironically, they are living in one of the most water-abundant countries in the world where fresh water flows down the mountains, into thousands of rivers, lakes and springs.

But Nepal is suffering from a water crisis - partly due to the uncontrolled discharge of industry, domestic waste and untreated sewage into its rivers and lakes.

This situation worsened after the earthquake destroyed water systems and networks, leaving many with little access to clean, safe drinking water, as investigative programme Get Rea! finds out.

(Link: Watch the full episode here.)

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This 50,000-litre tank used to be full of spring water that Ramche Village used for irrigation. After the quake, the water stopped flowing.

In Kathmandu Valley - the most developed and populated place in Nepal - the 4 million residents there use around 320 million litres of water every day. The government, however, can only meet 20 per cent of that demand, especially during the dry season, reported The Himalayan Times.

Resident Jwala Devi Sahi said she pays at least US$1.40 a month to get water from a government-installed tap in her building. However, the water supply comes once in eight days, and only for an hour.

“There is no timetable, sometimes we get water in the morning at about 5am or sometimes in the evening at around 7pm. You never know," she said.

Sometimes I wait and wait. Sometimes we are deprived of sleep while waiting and it affects our work, but there is still no sign of water.

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This woman spends four to five hours queuing every day for water at a public water spout.

People have resorted to buying water from private water sellers who get their supplies from the water factories or rivers. But most of the water supplies in Kathmandu are contaminated.

To find out how unsafe the water is, Get Rea! took samples of water from six sites in Nepal. The samples were sent to the Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) to be tested.

What it found: Water from a well, public stone spouts and a tanker contained the E Coli bacteria. In Nepal, one of the main causes of death among children is diarrhoeal dehydration caused by contaminated water.

Water activist Prakash Amatya was appalled at some of the results. “I cannot imagine people using this water (from the well) for cooking, which is completely unacceptable,” he said.

SEEPING SEWAGE

Of all the samples that Get Rea! took for testing, the water from the well was the most contaminated as it was located next to a severely polluted river.

Some 6,000 rivers flow through Nepal - but none of those in the Kathmandu Valley are clean.

The World Health Organization estimates that 60 tonnes of household waste are dumped into these rivers every day. When this toxic water infiltrates the ground, it pollutes the groundwater which supplies water to some of these wells.

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If this natural spring source dries up, Shayam would have no choice but to move away from his ancestral village.

But polluted rivers are not the only factor - the biggest culprit is the sewage system. Built 200 to 300 years ago, many of these pipes are broken and leaking sewage

Mr Phatta Bahadur Chhetri, division chief of the department of water supply and sewerage, said that many of the sewerage pipes within Kathmandu valley were also damaged during the earthquake.

“As a result, the sewage leaked through the water pipes and got mixed with stone taps. In some places it got mixed with the dug wells, affecting the water quality,” he said.

While tests of the bottled water and tap water samples came up clean, ENPHO’s founder Bipin Dangol was not so optimistic.

ENPHO did its own water tests previously and found that most of the water sources were contaminated.

There is no water in Kathmandu that you can drink directly because most of the water supply in Kathmandu is very contaminated.

“The piped (treated) water supply may get contaminated during transmission. So, the only option is to remove all the old pipes and lay new pipes," he said.

NO CHLORINATED WATER PLEASE, SAY LOCALS

Thanks to an unreliable water supply, the number of private water sellers, both licensed and unlicensed, has gone up, with 250 water bottling factories in the Kathmandu Valley alone.

But these unlicensed water sellers are one of the reasons why country is in such a dire situation. Some of them over-extract water from the ground, streams and rivers.

This over-extraction of ground water prevents the government from using these sources to augment the city supply.

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A dried-up water tank in Nepal.

Ganga Prasad Anganja owns a licensed water factory near Kathmandu city where water sellers fill their tankers at his premises. This water supplied to the tankers is filtered simply – only to remove particles and iron.

Mr Ganga claims that his water is safe for consumption, even though it is usually used for construction purposes. “Those who cannot afford mineral water use this to drink or cook. It’s not that bad,” he said.

Chlorine is a cheap and easy solution to treat the water as it kills bacteria that causes water-borne diseases. But chlorinated water isn’t popular in Nepal.

Shankar Paudel, a laboratory technician from the department of water supply and sewerage, said: “The treated water gives a kind of pungent odor. So the locals don’t like to buy and drink such treated water.”

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Water from a tank in Nepal.

The government of Nepal in 1998 had pledged to ease Kathmandu Valley’s chronic water situation through the multi-million dollar Melamchi Drinking Water Project. The plan was to build a 27-km tunnel from Melamchi River to Kathmandu Valley, bringing 170 million litres of water a day.

It was supposed to take only 10 years to finish, but 20 years on, the Melamchi project is still uncompleted partly due to funding issues.

With just 4km left to be built, many expect the project to be completed soon. But even then, it would help the government meet only half of Kathmandu’s current demand.

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Nepal’s biggest engineering feat – the Melamchi Tunnel – cuts through mountains to bring snowmelt to Kathmandu Valley.

THE SOLUTION: HARVEST RAINWATER?

Mr Prakash believes that rainwater harvesting is the answer to their water crisis, where people collect and store rainwater during the monsoon, which lasts for about three months.

The water is cleaned by a sand filter that removes dirt particles, and this supply could aid them during the dry months.

One public school in Kathmandu City has 50,000 litres of water in reserve after trying out this system. Mr Prakash said: “We have tested this water in the laboratory and it is certified that this is potable water.”

Rainwater harvesting in Nepal is encouraged by some municipalities which even provide tax rebates for those keen to incorporate it in their building.

However, it is not widely taken up as many people don’t know how it works. Mr Prakash hopes that the take-up rate will improve if the government trains the building consultants and the contractors.

“My boy is already 12 years old. I don't know if in his lifetime he will have water supply 24/7, and that can be drunk directly from the tap. But I would like to see more rain water structures incorporated in homes,” he said.

Watch the full Get Rea! episode here. Get Rea! is taking a season break and will be back in mid-2017.

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This is a common sight in Nepal - people queuing up for hours for water.

Source: CNA/yv

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