water management | water crisis | sustainable use of resource | development model

Birgunj clock tower | Photo by: Shashi Baranwal
Birgunj clock tower | Photo by: Shashi Baranwal

Environment

Insufficient rainfall and concretisation push Birgunj into alarming water crisis

The crisis that emerged in Birgunj Metropolitan City is a consequence of limited discourse on the model of local level development and sustainable use of resources. It should be alarming as the exploitation of Chure remains as it is.

By Vivek Baranwal |

In the Terai plains, fresh and clean water pumped out of tube wells or hand pumps is used for daily needs — from drinking to household chores. However, a water crisis is looming in the plains, mostly in populated urban cities, as emerged evidently in Birgunj, where the residents have been facing an acute shortage of drinking water for weeks now. The groundwater table in the city has dropped, leaving the hand pumps dry.

It has been one and a half months since the hand pump at the house of Ashok Kushwaha in Ward 13 of Birgunj dried. Notably, the hand pump was installed after digging as deep as 89.92 metres (295 feet) below the surface. Until a few weeks ago, he would fill the water tank at his house setting up his water motor to a neighbour’s hand pump, which also dried soon.

Similarly, the hand pump at Rohit Gupta’s house located in Ward 16 pumps out little to no water before dawn until the sun heats the surface, and over dusk as the surface cools down. The hand pump functions properly when it drizzles and the weather cools down, according to him.

“This time (summer) it didn’t rain at all but only drizzled and subsequently Kal (hand pump) dried,” say both.

About 27,490 hand pumps, both privately owned and in the community, are installed across all 32 wards. A survey carried out by Birgunj Metropolitan City (BMC) suggests at least 90% of hand pumps in 18 wards of a total of 32 — 1 to 17 and 19 — in the southern belt of the metropolis have dried.

The crisis affects at least 167,199 people in these 18 urban wards who account for 61.38% of the metropolitan’s total population.

According to Bhogendra Chapagain, chief of the Drinking Water branch at BMC, the water table which should not be lower than 8.84 metres (29 feet) from the ground surface has fallen down beyond 9.14 metres up to approximately 11 metres. 

“Hand pump operates on antigravity… [and] the water level should be maintained at least 29 feet for it [hand pump] to pull water from the depth the pipe [of hand pump] is installed to,” he told the_farsight over the phone, adding: “After the level [table] drops beyond 30 feet, the hand pump cannot fetch water.”

“When it rains on roads, the water goes into the drainage and further flushes out into sewage or rivers. Growing concrete and cement has blocked groundwater replenishment,” he said, adding: “Due to this, the [water] table has moved down.”

There are a total number of 47,114 households in the metropolis, as per the latest census, out of which only 12,925 households have a supply connection (Sarkari dhara) from Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC).

The demand for new water supply connections has soared up to at least 50 new applications a day, while the corporation delivers only 20 new connections in a lack of human resources, according to Chapagain. 

Earlier, BMC had announced a scheme to provide water supply connections to 4,000 households free of cost in coordination with the Birgunj branch of the NWSC.

It has been more than 15 days since Kushwaha, a resident of Ward 13, applied for a connection under the scheme. As his application remains unattended, he prepares to apply for a connection privately. For now, his household depends on a nearby private school for daily water needs.

“Mahanagar had announced free water supply connection to 4,000 households urging to get a recommendation from [the] ward and fulfil process at Khanepani Sansthan,” Kushwaha told the_farsight over a phone call, adding: “[The scheme] however seems lost somewhere, so I am preparing to apply for a connection on my own expenses.”

The crisis occurred at the same time when the scheme was supposed to go under implementation, BMC chief of drinking water Chapagain said.

“There’s a lack of human resources on Khanepani Sansthan’s side,” he said, adding: “The manpower who would have been putting up new connections under the scheme are falling short even to provide new connections to those who paid for them days ago.”

According to Niran Maharjan, chief of the Birgunj branch of NWSC, plumbers who work privately are called on to enlist themselves with the corporation so that they can be mobilised to fulfil the demand for new connections.

Amid the crisis, a group of youths in Ward 16 took up the job to clean and repair a traditional family well in their locality. Binay Patel, a group member, said the well was in operation till a man fell into it and succumbed in 2007. People would hesitate to use the water after the incident.

“However, people used the well by cleaning it until their access to hand pumps, electricity, and electric water motors increased,” he said, adding: “And it is now when we feel the necessity of reviving the well so that we can fulfil a few needs such as washing clothes, bathing and for washroom purposes.”

According to BMC estimates, there are as many as 296 traditional wells in the metropolis. The City is quietly moving inchmeal to finding, cleaning, and preserving the wells given a lack of working human resources, according to Chapagain.

“After the crisis emerged, we took into account that wells should be searched, preserved, and maintained,” he said, adding: “We have begun locating wells but we cannot immediately expedite their operations due to lack of human resources that can wholly be dedicated to cleaning such wells..”  

Engineer Kishori Prasad Yadav is the chief of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Division Office, Bara — a Madhes government authority that looks after drinking water and sanitation in Bara and Parsa districts. the_farsight asked him if a crisis is reported in other parts of Parsa and Bara or the entire province for that matter and the causes behind such crises.

“Slight issues in accessing drinking water are being reported in other places of the province, however not as much to call it a crisis as it is in Birgunj,” he said, adding: “Less rainfall this summer and increasing concretisation [in the name of beautification and development] are aiding the present crisis.”

According to him, the hand pumps installed at depths as deep as 76.2 metres (250 feet), which is about sea level, in urban settlements of Birgunj have dried up.

“A few days ago, a meeting of the Madhes Province Disaster Management Executive Committee was held in Janakpur in view of the Birgunj water crisis,” Yadav said, adding: “I suggested allocating an emergency drinking water fund as an immediate action since the water tankers and managing the crisis cost money. A fund would ease the crisis management.”

A fund is however unlikely this month given the new fiscal year started about two weeks ago only, he added.

Yadav seconded BMC drinking water chief Chapagain on the cause behind the crisis. He blames the development model in the urban settlements. “The concretisation of roads and compounds of houses and buildings that blocks water from entering the ground, due to which the groundwater cannot get recharged is a major reason in the city areas where the water table has slid down.”

Yadav warned that a crisis might emerge in other settlements that lie in the Bhawar region (the southern belt of the province) if it doesn’t rain soon, which would also provide immediate respite from the dry summer.

Is Chure exploitation a cause of the water crisis in Birgunj?

“Yes, definitely. It is not hidden from anyone,” Engineer Yadav said.

The metropolitan area of Birgunj elongates 25 kilometres from the international border in the south to the feet of jungles Parsa National Park in the north, with elevation ranging from 78 metres to 93 metres above sea level. Thus rendering the Chure an impactful player in the ecological cycle of Birgunj.

“As the soil and rocks are mined from the rivers in the Chure, the water does not get to hold and continues flowing. This means the groundwater does not recharge,” he said, adding: “The government must carry out research to identify zones where soil and rocks can be mined from impacting the ecological cycle less.”

The mining should be regulated, he later added.

Similarly, the cutting down of trees in the Chure is another reason why rainwater does not get a hold and flows down by the river or floods the settlements of Bhawar.

Getting back to the Birgunj water crisis, currently, BMC in partnership with NWSC, Birgunj is setting up at least 10 public taps per ward, and sending water tankers to areas where the pipe network of the corporation is yet to be built.

Observers such as Gupta, a resident of Ward 16, say people would bring a big drum in an e-rickshaw to the public taps, fill the drum and move to their homes.

Issuing a notice on July 21, the City put a ban on installing deep boring without prior permission and placed a fine provision of at least Rs 5,000 for violation of the ban. In regard to this, Chapagain said, “To prevent random deep boring can further lower the water table, Mahanagar is working on developing criteria to install deep borings that will likely allow one community deep boring for every 30-40 households. Until then it is banned.”

On July 27, BMC issued a timetable notice urging the public to collect water from the tanks sent to their wards at given times. The tankers would be sent to Wards 1 to 17, 22, 24, and 26 between 5 AM to 8 PM, the notice said.

Meanwhile, on July 20, lawmaker Pradeep Yadav elected from Parsa constituency 1 drew the attention of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ towards the alarming crisis in Birgunj. 

Similarly, on July 22, leaders from Parsa district committees of seven parties issued a joint press release demanding NWSC, Birgunj, all three tiers of the government, and relevant stakeholders intervene in the crisis. The parties include Nepali Congress, Janata Samajbadi Party, CPN (Maoist Centre), Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Janamat Party, CPN (Unified Socialist), and Nagarik Unmukti Party.

However, the federal or provincial government agencies have done little to assist in managing the crisis, let alone overcoming it, so far.

(The Chure exploitation in this piece needs depth. A follow-up piece is likely).

Vivek Baranwal is sub-editor at the_farsight.

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