By Kunga Zhoennu Gurung and Trisha Dhakal

The population of the Kathmandu Valley is estimated to be growing at a rate of 4% per year. The unprecedented explosion of residents has not been followed by new investments in infrastructure, and the existing framework for supporting urban life is under immense pressure. Poor city planning and the failure to manage and scale current infrastructure have led to increased public endangerment for those that depend on the valley’s public utilities.

As the population grows in Lalitpur and Bhaktapur Districts, the amount of untreated wastewater increases. With no working treatment plants, this waste enters the valley’s rivers, endangering freshwater ecosystems and heightening the risk of major public health issues. Even households who manage their liquid waste with the use of septic tanks face a problem. There are no fecal sludge treatment plants in Bhaktapur, and the one in Lubhu is in a dilapidated state, which has led to private waste collection companies dumping liquid waste in the open and threatening Nepal’s Open Defecation Free (ODF) status.

This report will take a look down the drain to investigate the pathway of wastewater across Lalitpur and Bhaktapur districts to understand the final resting place of fecal sludge.

Lalitpur District

Untreated wastewater from residential areas of Patan in Lalitpur District mixes with the Bagmati River via a sewer line. (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

According to preliminary data from the 2021 National Census, a total of 548,401 people live in Lalitpur District. Lalitpur Metropolitan Area is the most populated with 288,843 people. According to the 2011 census, Godawari Municipality was the second most populous municipality in the district, but as of 2021, Mahalaxmi Municipality has taken that place, nearly doubling from 62,624 people in 2011 to 118,710 people in 2021. No doubt, the metropolitan area, and Mahalaxmi Municipality produce the most household wastewater.

According to a report on fecal sludge management in the city, it is estimated that 70% of Lalitpur District’s urban area, including Lalitpur, Mahalaxmi, and Godawari, is connected to sewer lines while only 39.5% of rural areas can say the same. The remaining households rely on septic tanks.

With no active treatment plant in Lalitpur District, it can be safely assumed that the entirety of Lalitpur District’s wastewater is flushed into rivers without being treated. The Nepal Government is currently building two wastewater treatment plants in Dhobhighat with the help of the Asian Development Bank,  but their progress has remained slow.

Dhobhighat Treatment Plant is a proposed wastewater management project by the Project Implementation Directorate (PID) of Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) with the aim of improving wastewater services in Lalitpur District and the wider Kathmandu Valley. Connected to the Bagmati River, it serves as a catchment area for waste coming downstream from Dhobhighat, from the confluence of the Manohara and the Bagmati, intaking remnants that may drift from Kathmandu.

The project’s initial development began in 2017 and was supposed to be finished in three to four years. However, due to complications and the recent pandemic, construction has slowed down. Notably, each phase is undertaken by a different contractor, but Treatment Plant 02 (TP 02) and Treatment Plant 03 (TP 03) overlap each other and are interconnected. As of 2022, TP-03 is nearly complete with its civil work and has managed to procure nearly 65% of the necessary equipment. TP-02 lags behind, with approximately 25% of the civil work completed.

Lalitpur Metropolis is hoping that the two treatment plants, once completed, will be a game-changer in the district’s wastewater management systems.

Lubhu Treatment Plant

A fecal waste treatment plant in Lubhu once heralded as a game-changer is seen in a dilapidated state due to a lack of funds for maintenance and upkeep. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung / Aawaaj News)

A fecal waste treatment plant in Lubhu once heralded as a game-changer is seen in a dilapidated state due to a lack of funds for maintenance and upkeep. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung / Aawaaj News)

When opened in 2016, the Lubhu Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant was the first-of-its-kind achievement for Nepal and was heralded as a game-changer in wastewater management, especially for areas that weren’t connected to sewer lines. However, in 2022, the Lubhu Treatment Plant can be seen rotting in its own decay due to a lack of funds for management and upkeep.

The Lubhu Treatment Plant was constructed by Mahalaxmi Municipality with the support of the Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association, Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), Saligram Bal Griha, and CDD society. It was intended to provide recovery options to allow treated wastewater to be reused in irrigation, bio-solids to be used as soil conditioner for farming, and biogas for cooking and lighting. The treatment plant has the capacity to treat up to six cubic metres of sewage each week and works through a gravity-based system, making it cost effective and sustainable.

According to Surya Ghimire, caretaker of the Lubhu Treatment Plant, he says, “In its heydey, the treatment plant used to treat waste brought in by septic trucks from Lalitpur, Kathmandu, and all the way from Bhaktapur. However, lately, the upkeep of the treatment plant has been neglected.”

Although the treatment plant does not require costly or regular maintenance, upkeep efforts have been minimal. The treatment plant has only gone through maintenance two times in the past six years, even though maintenance is required every year. Because of neglect, the infrastructure at the treatment plant is degrading. Some equipment has been stolen, some is rusting, and a section of the plant is unprotected from rain, making it difficult to operate the treatment plant during the monsoon season.

A fecal waste treatment plant in Lubhu once heralded as a game-changer is seen in a dilapidated state due to a lack of funds for maintenance and upkeep. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung / Aawaaj News)

Infrastructure that was put in place to help manage waste and sewer systems has not been maintained, resulting in equipment that needs to be replaced. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung / Aawaaj News)

Bhaktapur and Changunarayan Municipalities

Untreated wastewater enters the Manohara River in Bhaktapur District (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

Untreated wastewater enters the Manohara River in Bhaktapur District. (Image: Pankaj Thapa / Aawaaj News)

For the residents of Bhaktapur Municipality, much of their wastewater is dumped into the Hanumantey and Manohara Rivers. Two proposed wastewater treatment plants are under construction. The plant at Sallahgarhi has a capacity of 14.2 MLDs, and another at Kodku has a capacity of 17.5 MLDs. The two projects are being built by the contracting company TP-02, and progress is relatively positive, with 60% of civil works completed in Sallahgarhi and 80% in Kodku.

According to a report, 92% of Bhaktapur District’s urban households are connected to sewer lines while only 49% of rural households share the same.

According to Dilip Kumar Suwal, WASH Focal Person at Bhaktapur Municipality, he reports, “They are awaiting completion of the Sallahgarhi Wastewater Treatment plant for wastewater management in the municipality. Until then, as a temporary measure, Bhaktapur Municipality has said they have attempted to encourage new settlements to build septic tanks instead of channeling wastewater into the river. This way, they hope to reduce the impact on environmental degradation.”

Earlier, Bhaktapur Municipality used to operate their own septic tank trucks, however, due to the lack of a fecal sludge treatment plant, they have abandoned the service. Currently, private operators manage septic waste, and they dump the waste far away from urban settlements, but still in the open.

Meanwhile, in Changunarayan Municipality, a recently-established municipality, fecal sludge management is a new challenge. With limited funds and other aspects of development taking priority, they cannot allocate funds for fecal sludge management. They have developed a CWIS plan and are making sewer line connectivity a priority, while at the same time mandating each household to build a septic tank. The municipality’s septic waste is managed by private septic tank operators, and once again, the problem lies in the fact that there is no treatment plant. There is no option but to dump untreated fecal waste along the banks of the Hanumantey and Bagmati Rivers.

The Challenge to Nepal’s Sanitation

A private septic tank collector dumps wastewater in the open in Dharan. (File Photo: February 2020)

A private septic tank collector dumps wastewater in the open in Dharan. (File Photo: February 2020)

When untreated wastewater is dumped in the open, it defeats the purpose of building toilets to control open defecation. This is now Nepal’s next big sanitation challenge.

According to Dr. Sher Bahadur Pun, Infectious Disease Expert at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, he explains, “Dumping wastewater into rivers can create a hotspot for water-borne pathogens to thrive. Diarrhea, Typhoid, and Cholera are some diseases which can come from polluted water sources.”

Meanwhile, rivers polluted by wastewater pose a danger to local communities who rely on these resources for daily needs, and the natural ecosystems of wildlife and animals that depend on freshwater suffer as well.

For the residents of Bhaktapur and Lalitpur, when the wastewater treatment plants are completed, it will provide a long-awaited respite. However, there are several cities and municipalities in Nepal where wastewater is dumped untreated with no plans to manage the negative outcomes. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a fundamental human right that the Constitution of Nepal safeguards. Therefore, the government has a responsibility to plan for improved sanitation when planning on increasing the number of toilets.