Article By Pankaj Thapa
A River of Reflections and Memories
Growing up, I used to visit my Aunt in Biratnagar during summer vacations. On sweltering days, my cousins and I would go on a five-minute walk to the Singiya River where we splashed away the summer heat in the clean, cool water.
My aunt and her family have since moved, and this year, as I reported on Citywide Inclusive Sanitation, I had the opportunity to visit Biratnagar again. My first impression was that Biratnagar had grown. The neighbourhood where my aunt lived, which used to be on the outskirts of the city, had become a dense settlement and a core part of the Biratnagar Metropolitan area. But I was most shocked when I came to the river, a place that holds so many fond memories from my childhood days. Today, the Singiya River is polluted by sewage and wastewater. No one swims in its waters.
My child will not be able to swim in the cool waters of the Singiya. He will not make the memories that I was able to make. He will grow up with the reality of putrid rivers, places that must be avoided instead of enjoyed. And what will he ask me? Ask us?
He will want to know why we failed to protect our once-pristine environment. How have we failed the next generation?
He will grow up with this reality unless we, as a society, do something about it in the present.
There is no single solution to this problem. All across Nepal, freshwater rivers and streams are polluted on a daily basis. This is a collective issue that requires immediate attention from all authorities.
Take this data for example. According to a World Bank Report, in 1990, only 8.8% of Nepal’s population lived in urban areas. By 2009, the country’s urban population had almost doubled to 16.4% in a time span of just under twenty years. Many factors contributed to the urbanization of Nepal, including a lack of economic opportunities and basic facilities in rural areas. Then came the decade-long Maoist insurgency where violence, economic insecurity, and turmoil gripped the countryside. Cities were considered relatively safer compared to rural areas and also offered the possibility of a better, more stable life.
In this way, Nepal’s urban population grew and continues to grow. Sadly, urban planning has not kept pace with the explosion in city populations, and, to this day, there are few policies that effectively address the problem of citywide sanitation. Obviously, the environment has suffered, but communities have suffered as well, in both direct and indirect ways.
Sacred Rivers and Thriving Civilisations
Throughout history, some of the most important civilisations have sprouted up along river banks, such as in the Indus Valley, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Rivers are lifelines for human society, providing water for irrigation, agriculture, and everyday use as well as daily sustenance from fish and other freshwater food sources. There’s a reason why rivers are considered sacred in so many societies around the world.
It is no surprise then that many Nepali settlements started along river banks. However, as city populations grow, rivers become the dumping grounds for human waste. In developing countries like Nepal, the management of wastewater falls low on the list of priorities. While the country was consumed with bigger problems, including political instability and civil war, sanitation concerns and sewer infrastructure took a back seat. When we finally realized the need for improved and better sanitation, it was too late. Many rivers, including the Bagmati and the Singiya, were already severely polluted.
Nevertheless, plans have been made, and the Nepal government is preparing a Citywide Inclusive Sanitation draft that will empower cities and rural areas to manage wastewater and fecal sludge on their own, which will help them provide improved sanitation to their communities.
A River’s Health Reveals Societal Injustices
While reporting on Citywide Inclusive Sanitation, I traveled outside the Kathmandu Valley, including to Lahan and Biratnagar, among other places, to investigate the state of wastewater management in different cities and find out how this issue impacts people across social strata. In every place I visited, an uncomfortable and unspoken reality emerged.
The communities that suffer the most and are the most at-risk due to poor sanitation management are the marginalized communities.
In Biratnagar, we came across a community that has been settled along the banks of the Singiya for three generations. This community, a socially and economically marginalized (which often go hand in hand), is a squatter community.
Fulori Dev’s family has lived along the banks of the Singiya for three generations. She remembers days when she used to take water from the Singiya for her household consumption. Today, however, such an act is unimaginable. Similarly, Rishi Dev, Fulori’s son, has to scold his children if they go to the Singiya to play. He worries his children will catch diseases from the contaminated water.
In Lahan, a majority of houses are yet to be connected to municipality water networks. If you are able to guess right, most houses that aren’t connected to piped networks are the ones of the marginalized communities, the Dalit community to be specific.
The Dalit community of Nepal, a severely marginalized community, was historically referred to as “the untouchables.” Along with being deprived of economic opportunities and social equality for generations, they have also been restricted from using public amenities such as communal taps. While there are several organizations increasing access to WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) within such communities, for example, the BEACON Project, many families still have to use local rivers as their source of water for household consumption.
Lahan municipality is aware of the marginalized communities’ dependency on the Balan River and has barred desludging trucks from dumping fecal waste into the river. However, because the city does not have a Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant, the excreta is dumped in open fields without treatment, threatening the city’s Open Defecation Status.
Sanitation Is a Matter of Dignity, a Human Right
In the course of reporting on sanitation, we also investigated the status of public facilities. For those living with a disability within the Kathmandu Valley and needing to use a public toilet when nature calls, this is yet another sad story.
The lack of accessible toilets for those living with a disability not only prevents them from relieving themselves but is also discriminatory. Several people living with a disability have shared their experiences of feeling reduced as human beings when they cannot plan to go out due to the lack of an accessible toilet or cannot use a facility when they need to.
Incidents of discrimination aren’t limited to those living with a disability. Sanitation workers are robbed of their dignity every day. We have evidence of people changing their surnames because they are discriminated against when their caste suggests they come from a line of toilet cleaners. We have documented incidents where the children of hard-working toilet cleaners are teased because of their parent’s profession.
Improved Sanitation Is an Indicator of Development
When we talk of development, we talk of tall buildings and smooth highways but not so much of improved sanitation. Have we ever wondered if the toilets of the world’s tallest buildings flush their wastewater directly into rivers? Probably not. Because sanitation has been a development priority for developed countries.
However, despite the extremely high return on investment in sanitation when it comes to public health, sanitation issues fall by the wayside in developing countries facing a myriad of other challenges.
While the government of Nepal started late, it aims to treat 50% of urban wastewater by 2030. Despite being short of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation for all by 2030, 50% would be a sign of progress. Besides contributing to SDG 6, investment in sanitation will also contribute to other Sustainable Development Goals such as No Poverty, Good Health and Well-Being, Gender Equality, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Climate Action, and Life Below Water.
The wellbeing of any society can be measured by the health of its rivers. If we want to ensure a future for our children and our children’s children where they can make memories swimming in Nepal’s waterways and strolling by clear, beautiful rivers, then we must act now. We have to undo the damage that’s been done to our rivers, invest in sanitation and waste management, and correct the dangerous path we’ve been on for far too long.