Fragile City


Human Rights Officer, NHRC
On Twitter : follow @Apocalyptyst

It’s been several years I have lived with this noise. The noise that goes on at least for an hour once it begins. It leaves me little unnerved every time I hear it. My usually unfriendly next house neighbor uses this loud booster electric pump to suck out the underground water that serves her horde of tenants and herself. The sound of her pump is amazingly irritating and alarming. Alarming because the way they are extracting groundwater 2-3 times a day in such manner terrifies me that my house might actually start sinking someday.

In Kathmandu, what my neighbor does is a pretty common sight and most of you must be viewing this matter with a sense of normalcy. But, trust me, unsustainable groundwater extraction does cause serious consequences and it deserves immediate attention. Here’s how.

KUKL has its piped water connection grid to most parts of Kathmandu but the supply is minimal. Currently, the demand of potable water in Kathmandu shows to be 320 million litre per day while KUKL only supplies 160 million liter water per day. Rest of the water need is fulfilled through the unspecified numbers of dug wells, hand pumps and boring water. Besides, 50% of total water supply by KUKL during wet season and 60-70% during dry season is received from groundwater alone and only 30-40% of the remaining from the surface sources. This shows how heavily we are dependent upon the underground aquifers (a porous deposit of rock, such as a sandstone, containing water that can be used to supply wells) to meet our water needs. 

Rising demand to fulfill the needs of growing population, the urban sprawl and the wrong water usage habit is causing extraction of water from these aquifers faster than it is recharged causing the water table to lower. And constructions of new high rise building, apartments, and house colonies are only accelerating the demand of more of the underlying fresh water.

The worse part, the water that is pumped up from the ground hardly returns to the aquifer. Much of the extracted water turns to the liquid waste and mix up with sewage to end up untreated to the rivers. The aquifers are generally replenished over time by rain and land water but since most of the land (apparently almost 83%) in Kathmandu have been covered by concrete and pitched surface, infiltration of rain water to the underground is difficult. The rain water directly runs off to the rivers. The annual recharge of ground water in Kathmandu is about 14.6 million cubic meters only, hydrogeological studies reveal. This quantity is far less than what is extracted.

The water beneath the soil is responsible to hold up the ground and when this water is removed, the earth balance is disturbed and causes the land to sink. If the process continues over a long period of time, even large cities can subside. Such land subsidences are actually occurring in Kathmandu valley in Shantibasti area, Hyumat tole and Imadole. Moreover, Sinamangal, Sanepa, Naradevi, Gwarko, Lainchour, New Road, Tahachal, Swoyambhu, Naxal, Tripureshwor, Thimi and Teku are at high risk of subsidence. No wonder Kathmandu is being compared to the sinking Mexico City with similar geological conditions. 

Picture of the colonial cathedral of the sinking Mexico City. Apartments have started to tilt; roads have started looking like a roller coaster there. Kathmandu might face the same situation. image source : http://bit.ly/Zbb2RK
The story doesn’t end here. When the water is extracted from the ground, the nearby river water gradually flows to replace this vacant space, soil acting as a huge sponge. This causes the sewage and chemical pollutants mixed river water to travel to the fresh groundwater and contaminate it making it completely unusable to drink. Unplanned dumping of domestic and industrial waste in nearest river or any vacant land is a common sight in Kathmandu. So next time you come across disturbing sight of the local river in Kathmandu, have a look at the murky, stench water in it and imagine, a part of that water can travel all the way through your ground water to reach the glass of water you drink. Sounds gross, doesn’t it? 

Water flows or the sewage in Bagmati? image source : A BRUTAL RAPE : 'Rainbow City' People civilized Bagmati!
It’s sad but true. Water quality parameters in most parts of Kathmandu exceeds WHO guidelines for drinking water including arsenic contamination and presence of E. coli.
Yes! We dump waste like this. Image : Jaw Knock Raazaa 
Over the time, the contaminated ground water cleanses itself naturally. However, this time might be hundred to thousand years, more so because ground water is stagnant. We humans, who can fix it, are not making much effort. Artificial recharging(spreading water over the land in pits, furrows, or ditches, or to erect small dams in stream channels or constructing recharge wells and injecting water directly into an aquifer) is a miraculous solution to restore the quality and quantity of water but not much have been practiced in Kathmandu. The next option is even more effective in a long run. Rainwater harvesting! A simple process of collecting rain water in soak-pits or collection tanks built on the terrace of the houses and sending the water to bore well through a pipeline to recharge the groundwater instead of running it off into drainage such that it ends up to meet the sewage in the river. Owing to the average annual rainfall it receives and the suitable geology of the sub-surface ground of the city, rainwater harvest for the recharge is a very nice option. The good thing about rain water harvesting is that it can be practiced at local levels. And the bad thing is it uses the little bit of space. Growing Kathmandu city where every inch of available land is converted into rooms, however small or uncomfortable it might be, this idea is still a bit unwelcoming. I don’t have many hopes from government. We don’t even have sufficient and efficient water laws in Nepal yet. They haven’t even succeeded in banning plastic bags in Kathmandu yet.

People in general do not take these issues seriously until it starts taking a heavy toll in their lives. It’s underground. You can not see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It is.

And my exasperation continues as my water extravagant neighbor doesn’t even bother to 
switch off the machine even after the water from her tank overflows for hours and the water keep on flowing down her terrace like a small stream. Some people should really learn some water etiquette, no?

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(The writer has done M.Sc. in environmental science from Tribhuwan Univeristy, Kirtipur, Nepal.)

References:
  1. Kathmandu Valley Groundwater Outlook
  2. Kathmandu junsukai bela bhasine khatara by Pramod Tondon published in Naya Partika, 1st August, 2011.
  3. Water, Water Everywhere: Rainwater Potentials of Kathmandu http://www.nepalmonitor.com/2010/03/water_water_everywhere_rainwater_potentials_of_kathmandu.html


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