Nepal's thirsty capital loses ancient taps to construction

From early morning, housewives carrying buckets and brass pots queue in the back streets of Nepal's capital for the free water pumped from a network of ancient stone spouts.

AFP| Last Updated: Dec 29, 2014, 02:37 AM IST

Kathmandu: From early morning, housewives carrying buckets and brass pots queue in the back streets of Nepal's capital for the free water pumped from a network of ancient stone spouts.

A lifeline in a city with erratic government supplies and expensive private alternatives, Kathmandu's intricately carved communal spouts have survived invasions and earthquakes.

But the centuries-old water taps are now suffering from a much more modern threat, the rapid development of the chaotic capital, to the despair of thousands of Kathmandu's residents who depend on them.

"We don't have the luxury of buying water for everyday use... I don't know what I will do if this stone spout dries up," mother-of-three Namita Maharjan, 34, said as she waited to collect water near her home.

The population of sprawling Kathmandu has expanded by 60 percent in a decade, according to Nepal's 2011 census, with some 2.5 million people requiring 350 million litres of water per day.

But the struggling city's government is only able to meet about half that demand and private companies charge up to $11 for 1000 litres (264 gallons) -- an unaffordable price for many residents -- making the free taps a critical part of Kathmandu's infrastructure.

For Maharjan, whose husband earns just $150-200 a month, the threat of losing her neighbourhood spout -- which she describes as a "blessing" -- is terrifying.

Already more than half of the valley's 389 spouts have fallen into disrepair, according to a 2006 survey by the Kathmandu-based NGO, Forum for Urban Water and Sanitation (NGOFUWS).

More are expected to dry up as unregulated construction blocks underground water channels, which has prompted some residents to dig their own tube wells indiscriminately.
Hotels, construction firms and private industries are also digging their own wells, which has caused an alarming dip in the groundwater table. Between 1995 and 2013, levels fell by an average of 2.5 metres (98 inches) per year, according to government figures.

"Unplanned urbanisation and over-extraction of groundwater is crushing the ancient supply system of the spouts," says NGOFUWS secretary Anil Sthapit.

The spouts dotted throughout Kathmandu date back to the sixth century when the city, now a traffic-clogged concrete jungle, was home to hundreds of temples.

A prince belonging to the Licchavi dynasty built the taps, known as "dhunge dhara" in Nepali, in a bid to provide clean drinking water to citizens.