March 28, 2011, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 04 No.-19 Mar.25-2011 (Chaitra 11,2067)

Tens of thousands of people go for a long walk to get a bucket of drinking water. In rural parts of Nepal and urban areas, all people face more or less similar problems. Despite claims of Nepal being a country rich in water resources, we are yet to be able to supply water to all by 2015. Of course, the country has more than 6000 rivers with abundant waters. Studies have shown that the surface water available in the country is estimated to be about 225 Billion Cusec Meter per annum. However, the reality is different in terms of supply of water. Less than 70 percent of the population has access to water. We have to accept the reality that nobody can guarantee the question of quality of water. From institutional arrangement to capability, Nepal has already faced a number of problems related to water supply.  Particularly, the people living in the urban areas have to face very difficult tasks. The climate change is going to have adverse impacts on the availability of water and water will be the hardest hit by the climate change. 

This way I am excited to speak on the slogan Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenges. There is no doubt that the number of urban population has been rising and many rural people are shifting to the urban areas. The foremost important challenges they will face after migrating to the urban centres will be drinking water. Of course, there are problems of drinking water in rural areas too but the problem is much severe in urban areas in the context of growing population. For instance, the population of the Kathmandu valley is now almost 5 million but the infrastructure for water distribution is designed to meet less than one million people. This kind of a situation is there in all parts of the city.

All the cities in Nepal have been facing the problems of drinking water. Whether they are the newly emerging towns like Bharatpur or old cities like Bhaktapur, drinking water is inadequate. The gap of supply and demand is so huge in the urban areas that one cannot deny a major conflict on water in the coming days if Nepal fails to build the institutional mechanism.

Water has no substitution and there is no life without water. This is the reason celebrating the water week has significance. As water is life, it needs to be distributed equally to all. More than 80 percent of populations have access to drinking water but we cannot guarantee that the water supplied to the people is absolutely safe for drinking. The gap between rich and poor is widening in urban areas as well as rural parts of Nepal. The challenges for coming days will be to fill the gap.

Kathmandu Valley has been facing chronic drinking water problems. A large number of people do not have access to water. Even those people who have access to piped water don’t get safe and quality water. Despite the possibility to increase the supply of water by containing leakage, we are unable to do so. With a high priority, the government of Nepal has been executing the Melamchi Drinking Water project to solve the crisis of drinking water of Kathmandu. We conceptualized Melamchi in 1996 and, in the year 2002, we had the target to bring the water in the valley through a 29-kilometer tunnel by 2012. Despite tender award three years ago, we are yet to move as expected to meet our target.  We need to ask the question what we did till now. I have to admit the fact that nobody can predict when the Melamchi will complete given the current situation.

Amidst this gloomy picture, there are some positive signs too. Nepal government has recently made Melamchi as a flagship project. There is a unit to look after the progress of the project and we are taking all necessary steps to complete the project. After taking this initiative, the construction of the project has gradually accelerated. This is good news.

We have to accept the fact that bringing Melamchi project is not going to solve the problems related to water. Next problem will be the distribution of the water. Whether we will be able to do equitable water distribution or not is another important question. In Kathmandu, Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Ltd (KUKL) has already started the improvement of distribution areas as well as ways to bridge the gap.

Water has multiple uses. We need water for drinking, irrigation and generation of hydro power. In case, the government fails to manage the water distribution, there will be a conflict in the future. There is enough indication for this kind of situation. For instance, the dispute between upper riparian and lower riparian has been there. Another question is about rights to use the water, whether water is for irrigation or drinking or power generating purpose. The questions of water user’s rights and so on will be major challenges. The time has come for all us to think in this direction.

Nepal has been passing though a post transition period of a long bloody conflict.  If we are unable to address this issue, the country has to face other conflicts that are going to be related to the conflict on water sharing.  Even now the conflict between Melamchi’s residents and Kathmandu’s population has already gown on the issue of who need to get the priority.

Of course the slogan of this years’ world water day is excellent but the time to live in the sweet slogan has gone. What we need is action and commitment to translate the slogan into reality. If we are able to do so, we can make a lot of difference.
(Ghimire is the chief secretary of Government of Nepal. Excerpts of his statement delivered at a program organized to mark the World Water Day)

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