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Kathmandu valley’s globally unique water systems

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

Anil Chitrakar


Thirteen hundred years ago, imagine a conversation where a worried person is telling another in the Kathmandu valley that someday you will have to buy water in a bottle. This would have been at a time when every neighborhood of each of the settlements would have been served by clean water that flowed from artistically carved stone water spouts, brought in to the city from the surrounding hills that were covered in lush green sub-tropical forests.

These trees on the slopes of the watershed work as a sponge that absorb the monsoon rain which fall in Nepal between the months of June and September, and release it slowly via numerous springs at the base. These sites were declared sacred and a twelve year festival instituted where all the people went to these sources, cleaned them up and carried out maintenance work. The system has served the people of the Kathmandu valley well to this day.

The Dhunge Dharas in daily use in Patan (Source: Raunak Shrestha)

With the introduction of cement and steel in the 1960s and early 1970s as the preferred building materials in the valley, the watersheds were mined for stone and sand and even marble. This was the beginning of the decline of the ancient water conduits which depend on a good monsoon and the ability of the forests to store water for the entire year. The way urban sprawl is expanding to the valley rims there is less and less room for the rainwater to go into the earth.

A Dhunge Dhara in Patan (Credits: Phunuru Sherpa)
A Dhunge Dhara in Patan (Credits: Phunuru Sherpa)

The rain water today runs off roofs, cemented driveways, and black-topped roads and then floods the areas downstream along riverbanks. After the flood waters recede, we have drought and then there is demand and a good market for water tanker services and bottled water. The government is happy because its tax revenue goes up and the country’s GDP goes up. This is the sad reality of our development narrative today. We still have to figure out how to count what really counts.

The market economy which we have taken for granted today likes shortages and the enabling environment which allows us to put water in a bottle and sell it to those who have money and are very concerned about getting richer and staying healthy. Brand loyalty, social status, aspirations, and being well informed by the media owned by the same businesses and paid advertisements make us really smart in the choices we make about what we consume.

We all know that a water business does not produce water, only plastic bottles. To argue against these make you the radical left in some parts of the world or anti development in ours. The ancient water conduits and stone spouts symbolize equity, good governance, and respect for the commons and health for all. Water for all does not have to be just a slogan.

The people of the Kathmandu valley became prosperous by managing the lucrative trade between the markets of Lhasa to the north and the Gangetic plains to the south. The successful business houses competed with each other to build the best and most ornate water spouts around the city. This is how people displayed wealth and earned merit in those days.

The planners, designers and builders of these globally unique water systems may not have gone to fancy schools but ensured that the entire system was powered by gravity, an abundant and clean source of energy. The patrons who paid for them also set up trusts where the grain grown on the land would go to the people who cleaned and maintained these systems each year during the festival of Sithi Nakkha, celebrated each year during the month of June when the water table in the valley is the lowest. Centuries later we continue to benefit from these water systems.

The article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water Initiative, or the partner/supporting institutions concerned, and cannot be held liable for its contents. All errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.


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