18-24 March 2016 #800

Going with the flow

World Water Day on 22 March must be an occasion to preserve Kathmandu's ancient waterspouts
Liew Yu Wei

Pic: Liew Yu Wei

Kathmandu’s water scarcity problems date back to the Licchavi period, when the Valley experienced a population boom due to an influx of settlers. To meet their water needs, ancient royal engineers constructed an impressive hydraulic system via underground channels and stone waterspouts.

Today, Kathmandu’s population is exploding once more and the Valley is facing another water crisis. A 26 km tunnel to bring water from the snowfed Melamchi is still two years away, and the capital’s 3.5 million people have had to fall back on the network of water channels built 500 years ago. But even these sunken water sources, called hiti, are running dry because of the lack of maintenance.

“I remember as a child there was lots of water in the hiti, till even 30 years ago it would be gushing out and people bathed in it,” remembers Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), who says the taps are drying up because the foundations of new buildings destroyed the channels.

There were once more than 600 hitis in Kathmandu, and by 2006 only 400 were functioning. Today, they are down to 60, according to the Forum for Urban Water and Sanitation (FUWS). Most of the spouts are ‘dead’, with no outflow at all.

“Poor urban planning and a lack of information about the network of underground conduits contributed to the disappearance of hitis,” explains Anil Sthapit at FUWS. As communities around the waterspouts grew, foundations for new houses were dug recklessly, often severing underground channels.

Ponds that served as aquifers feeding the channels were built over, drying up public spouts like the oldest stone spout in Patan, Manga Hiti. “This is the first time I’ve seen it dry,” says Ranjitkar, “even last year during the dry season at least there was a tiny trickle of water.”

The ground water table under the Valley is also falling because of over-extraction. With no regulations on digging wells, families desperate for water have been drilling deeper. Surface runoff that used to recharge groundwater is intercepted by buildings and sidewalks and there is no seepage.

Even when the water does flow in the remaining hiti, it is now increasingly contaminated. A study in 2007 found high iron content and mica in samples of water from hitis across Kathmandu. Hiti and well water also contain organic pollutants because of seepage of untreated waste from septic tanks.

The conservation of the Valley’s hitis is important not just to ensure water supply, but also because they have historical and cultural significance, and form an important part of Newari festivals and rituals.

With no other water source, will the people turn back to the hitis? Sthapit’s answer is no. “We lost ownership of protecting our hitis years ago. Now we have lost the ponds, it is too late,” he says.

Even so, there is a revival of interest in heritage conservation among local communities and the Lalitpur municipality. Attention is slowly being given to reviving stone waterspouts in neighbourhoods of the Valley’s towns. In Patan, restoration work has begun on another ancient waterspout, the Sauga Hiti.

Read also:

Pipe dreams, Ajaya Dixit

Going with the flow, Uzabi Baidar

Piped water still a piped dream, Kenji Kwok