According to the preliminary report of the 2021 Nepal Census, Biratnagar Metropolitan City has a population of 244,750 inhabitants living in 45,204 households. Biratnagar Metropolitan City expects that population to nearly double by 2035 to reach 487, 852.

In 2009, the World Bank reported that Nepal was one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world with 16.4% of the country’s population living in urban areas compared to just 8.8% in 1990. Realising the inadequacy of urban infrastructure to sustain a growing population, especially in Nepal’s secondary towns, the Government of Nepal with the support of the Asian Development Bank began working on effective, efficient, and reliable delivery of improved and affordable municipal services.

The project, Secondary Towns Integrated Urban Environmental Improvement Project (STIUEIP) focused on three towns: Biratnagar, Birgunj, and Butwal. STIUEIP Biratnagar took on the challenges of upgrading the city’s sewer and drainage network, building a wastewater treatment plant, and improving urban roads. Safe and accessible sanitation was at the heart of the project from the beginning.

According to engineer Bharat Kumar Neupane, Chief of Biratnagar Metropolitan’s Department of Urban Infrastructure Development, the project in Biratnagar has been completed, including the development of roadways in the city, upgrades of old sewers, construction of new sanitation infrastructure, and improvement in the city’s stormwater drainage.

The city also revised its sanitation plan in 2021 and is aiming to achieve the goal of universal sanitation for all residents.

Biratnagar Wastewater Treatment Plant

Facultative pond at the Biratnagar Wastewater Treatment Plant. Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News

Facultative pond at the Biratnagar Wastewater Treatment Plant. Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News

As part of its commitment to ensure universal sanitation, Biratnagar municipality has constructed a wastewater treatment plant in Jatiya. Sprawling across eight acres of land and adjacent to the Singhiya River, the plant treats wastewater from ten wards of Biratnagar before discharging it into the river.

According to Mr. Neupane, who also oversaw the project, sewer lines have been connected to more than 2,000 houses within the main Biratnagar city area. Wastewater from those households is discharged into drain pipes that make their way to the treatment plant.

Biratnagar’s wastewater treatment plant uses Wastewater Stabilisation Ponds (WSPs) technology, which employs natural processes to treat domestic wastewater, septage, and sludge as well as animal and industrial waste.

Mahadev Sardar is in charge of the on-site processes at the treatment facility. During a tour, he demonstrates how the wastewater makes it way to the plant through gravitational force all the way from homes in the city to the enclosure chamber at the facility. The wastewater then goes through a sump well, an oil and grease chamber, and a grit chamber before being sent to the anaerobic pond to be naturally treated for up to seven days. The treated wastewater then makes its way to the facultative pond, and, once assured the wastewater is safe, it is discharged into the river.

The entire process is overseen by Shrawan Shah, who is responsible for lab tests and analyses the quality of the wastewater at every step to ensure that the water discharged into the river meets WHO standard guidelines for health and safety, meaning that it is safe for both aquatic life and irrigation purposes.

Fecal Waste Treatment Plant

A desludging truck operated by Biratnagar Metropolitan City (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

A desludging truck owned and operated by Biratnagar Metropolitan City (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

Biratnagar originally planned to connect 5,000 households to sewer lines that would allow wastewater and fecal sludge to collect at the wastewater treatment plant for proper processing. However, due to several factors outlined by Mr. Neupane, Chief of the Department of Urban Infrastructure Development, the municipal government only managed to connect 2,000 homes, leaving a substantial population underserved with sanitation infrastructure.

According to Neupane, many families had built septic tanks behind their homes, making it difficult to connect the existing pipes to city sewer lines and requiring a significant investment for the homeowner. In some instances, entire sections of homes would have had to be demolished to install pipes that would connect to the city’s sewer lines. The majority of homeowners facing this situation saw it as impractical and costly. While many families faced the problem of managing existing septic tanks, they were also paying the tariff for sewer management included in their property taxes while not having access to those same sewers.

Biratnagar Municipality came up with a solution and built a fecal waste treatment plant within the area of the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, they purchased several desludging trucks, some of which can desludge up to 2,500 litres and some which can handle up to 9,000 litres. Houses that are unable to connect to the city’s recently built sewer infrastructure can use the facility of such desludging trucks for free up to two times annually.

Additionally, the service is also available for residents outside of the greater Biratnagar area who have to pay a certain fee to desludge their septic tanks. Biratnagar Municipality also encourages private tank operators to dump their fecal waste safely at the fecal sludge treatment plant. However, according to Neupane, they are reluctant to do so owing to additional costs, and they end up dumping fecal sludge either into the river or in open fields.

Challenges to Citywide Inclusive Sanitation

Wastewater is seen entering the Singiya River in Biratnagar. (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

Untreated wastewater is seen entering the Singiya River in Biratnagar. (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

While many other cities in Nepal struggle to achieve safe, accessible sanitation, Biratnagar Municipality has made remarkable progress in developing and implementing a sanitation plan, including treating wastewater from 2,000 homes, desludging septic tanks for 3,000 homes for free, and encouraging others to practice safe sanitation. They have also built public toilets as part of their community improvement plan. However, a few challenges remain.

For many communities living along the banks of the Singiya, several of whom are marginalized communities living in squatter settlements, years of abuse of the river have affected them adversely.

For example, Fulori Rishi Dev’s family has been living along the Singiya for three generations. Earlier, she could use the river’s water for her daily household needs, but today, she cannot. Years ago, children could swim in the cool waters of the Singiya during sweltering days in Biratnagar, but today, parents have to teach their children to avoid the river due to the existing pollution and unsafe conditions. Fulori’s son, Chandan, explains, “Just a few hundred metres above, there is a huge drain which disposes wastewater into the river. Seeing that, how can we let them into the river? They can fall sick.”

Fulori Rishi Dev’s family who live along the banks of the Singiya River in Biratnagar. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung / Aawaaj News)

Biratnagar is growing rapidly. While the city has made great strides to improve sanitation and maintain functional wastewater and fecal treatment facilities, it has to make more effort to expand its services to all communities, especially those who live along the banks of the Singiya River.

The Singiya River in Biratnagar (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

The Singiya River in Biratnagar (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)