The Bagmati River is an open sewer. The odour that assails one is proof of everything that has gone wrong with this metropolis: the exponential urbanisation, the lack of planning, haphazard growth and non-existent waste management.
"That flat area used to be paddy fields," says Hom Prasad Banskota, 83, pointing to Jorpati across the Bagmati from Gothatar heights. Now it is built over with new houses, not a shred of green fields is visible. Krishna Prasad Banskota, 73, blames democracy for the urban disarray: "We used to drink water from the river. Now, you can't stand the stink of the river."
The High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation is trying to save what is left. But it is an uphill task. Says the Committee's Ram Chandra Devkota, "We need more waste treatment plants, and we also need to recharge the groundwater, harvest rainwater and build check dams to revive the river."
The city plan prohibits building construction within 20 metres of either side of the river, but that rule has been ignored for a long time now. The Committee plans to develop a green belt of 12 metres on either bank and an 8 metre road. But demarcating the river border is a real problem as the land is already registered in the names of individuals.
The health of a city's river says a lot about the city itself. There are a few bright spots along the stretch of the Bagmati, mostly on account of local endeavours, but we will all need to be involved if we are to bring the river back to life.
The source of the Bagmati lies in Shivapuri National Park.
The water is still relatively clean here, despite significant upstream settlements where government has neglected to spread awareness of sanitation, hygiene, and sustainable farming practices. Syalmati and Nagmati join the Bagmati to be channelled into Sundarijal reservoir, which runs a mini-hydropower plant. The entirety of the water is then supplied to the Valley as drinking water, with only seepage going to the river.
Sundarijal to Gokarna
The river course begins to fill up again, this time with raw sewage. The High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation is busy constructing river training between Sundarijal and Gujeswori. Suburban housing is gradually advancing towards the riverbanks.
Ducks make merry in the muck. The river has become a prime location for duck husbandry.
A wastewater treatment plant was built 10 years ago to help clean up the river as it flows through Pashupati, but the volume of effluent is too big to manage anymore. It only sieves out solid waste and diverts the worst of the river to Tilganga. Local youth have endeavoured to keep at least their stretch of the river clean, by holding periodic sessions to pick out rubbish around the temple of Gujeswori.
The holy site of Pashupati, when the river has water to accept the cremated remains of the deceased, looks like a mini-Varanasi. For all the wrong reasons.
From here on, where the diversion rejoins the river, the Bagmati is an open drain. Yellow household sewage empties into the river in fat pipes. It's clear that if the drains did not empty into the river, the Bagmati wouldn't have any water at all.
The sight is apocalyptic. Mountains of rubbish, carcasses of buffaloes, flocks of scavenging birds, bedraggled children sorting the rubbish for recycling. If you want to see how idyllic Kathmandu has turned into hell, go to Teku.
Legend has it that Manjushree let out the waters of the Kathmandu Valley lake by cleaving the hills at Chobhar with a sword. There is a park here and an extensive complex of caves that is becoming popular by the day. The air inside these caves is cool and fresh, unlike the open air above the festering gorge.
About 600 metres away from Chobhar gorge, Tau Daha is an oxbow lake left behind by the Bagmati. A local committee was formed six years ago and cleaned up the lake, but it lacks a proper drainage system and the committee can't intervene in the ongoing construction around the lake.
The construction of a proposed UN Park site from Sankhamul to Teku is one of the few areas of greenery still to be seen along the river, but the government hasn't allocated any money for its further development. Squatters have occupied most of the park. Surya Bhakta Shrestha, executive director of the UN Park Development Committee, is blunt: "This place is not in anyone's priority."
Surprisingly, the section taken on by the United Nations Women's Organization in Jwagal has proved to be a hit. It's slightly unkempt, but the rare slice of greenery does draw the crowds, despite the summer stench.
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