Even in the early 1980s, as schoolchildren trudging through slippery lanes, my friends and I sensed something was wrong with the Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC). Each monsoon, the NWSC would inconvenience pedestrians by digging trenches on narrow roads to lay down its pipes.
Twenty-five years later, the corporation is still doing the same. Kathmandu's residents, more in number today, actually pay the corporation for the water it pretends to supply.
But there is a glimmer of hope. After 49 years of the same thing, the Kathmandu segment of the corporation might be run differently. If, that is, a six-year performance-based management contract goes to a private party with international experience.
Predictably, the five politically-affiliated NWSC workers' unions, with a total membership base of about 2,000, are unhappy. Fearing that they will lose both jobs and influence, they are staging protest rallies, and calling for support. In doing so, they present an opportunity to think about broad and specific economic issues.
The broad issue is this. At a time when Maoists' stance against private property reigns unchallenged, what nature of policies should Nepal adopt, for everything from delivering essential public services to enabling entrepreneurs to turn ideas into profits? Should the government keep the NWSC afloat with soft loans worth
Rs 130 million a year even when the corporation appears to be literally throwing the money down the drain? Isn't the government better off outsourcing to a private party the core task of collecting, distributing, and billing for water?
The answers are not clear-cut. But what is increasingly so is that the new Nepal will emerge not through tiresome andolan-drunk rhetoric from political parties, but through the means politicians use to provide water, electricity, education, health care, and jobs to millions of voters.
Take the provision of water. The state created NWSC's predecessor as a utility, whose utility during Panchayat was in pleasing its political masters. The post-1990 era turned it into an employment agency for MPs, desperate to dole out jobs to loyalists. As overheads ballooned, the NWSC's quality of service fell further.
Meantime, rising urban populations coupled with low infrastructure-related investments to maintain the pipes to stop leakage meant that the number of tap connections grew little. As of 2003, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhakpatur had a total of about 180,000 connections; while 27 other locations, mostly the tarai towns, have about 84,000. What's the point of taking Mahendra Mala-imbued pride in our vast water resources if we can never harness them for accessible and affordable benefits for all Nepalis?
As a landlocked country blessed with glacier-fed rivers, Nepal doesn't lack sources of liquid assets. What it lacks are ways of accessing bodies of water, laying down the pipes for transport, filtering, storing, and distributing potable water, and enforcing a system for charging users for what they consume, while not neglecting the poor who can't pay the full price of water. Doing all these requires a sound management of money, technology, and expert personnel, none of which the NWSC is known for.
To meet Kathmandu's daily demand of about 220 million litres, it's critical to connect the Valley to new sources of water. But before doing that, it's urgent to restructure the NWSC management. If the NWSC hasn't changed for the better in the last 50 years, it's time we stopped wishing it would, and handed a management contract to a private party answerable to customers and investors.
At the least, the streets won't look like canals when next monsoon's rains come pelting down.