To the relief of Kathmandu denizens who are reeling from the acute shortage of water amid deepening winter, Melamchi water supply is set to resume soon. Set in motion in 1998 by the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board, the project was targeted to be completed by 2006 and the temporary water supply arrived in Kathmandu in March 2021. But a major disruption followed shortly after that due to the devastating flash flood in the Melamchi River on June 15 and July 31, 2021, leaving the under-construction headworks buried under over 12 metres of debris.
The floods swept away the project built over almost two decades to quench the thirst of the people of Kathmandu. They also washed away land, houses, schools, and industries in Melamchi Municipality, Helambu Rural Municipality, Panchpokhari Thangpal Rural Municipality, and Indrawati Rural Municipality. Besides, the floods wreaked havoc on roads, bridges, trout farms, livestock, and households, compelling people to seek refuge in schools and public places. The survivors are still unable to return to their former land, as everything has been washed away.
Work to complete the construction of the access road to the Melamchi headworks is nearing completion, after which the piled up debris will be removed and the way for the water to flow to the household taps in Kathmandu will be cleared. But what if the flow is disrupted again in the future due to similar causes? The recent setbacks faced by the project teach us several lessons that need to be heeded with seriousness.
First, it's a reminder that for the construction of every mega structure, climate change needs to be factored in. The catastrophic event happened at the time when the monsoon had just entered the country. And nobody expected it to be fierce enough to bring devastating floods and landslides of such a scale. Only climate change, which has made the rains erratic and melted Himalayan glaciers at an alarming rate, explains why that happened. According to the climate scientists who closely observed the phenomena, the ferocity might have been compounded by the sudden snow melt, significantly swelling the glacier-fed river. This early monsoon-season devastation was unprecedented.
Second, the project seems to have been started without taking into account adequate geological studies and thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) work. What made the matter worse was the fact that the site sits in highly earthquake and landslide prone region, which was violently shaken to its core and weakened by the 2015 catastrophic quake. Due to the fear of recurring debris flow from upstream area, water supply was suspended for the monsoon season. Meanwhile, a new intake gate is being built to replace the old one. After months of rainy season pause, the water flow is coming to the taps. The challenge remains to make the supply sustainable throughout the year.
Because there is big deficit of clean piped water in the capital valley, we have been compelled to turn to tanker water, which is extracted from underground aquifer and largely not fit for drinking. To meet the growing demand for water, our aquifers are being depleted at an unsustainable rate.
Tanker water is also exorbitantly expensive. The number of such tankers has grown so big that the environmental impact of such diesel-powered vehicles must be at detrimental level. Once pipe water starts dripping from the taps, not only will such polluting vehicles be redundant, but also people will be relieved of the astronomical cost they have been paying to the tanker water suppliers.