The Bagmati River Basin (BRB) has a cultural and economic significance to the people of Nepal. The water flowing in the Bagmati River is considered holy and is used for cultural and ritual ceremonies practiced at the many significant temples located along its banks. The river flows through Kathmandu which is the administrative and economic center of the country as well as Nepal’s gateway for tourism. It provides most of the city’s drinking water in its upper basin, hydropower generation in the middle basin, and large-scale irrigation in the lower basin.
BRB is considered the most water stressed basin in Nepal. The basin is seeing a decline in water resources availability owing to natural and anthropogenic causes while experiencing significant increases in fresh water demand to meet the expanding population and industrial sector, and demands for irrigated agriculture. The rapid and unplanned expansion of Kathmandu City has placed tremendous pressure on the water resources of the upper BRB. In the absence of appropriate solid waste and waste water management, the river has become the main waste collector drain: it now contains high levels of fecal contamination, pathogenic bacteria, bacteriological and physicochemical pollutants. The absence of pollution safety measures has created serious health hazards to local people, livestock, and aquatic flora and fauna, while its physical deterioration has led to a loss of cultural and recreational amenity for the local communities whom no longer respect or cherish the river environment. Rapid urbanization has also led to increased demands on the valley’s water supply distribution. During dry season, around 80% of the upper Bagmati River flow is diverted for domestic use leaving very little flow for irrigation and other sectors including environment. Current utilization of surface water is only 10% as water in rainy season is untapped due to absence of seasonal storage facilities. As a result, municipal authorities, individuals and companies continue to extract groundwater at an unsustainable rate. Ground water extraction is estimated to be 4 to 5 times higher than the natural recharge and the water table has retreated by 35 meters (m) in the last 20 years. The situation is further aggravated by: (i) the conversion of the recharge areas into residential areas, and (ii) upstream catchment degradation. In the Kathmandu valley, the river is biologically dead and made of heavily polluted sewage water that endangers the health of the capital’s population and downstream water users. Throughout the basin, frequent floods and river bank erosion are the main threat to infrastructure, agricultural land, people’s lives, and their livelihoods.
Until now the planning, development and management of water resources in BRB has been generally ad-hoc, uncoordinated and reactive. Government agencies have operated in isolation leading to ineffective investments and inequitable allocation of water for human needs, productive use, and the environment. This hampers the government’s development efforts to improve water security in the basin. The government now recognizes the importance of addressing these problems by moving away from this silo-management approach and embracing the principals of IWRM. The current Water Resources Act (1993) has sought to quantify existing use and allocation rights.1Subsequent strategy and planning documents2 recognized the importance of IWRM and established the need for holistic and systematic management and development of water resources. They also ensured conservation of resources and protection of the environment. The Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project (BRBIP) will support the effort in developing appropriate legal and institutional frameworks for operationalizing the IWRM approach and develop a model that can be replicated in the other basins of the country.
In 2009, the government approved the Bagmati Action Plan (2009-2014)3 to address the poor state of the river and its tributaries in Kathmandu Valley. The Plan has the vision of “a clean, green and healthy river system that is full of life and valued by all” and provides a long list of interventions that collectively aim to restore and conserve the river environment in the valley. Some of these interventions are already being implemented by the High Powered Committee for the Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization (HPCIDBC) but due to lack of capacity and funds many of the plan recommendations are still to be implemented. The government has also sought to address drinking water scarcity and improve wastewater management in Kathmandu Valley through several ADB-financed projects.4 However, while these projects will address the immediate human needs, they do not resolve other critical priorities of the basin inhabitants nor provide a long-term sustainable management framework for BRB.
Where the Bagmati River enters the Tarai plain, frequent floods and river bank erosion have become the main threat to people’s livelihoods. The worst recent flood, in 1993, claimed 789 lives, affected 30,200 people and caused major damage to houses and public infrastructure in the lower reaches alone. The BRBIP will support the development and implementation of a flood forecasting and warning system for the entire Bagmati Basin.
Such priorities were identified and developed under the Capacity Development TA “Supporting Investment on Water Security in River Basins”5 which strategically assessed current and planned interventions from a river basin perspective. The TA produced a basin strategic investment road map and initiated studies aiming at resolving critical priorities. In particular, it produced a water balance and quality model to assess the interventions that are required to restore the environment in the Upper Bagmati River (UBR) and achieving bathing standards at Pashnupatinath and Gokarna. Interventions identified include: (i) physical restoration of the urban riparian environment and social mobilization to reconnect riverine communities with their river; (ii) increasing water availability in the river during the dry season to raise the river’s assimilative capacity; and, (iii) strategic placement of wastewater treatment facilities with higher treated effluent standards. The need for a flood forecasting and early warning system was also identified as a critical priority, particularly in the lower basin where communities are regularly suffering from extreme flood hazards.