Kathmandu Valley residents are pinning their hope on the Melamchi Drinking Water Project to meet their water needs. Average daily demand for water in the Kathmandu Valley is about 400mld. But the water supply authority, the Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), supplies only around 140 million litres per day (mld) in the rainy season and 80mld in winter. The long-awaited dream of Kathmandu’s denizens to get water from the Melamchi is yet to be realised even 25 years after they first heard about the project. The Melamchi Drinking Water Project has already extended the completion deadline thrice.
Against this background, Purushottam P. Khatri spoke with Ramchandra Devkota, Joint Secretary and Executive Director of the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board (MWSDB). An engineer by profession, Devkota has served in the government for 29 years in various water and sanitation sectors under the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Excerpts:
You had promised to supply water from the Melamchi River to Kathmandu by this Dashain. What has prevented you from meeting the deadline?
It is true that we had made a commitment to supply water from the Melamchi by this Dashain, but we are unable to do so due mainly to technical problems. The geographical structure inside the tunnel at the upper Ambathan and down Gyalthum site has caused the delay. The rock is weak at the tunnel site, and this is posing an obstacle in meeting the October 15 deadline.
In the last four years since 2013, when the Italian contractor Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna (CMC) took over the contract after the government scrapped the previous agreement with China Railway 15 Bureau Group, much work has been completed. As of September 21, only a 1.5-km tunnel needs to be constructed, and this will most probably be done within the next four months, and by Mid-April, we will start discharging Melamchi’s water through the tunnel to the Sundarijal reservoir.
There are more weak rocks in the Sindhu upper and Gyalthum upper and downstream faces, which is causing problems. These types of rocks cannot be blasted and need to be drilled slowly using machines. The tunnel construction work is going on at a snail’s pace from the Sindhu upstream to Gyalthum downstream. As the work is machine-based, support must be given to the tunnel, and this has also been causing additional delay in the tunnel’s construction. If the rock structure in this section had not been weak, we would probably have been able to discharge the Melamchi water by the set deadline of October 15, 2017.
Then by when will the people in the valley be able to consume the water from the Melamchi?
We have been continuously exerting pressure on the CMC contractor to engage in the tunnel’s construction. They are now showing problems with the equipment, which has been continuously put to work since the last four years or July 2013. Several machines have gone out of order, and they have been saying that they are preparing to buy a new stream machine to complete the drilling works. Daily, more than 50 labourers are working in three shifts on each of the four faces, starting from Sundarijal in Kathmandu to Gyalthum.
Our target is to finish it in the next four months. And by mid-April, we will start draining the Melamchi waters to Sundarijal and distribute it to the Kathmandu people. In the first phase, only 170 million litres of water per day (mld) will be supplied to the valley and after the completion of the whole project, which includes draining water from the Yangri and Larke rivers, we will supply 510 mld water to the valley. The tunnel has been designed to hold 510 mld water.
Are you sure the completion date will not be extended beyond mid-April?
We are positive and hopeful that we will not have to extend our deadline for the fourth time. We also cannot go beyond mid-April as the contract with the contractor is expiring in the next 52 weeks. After supplying water from the Melamchi River, our next project to drain water from the Larke and Yangri rivers of Sindhupalchowk district will start, which will take another four years. This project is focused on collecting water from these rivers and discharging it into the main tunnel of the Melamchi so that by the end of the whole project, we can supply 510 mld water to the Kathmandu Valley.
Why has the project taken years to complete?
There are many factors. In the initial phase, from 2001 to 2007, we just focused on constructing road links, opening tracks for the project, land pooling and distributing compensation to the locals affected by the project. More than Rs. 1 billion was spent on compensating the locals, constructing roads and opening tracks within the project site.
The second hurdle was the termination of the initial contract signed with China Railway 15 Group, which had completed 6.5 km of the tunnel in four years. A fresh contract was signed with the CMC in 2013, and since then they have constructed 25 km of tunnel, which is praiseworthy but not satisfactory. As mentioned in the agreement, they have to dig 35-40 metres of tunnel per day. But today they are constructing just 14-16 metres a day, citing geological hindrance.
The third major hurdle has been the managerial and political transition in the country. Frequent change of government has also posed a hindrance in carrying out regular work. We faced a blockade for months, and this also caused delay. During the tenure of Prime Minister Pushapa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, the project office had set a deadline of supplying water by April 13, 2016. But this was also missed.
The fourth hurdle we now face is from the CMC company, which is saying its equipment is not working properly and using it to delay the work so that new equipment can be brought in. Despite government's repeated pressure and monitoring, the project is consuming extra time.
The project has often been blamed for the pollution and dust in the Kathmandu Valley. For how long will the people have to bear with the problem?
We are very concerned about this issue. Though this is not our intention, the people are suffering from pollution, dust and bumpy roads. We are coordinating with the Department of Roads and the Kathmandu Metropolitan City as Kathmandu’s roads are the responsibility of both the Department of Roads and the KMC. There are still places where the Melamchi pipeline has yet to be started, such as Dallu, Dhalko, and wards No. 14 and 23 in Kathmandu. If the work of laying the pipes and blacktopping of roads were to be carried out simultaneously, this problem of dust and sludge could be solved.
Is the project distributing water within the Ring Road only?
The project in the initial or first phase has envisioned distributing the Melamchi waters only to the locals residing within the Ring Road. Its distribution will be expanded outside the Ring Road only after the project is fully completed and is able to supply 510 mld water in the Valley.
How will the Melamchi’s water be distributed and what will be the future of Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) which is presently distributing the water in Kathmandu?
Nobody should be confused about the distribution system of the Melamchi’s drinking water and the responsibilities of the KUKL. We are not distributing water to the households, we just supply water to the major intakes of Kathmandu. Nine intakes have been constructed in various parts of the valley to manage the distribution system. As soon as the Melamchi project ends, our office will be dissolved formally. All the works will automatically be handed over to the Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board, and it will take over the responsibility of supplying water to each of the households.
It is yet to be confirmed whether Kathmandu’s households will get Melamchi’s water daily. One thing is for sure, we have managed a scientific water supply system, discarding the present century-old water supply system under which the KUKL is working at present. After the installation of the scientific water supply system, KUKL, the Water Supply Management Board office and the staff must also function in a scientific way so as to supply water regularly to the households.
Will the distribution of 170 mld water from the Melamchi tunnel be sufficient to meet the demand of Kathmandu as the demand for water is growing every year?
Of course, the drinking water to be available from the Melamchi River will only be sufficient for the present. Kathmandu is said to have a population of more than 4 million, and the demand for drinking water is about 350-400 mld. But in the initial phase, the Melamchi River will supply just 170 mld. So this will not be sufficient, but can be managed if distributed proportionately. We can meet the demand of Kathmandu only after additional drinking water is brought from the rivers of Larke and Yangri.
Beside water distribution, the project is also planning to produce electricity from it How is the planning going on in this regard?
Yes, this true, we are going to produce 324 kilowatts of power using the Melamchi tunnel at the Sundarijal Water Treatment Plant. We will consume some power to be produced from the tunnel for internal use while any surplus will be sold to the Nepal Electricity Authority by feeding it to the national grid system.