(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Groundwater exploitation heightens health dangers

Many children in both rural and urban areas miss out on school in order to fetch water.
Naresh Newar/IRIN

In the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, it is a daily drudgery for many residents, especially the poorest, to wake up before dawn to queue for water at the city taps or to start the electric water pumps to extract underground water.

The water supplied by the state-run Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC) is piped through river sources and springs from rivers and catchment areas in the foothills around the Kathmandu valley. But it is insufficient for the city’s population of almost two million.

Most people have to depend on groundwater as the piped water supply meets less than 50 percent of the demand in the valley. In the dry season, people get less than 45 percent of the 200 million litres per day needed in the area.

Unable to find a solution to the water shortage, NWSC has given permission to households, as well as hotels, restaurants and industrial enterprises, to extract unlimited amounts of groundwater, according to local water resources specialists.

''Most of the household water supply from underground contains nitrate. People don’t know how it affects their health.''

Exploitation depleting supplies

But analysts are worried that the drilling of water wells and deep boring is taking place at an alarming rate. It is estimated that about 10 million litres of groundwater are extracted every day, according to the Environment and Public Health Organisation (EPHO). It says ground water is being contaminated due to seepage from septic tanks, most of which are built in land plots.

“The problem has become much worse, with households disposing waste water into the natural drainage system. And the more extraction takes place, the more the ground water is bound to get contaminated,” said Prakash Amatya from NGO Forum, which advocates on water, health and safe drinking water rights.

According to a study by the EPHO, groundwater is contaminated with nitrate, ammonia, iron and manganese.

“Most of the household water supply from underground contains nitrate. People don’t know how it affects their health,” said Amatya. He added that there was a fear of nitrate concentration heightening the risk of stomach cancer and deaths among children.

“The poor groundwater quality is alarming and getting worse,” said another specialist, Narayan P Upadhaya, from EPHO. He added that public awareness of the threat of groundwater contamination was poor and not much was being done to address it.


Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
Water shortages are quite common in the capital where most households are forced to use groundwater or queue for water at city taps

Expensive to purify

The only solution so far, water experts say, is to purify the contaminated water but most households are unable to afford the water testing and treatment.

According to government officials, efforts are made to purify as much as water as possible to ensure drinking water is not contaminated.

There are two testing water analysis and treatment laboratories at NWSC and Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology. There are also a handful of such laboratories run by the private sector, water specialists say.

But the costs are too high for most. The cost for iron removal treatment would be a minimum of US$700, and $1,500 for ammonia removal, depending on the amount of water and scale of contamination.

“The analysis can help one know the quality of water we are using,” said Surendra Parajuli, technician of Water Engineering and Training Centre, the oldest lab in the country. But he added that only a small portion of the population had taken up the water treatment initiative.

In the past 15 years since the centre was established, fewer than 2,000 households had done water testing and treatment and most clients were hotels and industrial businesses.

“Even if this helps to some extent, there is no guarantee that nitrate can be removed,” said Upadhaya.


Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
Nepal is one of the world's most water-rich countries yet its residents suffer serious shortages of drinking water

Economical water use

While groundwater exploitation grows, some NGOs are working towards educating people on using water economically. It is estimated that only 2 percent is used for drinking and cooking, while 98 percent is needed for cleaning, hygiene and other purposes.

Research by the Centre for Integrated Urban Development on Household Water Use showed that high-income households with fewer than five members were using more water than eight members of a poor family.

“There is a need to bring a change in the social attitude in every household and that could help prevent the excessive use of water,” said Amatya, who started his “value-based water-use education” to raise awareness among Kathmandu residents.

In the past three years, Amatya and his team from NGO Forum have been visiting the neighbourhoods - both rich and poor - to talk about efficient water use.

“But it is really sad that people who already know the value don’t seem to act accordingly,” said Amatya.

nn/at/mw

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