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How a great river is vanishing (Cover Story)

A field reporting of Bagmati river from Bagdwar to Chobhar




 Rajesh Poudel of Min Bhawan in Kathmandu, who had arrived in Bagdwar for walking uphill more than two and a half hours from Nagi Ghumba of Shiva Puri Himal, was filling his water bottle from a Tiger’s mouth shaped stream. While he filled his bottle, he was saying, “No water could be as pure as of the Bagmati River for family members.”


Bagdwar is the starting section of the Bagmati River which flows through the Kathmandu Valley; but unlike the river that flows in the valley, fresh and pure water flows through the section. The section has alluring greenery in its immediate vicinity.


As water flows up from a 100-meter bamboo bush through a stream to the Bagdwar section through a tiger mouthed monument, the section has been named as Bagdwar--‘Bag’ means ‘Tiger’ and ‘Dwar’ means ‘Entrance Gate’.


For pure water and fresh atmosphere at the origin of the Bagmati River, the Bagdwar is a holy site and spiritual haven for many city dwellers even today. Rajesh is one among the crowd to revere the area as the holy site.  


Shortly after filling his water bottle, he started taking ‘holy’ bath with the water flowing through the stream to the river. He believes the holy bath in the river to wash away his sins.


Few yards away from him, another couple is meditating for the past several months sheltering in a single-roomed building next to Bagdwar monument. Like Rajesh, they also seem to take bath in the Bagmati River at the section to redeem themselves off their sins.


The clean, pure and religious features of the Bagmati River is just one face among many associated with the civilization of Kathmandu Valley.


However, moving down a 35-kilometer distance away from Bagdwar to Chobar in Northern part of the valley, solid wastages dumped in the river exposes the pathetic and sorry condition of the Bagmati River.


A ‘Jal Binayak’ (name of Hindu God) temple sits in Chobar. The river, which starts from Bagdwar, leaves the valley from Chobar gorge.  


Locals say there was a time when devotees coming to the temple would wash their hands and face with the river water before worship. 


“Forget about washing face and hands with the river water, hardly any devotee today dares to go nearby the river now as solid waste and sewage flows into the river instead of clean fresh water,” says Sujindra Maharjan, a local of Kritipur, adding, the exhausting fumes coming from the river becomes unbearable during dry season, making it difficult for people to breathe. 


The temple is a part of the Bagmati civilization. But the civilization is vanishing ever since the Bagmati River became a repository for sewage and garbage of over 4 million populations residing in the valley.


Today, the Bagmati River is an open sewage system of the Kathmandu Valley, making it virtually dead for disposal of the valley waste.


How the Bagmati River, which flows so clean and fresh from Bagdwar, turns into the stinking river of sewage upon reaching Chobar? From where and how the river gets polluted? And how the pollution in the river is damaging the Bagmati Civilization? 


The correspondents travelled from Badwar to Chobar to assess the pollution level of the Bagmati River this week. The water flowing from Bagdwar, which is located few meters down the Shivapuri Hill at an attitude of 2372 meter above the sea level, is clean up to Sundarijal water dam. In the distance, water from various small rivulets of the Shivapuri Hill flows into the river. As there is no human settlement in the section, the river is in its most natural form.


Before the river reaches Sundari dam, Shyalmati, a tributary of Bagmati, mixes with the Bagmati River. A canal has been made to release the tributary’s water into the river. And upon reaching at Sundarijal dam, water of Nagmati, another tributary river of Bagmati, again combines with Bagmati River. These streams and tributaries are major water resources of the river.


The river water is fresh and clean in the section between Bagdwar and Sundarijal water dam.


But as the Bagmati leaves Sundarijal to flow downside to the Kathmandu Valley, pollution begins to appear in the river as human settlements starts and the level of pollution on the river by human activities is clearly distinguishable by the human eye. 


First, sewage released from human settlements in six wards of Sundarijal VDC pollutes the river. Mulkharkha and Okharani villages occupy the wards. Locals themselves admit that they have been disposing sewage to the river in lack of proper toilets in their houses. The poor facility of toilets in the village has not only been polluting the Bagmati River, but it has also been contaminating water sources supplied to the valley from Sundarijal for drinking purpose.


“Majority of the houses do not have toilet. Some locals have toilet but sadly, they also do not use it. They defecate in open spaces, polluting the water sources,” said Narayan Shrestha, a local of Mulkharkha.


As the river crosses Sundarijal water dam, pollution in the river not only begins to appear but human encroachment in the river also begins to take place. The first encroachment in the river is the construction of the Sundarijal water dam itself and trying to obstruct the natural flow of the river.


The dam has been constructed to generate electricity. The water collected in the reservoir is supplied through a pipe to a power house under Sundarijal Hydropower Project to generate electricity. The power house generates 600 kilowatts of electricity.


According to caretaker of Sundarijal dam, Purwa Tamang, due to the supply of the river water to the hydropower project, water level of the river sharply decreases to low levels from November only to increase in May.  


Similarly, Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC) also supplies water from various water sources of Bagmati River including Nagmati and other small group water resources along the Sundarijal -Bagdwar section to in its branch office in Sundarijal and release the deposited water via Bhoksi Daha to its Mahankal office to supply as drinking water to the people in the country. 


NWSC supplies 30 million liters of drinking water per day from Sundarijal to its Mahankal office.


Due shrinking supply of water in the river following encroachment by the government authorities, the river runs so low by the time the river enters the valley. The river looks more like a canal than a river. And sewage drainages are seen elsewhere mixed recklessly into the river. For an instance: majority of the households in Sundarijal bazaar have passed their sewage into the river.


There is a public toilet house with nearby Sundarijal water which releases toilet waste directly into the river. The toilet building was earlier a school building. But after the school was shifted to another area, the school building was turned into the toilet.       


According to Narayan, majority of the locals flow sewage in the river. And those who have septic tanks have also been indirectly dumping their sewage in the river. 


Not only locals, Nepal Army was also found dumping toilet waste in the river. Locals said that as the septic tanks of the Nepal Army are of small size, liquid human wastes have been overflowing from the tanks to the river.


From Sundarijal, the sewage mixed Bagmati river flows down South to the Kathmandu. On the way to the valley, many seasonal rivers passing through human settlements in the area get mixed in the river. As the seasonal rivers are already polluted from human activities, the rivers now further contaminate the Bagmati River.


However, the river water still looks clean due to abundance of sand as the sand in the river do water filtration.


Nayapati and Kolmati are two major seasonal rivers to mix in with the Bagmati River between Sundarijal and Gokarna area.


Nayapati is heavily polluted as it passes through Nayapati village. The river supplies human wastes and solid wastes of industries operating in the village to the Bagmati than water. Wastages of paper factories, carpet dry cleaning industry and Ashadeep Mental Hosptial, among other factories are disposed in the seasonal river. Similarly, as majority of the locals are engaged in pig and poultry farming, they also dispose the livestock excrete and even dead animals in the river only to be mixed in the Bagmati River later.


“All kind of solid waste from rotting carcass of animals like Pig to menstrual clothes come floating in the seasonal river, which eventually mix into the Bagmati River,” say Laxman Tamang, a local who does pig farming on the bank of Nayapati seasonal river.


Kolmati is another seasonal river to mix in with the Bagmati River. As the seasonal river flows away from the human settlement, the river is not as polluted as Nayapati. The river is mostly used for irrigational purpose.


“When we were children, the water in the Bagmati River was neck-deep and we used to swim a lot. Various fish would hit your legs while cross the river,” recounted 67-year-old Shyam Krishna Shrestha of Misigala of Gokarna VDC, “We caught a bucket of fish in an hour.” 


But as new human settlements have been rapidly expanding on the banks of Kolmati River lately, the river is gradually being polluted and the water level in the river is also decreasing, according to him.


“The increasing human settlements along the Kolmati may further contribute to pollution of the Bagmati River if not checked increasing pollution in the Kolmati River on time. The trend of releasing pollution in the river among people in the area is rampant,” says he.


From Gokarna, the Bagmati River now flows through Kanti Bharab Temple toward the Valley. 


The temple is one of the holy sites where a large number of people visit during Kushe Aunshi (Father’s Day) in reverence for their father, is located along the Bagmati River. Though the water of the river still looks clean along the temple area, the river continues to accumulate pollution in the section as well.


A gutter passing from a human settlement through the western part of the temple directly connected to the river. Similarly, World Youth International School situated on the eastern edge of the settlement has also disposed all its waste in the river.


There are also two huge cement sewage pipes passing through Gokarneshowr Temple from the human settlements to the river. Liquid sewage continuously flows from the pipes in the river.


Then, another polluted seasonal river Chandramati meets the Bagmati River nearby Gokarneshowr Temple. Black sewage liquid along with garbage like plastics flow in the river emitting foul smell. A heap of rubbish remain are visible on the eastern part of the temple where the seasonal river combines with the Bagmati river.


“Due to dense human settlement on both sides of Chandramati River, the river is heavily polluted to further pollute the Bagmati,” said Diwakar Thapa, a local of Gokarna-8.  The river mainly flows through Baluwa and Gokarna VDCs.


Another similar seasonal river that combines with the Bagmati River is Suryamati , which flows around 100-meter down from Chandramati River. Like other seasonal rivers, the river is also sewage dumping site for locals of Gokarna Bazaar.


Downstream the river, there is a dam constructed to check the water flow of the river. And as vegetable farming has been done on the bank of the Bagmati River from Gokarna to Narayantar Bridge connecting northern part of Jorpati, the section of the river looks green. However, as majority of the households have been using deep boring, the water level of the river has dropped considerably, said a technician of High Power Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilization.


“Due to deep boring, ground water is hardly being recharged. It is causing decrease in the water level of the river,” said he. 


A large amount of pollutants under Narayantar Bride is leaking in the river due to the outflow of the sewage from the main drainage line being developed by Physical Infrastructure Development Project from Gokarna to Chobhar.

In a 150-meter distance away from the leaky drainage line at Jorpati-5, a seasonal river flowing from Mulpani area combines with the Bagmati River.


“It is not a seasonal river, but it is in fact seasonal sewage drains,” said Babu Kaji Shrestha, a local of Dachi Nayagauh. The river brings sewage and garbage from Mulpani area only to mix with the Bagmati River.


For mixing of one after another sewage pipes in the river, the river has turned black and omits foul smell. After Gokarna, the river on the Jorpati section is heavily polluted.

Moving downstream along the Bagmati River in the valley, some households were found keeping buffalo farm on the edge of the river. On top of that, passenger buses coming from eastern part of the country were parked on the corridor of the river, which is also considered one of the reasons for the river pollution.


The foul smelling heavily polluted river reaches to the premise of the Integrated Development Committee of Bagmati Civilization at Guyeshowari. Though there is a treatment plant inside the committee for purification of the waste brought by the drainage pipe set up by the Physical Infrastructure Development Project from Gokarna, sewage and solid waste are released in the river without any treatment.


First, only a small portion of the waste supplied by the drainage pipe reaches to the treatment plant due to leakages in the drainage pipe. Second the treatment plant remains close most of the time due to the load shedding. As a result, the small amount of drainage collected in the treatment plant is released in the Bagmati River through an underground tunnel at Tilganga.


Twelve years ago, the waste water treatment plant was established with investment of Rs. 164 million. Narayan Prasad Regmi, president of the committee informed that the treatment plant is almost defunct due to the power crunch.


“We cannot afford waste water treatment though diesel. The plant will come into operation when there is electricity. Otherwise, the plant remains close,” said he.


He says at least 350 kilowatt electricity is required to run the treatment plant on a daily basis. Otherwise, around 60 liters of diesel is required to run the plan just for an hour, which the committee cannot afford. It is a reason why the waste supplied through the drainage pipe is again released in the river at Tilganga without any treatment.


When there is electricity, the treatment plant do sometimes comes into operation as well. But the sewage of the western-northern settlement of Guheshwori is mixed with the purified water and disposed in the river at Tilganga. When asked why the committee is disposing the sewage mixing with the sewage, technicians at the treatment plant say, “There is no other channel to release sewage of the settlement; so, we have been forced to use the same tunnel to release both the sewage and the filtered water.”     


Despite release of the sewage in different section of the river in the upstream, the river water still looks clean in Guheshwori. But as the river passes through Sloshmantak and Uma Kunda, the river becomes heavily polluted for disposing sewage and garbage especially polythene and other plastic items.


Similarly, few yards away from Aryaghat, Pashupati Temple, the river flows through a gorge. Due to release of the sewage, the level of the pollution is high in the section of the river. However, the river water still looks clean along Aryaghat section; but the level of the surface of the water is lower in the section due to the use of dozers to level the river surface in the past.


And the scared river of the Hindu people Bagmati starts to emit foul smells from the section.


As the river crosses a bridge near Tilganga Hospital, the river becomes narrow by 10-15 meters compared to its original size and there is low water level. Presence of sand in the river water is low. And in the section from Sinamangal Bridge to Minbhawan, the river becomes dangerously contaminated due to squatters’ settlements. Sewages of the whole settlements have been released into the river directly or indirectly along with garbage.


The polluted river continues to get polluted as the river flows from Minbhawan to Shankhamul side. It is in the section Manhora River mixes with Bagmati River. However, it is also mixing point of sewage released in Hanumante River though Manhora in the Bagmati River as well. Then, the river deteriorates further.


The households along the section are disposing their sewage in the river through drainage pipes set up by the local authority to release rainwater from the streets during rainy season.


Lately, members of over 60 organizations, government bodies and locals have been actively taking part in the Bagmati River Cleaning Campaign and they have been removing solid waste along Tilganga to Minbhawan section of the river. Following removal of solid waste, the river looks clean along the section, but the river water is still polluted and impure.


Experts say only removing solid waste from the rivers is not going to improve quality of the river water. 


After Manhora mixes with the Bagmati, the foul smell coming from the river becomes even stronger. Further down the river, sewages and solid waste disposed in Dhobi khola (Dhobi River) mixes in the Bagmati River.


A decade ago the government had proposed construction of United Nations’ Park on both side of the Bagmati River. However, the proposal is still gathering dust.


Another squatters’ settlement on the backyard of Maternity and Women's Hospital of Thapathali is also polluting the river by dumping all kind of solid and liquid waste in the river.


Down the river from Thapathali, Tukucha River mixes with the Bagmati, increasing pollution in the river. Similarly, Bishnumati River also gets mixed with the Bagmati River at Teku Dobhan.


The encroachment on the river bank is rampant in the section from Thapathali to Teku. Locals have set up driving centers and other organizations on the bank of the river. Similarly, Kalimati Fruit and Vegetable Market has built a temporary structure encroaching around 12 feet of the river land along Teku to Balkhu Bridge section.


And nearby the Balkhu Bridge, a vegetable market has encroached around 35 meter land of the river, said Gajendra Thakur, member secretary of the High Power Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilization.


There is another squatters’ settlement along the river at Gusinghal. Waste produced in the settlement is disposed in the river.


The Tekhu-Balkhu Bridge section of the river is another heavily polluted section due to disposal of the solid waste collected by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City office in the river. The garbage heaps can be seen elsewhere on both sides of the river along the section.


“KMC has been disposing metropolis garbage in the section of the river. And the authority is reluctant to manage the waste,” said Thakur. According to him, KMC, Lalitpur Sub-Metropolitan City Office and Kritipur Municipality are not helping in the Bagmati cleaning campaign. 


Even today, Kritipur municipality and LSMC are dumping solid waste produced in the municipal areas on the bank of the river. The Kritipur municipality dumps around 25 trucks of solid waste on the Bagmati River along Tribhuvan University gate section.


At Sanepa, Balkhu River gets mixed with Bagmati. The river is the border of KMC and Kritipur. The waste produced by human settlements in both in and outside the Ring Road gets released in the Bagmati River through Balkhu River. Then, another seasonal river mixed with sewage mixes with the Bagmati River nearby TU gate. 


The stretch of the river from Balkhu to Sundharighat is wide where nothing but garbage heaps have been dumped. Along the section, two parks in the name of political leaders B.P Koirala and Manmohan Adhikari have been established. Construction of the Manmohan Park is underway.


“While expanding sewage drainage under the Bagmati Cleaning Project, the structures being constructed in the park have to be demolished. But the park is rapidly being constructed,” said Thakur. He said he was receiving political pressure to develop the sewage drainage pipes from other areas. 


Modern Indian School is on the edge of the river nearby Sundarighat. Nearby the school, there is an asphalt making factory which has been directly releasing asphalt and black smoke in the river.

“We have diverted our chimney to the river side to ward off protest from locals,” said a worker in the factory.


Further down the river, Nakhu River flowing along Lalitpur district gets mixed with the Bagmati River. It is the last source of water of the Bagmati River. However, instead of water, the river carries thick black liquid to the Bagmati River. 


The Bagmati River is the open sewage system of the Kathmandu Valley as people in the valley dump their sewage directly or indirectly in the river.


“People are happy that they do not have waste in their house. They forget that their waste is polluting the river, which means they are also polluting the Bagmati civilization,” said Sujendra Maharjan, a local of Kritipur.


With the raw untreated sewage of the valley, the Bagmati leaves the valley from Chobar gorge. 


According to an environmentalist, Toran Sharma, “Cleaning Bagmati is the need. But the river is not going to be clean easily. To clean Bagmati, the government should come up with an at least ten year massive plan.”


Bagmati: lifeless river


A decade ago, Sharma had declared the Bagmati River as the dead river due to excessive pollution in the river. During a test, he and his team had found three-inch thick black liquid in the river water.


“The current situation of the river is even worse and dire. The liquid flowing in the river does not match with any features of water. So, it is the dead river,” says he.


In 2000, he had assessed the water of the Bagmati River in 40 different places for six months before reaching the conclusion.


His study had found that the quality of the river water was deteriorating as the river passed through the Kathmandu valley.


The study had also found that the level of water in the river increases between 8 to 11 am in the morning. It is mainly because it is the time when the toilets are mostly used by people. And the water level decreases during the day time. Similarly, the water level of the water again increases slightly in the evening.  


According to him, the main pollution in the Bagmati River is sewage, which is also known as ‘organic pollution’.


If there is only 1.5 milligram ammonia in the water, aquatic animals cannot survive. But the condition of the river is worse that during dry season, the amount of ammonia in the river water reaches to almost 100 milligram.


A year ago, various organizations in leadership of former environment minister had released around 2500 fishes in the Bagmati River along Guheshwori to mark Nepal Environment Week-2013. But all fishes died.


According to Sharma, at least 4 milligram dissolved oxygen must be required in the water for fishes to survive. But the Bagmati river water hardly has 1 milligram per liter dissolved oxygen.  “In the condition, it was not possible for the fishes to survive. So, all the fishes died,” said he.


Similarly, a study carried by Health and Environment Alliance Info had found that around 70 to 80 percent water consumed by people in the valley is released in the Bagmati as sewage. According to the study, industries in the valley are responsible for seven percent of the pollution in the river. Likewise, there are over 43000 septic tanks in the capital. And the waste deposited in the tank is disposed in the river without any treatment. 


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