“Water is linked with religion. Offering adequate water to thirsty people is regarded as a virtue and taking money to offer the water is a sin.”
In his Royal Proclamation in June 1840 to the people of the four castes and thirty-six sub-castes of Kathmandu, King Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah ordered,"use water for drinking only after filtering and boiling it, and then letting it become cool, as otherwise worms which exist in water eat up the liver causing death. Do not use water for drinking without doing so. Local people should work collectively on covering wells, so that rainwater may not fall into them. Avoid the use of water from fields, streams, irrigation channels and wells which have not been covered up."
This royal order for drinking water (recorded in 'Nepal, An Historical Miscellany' by Mahesh Chandra Regmi) reminds us of the long history of concern about contamination of drinking water. Nepal's drinking water supply has passed through various stages in history before today's modern system. Kathmandu's population relied on natural streams, ground water, wells, and stone spouts for centuries before Nepal's exposure to the western world.
Stone spouts were the first systematic attempt to deliver clean drinking water some distance away from its source. Stone spouts were introduced to the Valley during the Lichhavi period, in the 5th to 7th centuries. Mangaldhara of Patan is the oldest remaining stone spout in the Valley. The construction of stone spouts continued until 1828; Queen Tripurasundari, wife of King Rana Bahadur Shah, commissioned the last stone spout in Sundhara. These stone spouts were built and still exist all over the country. According to a study, there are currently 118 stone spouts still in Kathmandu, 103 in Bhaktapur and 48 in Patan. Some are still used to collect household water and as public bathing spots. Stone and metal crafts evolved with the stone spouts as new construction methods and designs were employed. Many of the fonts are shaped like the head of a snake, with the water pouring out of the mouth, honoring the connection between snakes and rain. Images of crocodile mouths were used in the same way.
Although Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana was the first prime minister to visit Europe, he seemed to ignore the reliable water supply systems used there. However, his nephew Bir Shamsher made an immense contribution to developing a reliable drinking water supply in the Valley. In 1883, with assistance from British citizens in Kathmandu, Bir Shamsher began the system of water distribution through taps. His Bir Dhara (Bir Tap) was the first modern tap. Over the decades, the tap system was developed across the country.
The Nepali government now states that it provides safe drinking water to 70 percent of the population in rural areas and 83 percent in urban areas. However, despite much progress, a steady supply of uncontaminated drinking water is far from reality.
Evolution of Drinking Water
"Water is linked with religion. Offering adequate water to thirsty people is regarded as a virtue and taking money to offer the water is a sin," says Dr. Safalya Amatya, a Nepali archeologist. "The concept to build the drinking water developed around this value."
From old Paniadda to Nepal Drinking Water Corporation, it was the responsibility of the public sector to supply water to the Valley.
Even up to the 1960s and 70s, the people of the Valley used to drink tap water without further purification. During the monsoon season especially, large numbers of people became infected with water borne diseases. After particularly serious epidemics in the 1980s, it became common to boil and/or filter water before terming it drinkable.
As water is one of the important sustaining elements for human life, people prefer to drink uncontaminated water. Yet as population grows, water contamination increases, thanks to open sewage. So despite improvement in the supply and quality, the drinking water available in the Valley from many sources is still about as unpredictable as it was during the reign of Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah. And contamination in the Valley's water is still above the standard set by the World Health Organization.
From the water spouts of the Licchavi period to the present bottled mineral water, standards and safety of drinking water have always been major concerns. Following the influx of expatriates and the flourishing tourism industry in Nepal, the demand for water quality increased dramatically. Along with the Nepal Drinking Water Corporation, which supplies the tap water in the Valley, there are many privately owned enterprises supplying water.
Increased Use of Water
As modernization brings changes to the Valley, people need more water to maintain a hygienic home. Especially due to flushing toilets and taking baths and showers, households now consume vast quantities of water. In Kathmandu, people are spending a lot of time, money and effort simply to get enough water for their everyday use. First the water is pumped from the main pipe into an underground tank, and then the water is pumped to a tank on the roof of each building. (Many people also take additional water directly from the main pipe using a water pump, which is illegal.) Water to be used for drinking is then boiled and filtered.
The Nepal Drinking Water Corporation (NDWC) charges a rate of Rs.150 (about US$2) monthly for 20 units, equivalent to 10,000 liters of water. There is a demand of about 150 million liters of water per day, but the NDWC is supplying just half of the demand. "As long as the present price structure continues, I don't think there is any possibility to provide drinking water to all in the Valley. People spend three time more to purify their drinking water at home but they oppose any move to slightly increase [water fees]," said Kaushalnath Bhattarai, general manager of the NDWC.
Many Valley residents now have to rely on buying additional tanks of water. A tank with 14,000 liters of water costs Rs.1,500 to Rs.1700 (a little over US$ 20). There are questions of the quality of this water and affects on the environment. In many places around the streams of Kathamndu, private water supply companies have built systems to collect water in tanks. Municipal authorities are legally responsible to taste and certify the quality of water delivered by these suppliers, but the municipalities have yet to make much efforts in this area. There are some reports of water companies collecting water from open rivers, which in the city are highly contaminated.
Bottled Water- Safer?
With the rise of health consciousness among local people and the expatriate community, Nepal has entered a new arena of drinking water. In the mid 1980s, bottled mineral water was introduced. In the early days, it was imported from India and other parts of the world. As the demand for bottled water in the country rose, local companies also began production.
There is a huge demand for bottled mineral water now, and marketing is aggressive. Despite questions of quality, the supply of mineral water has increased many folds. According to the Nepal Food Taste Laboratory, the government institution charged with certifying the quality of bottled mineral water, there are now 17 companies certified to provide mineral water.
The mineral water companies claim that they supply water that meets international standards, and at present the Nepal Food Taste Laboratory issues mandatory certification following an analysis of levels of chemicals and bacteria in the water as well as a taste test. "We use all modern equipment," said a senior official at the laboratory. "We do regular market monitoring and taste the water. If we find something wrong in the chemicals, we will take necessary legal actions." According to the Food Act and Regulation 2023, companies which supply inhuman foodstuffs face prison terms of three to five years plus substantial fines. Despite such provisions, quality is often compromised.
Concerns arise because at a time when Kathmandu Valley's groundwater continues to be polluted, the bottled water is produced using the same groundwater. Disposal of untreated domestic sewage, leaking septic tanks, chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and disposal of untreated industrial effluents are polluting the shallow ground water aquifer (which is the source of water for dug wells and shallow hand pumps) in the Valley. Studies show that the bacterial and chemical contamination levels in the shallow aquifer are very high. This contamination includes fecal matter, coli forms, nitrates, ammonia, iron and manganese. During the monsoon, the level of contamination is higher than in the dry season. In such a situation, production of uncontaminated mineral water is challenging. "Since the ground water is in the process of contamination in the Valley, how can one claim that mineral water is hundred percent safe?" asked one expert.
Some mineral water is relatively better in quality than others. Of the local bottled water providers, Aqua Mineral and Bottlers Nepal have well-developed plants and a documented high quality water supply. Bisleri has a reputation of offering pure water and is leading the market, but has yet to receive quality certification from the Nepal Food Taste Laboratory.
Water for All
With one of the largest water supplies in the world and many systems already developed, we can look to the future with hope that Nepal can eventually meet the challenge of providing clean drinking water for all its people.