Clean and cool are the words with which the people describe the Bagmati River of the time until some four decades ago. The river originates at Bagdwar in the Shivapuri hills to the north of Kathmandu, takes in water from Syalmati and Nagmati, meanders down to Sundarijal, and heads southwest towards the Chovar gorge and beyond through patches of paddy fields, forests and settlements at Gokarna, Jorpati, Guhyeswori, Pashupati, Tilganga, Shankhamul, Thapathali, Teku and Balkhu, among other places.
Along the way, some important rivers like Dhobi Khola, Manahara and Bishnumati join in. In the very first place, these rivers had made the valley life possible. The famous shrines dotting the riverbanks are a living testimony to the great significance people have attached to these rivers. Anthropologists also believe human civilizations grew alongside riverbanks, because people needed water for sustenance. The Bagmati basin served that purpose well for a long time, too.
But, now with the pressure of population and haphazard urbanisation growing in the valley, paddy fields and forests have given way to concrete clusters, and the Bagmati River has turned into a receptacle for all the effluents coming out of human settlements. Upstream, near the Sundarijal reservoir, there is some flowing water to see, and it is clean. All of it, however, goes into the pipelines supplying drinking water to the valley’s residents. What flows downstream is what houses and factories release into the river. Putting the river at greater risks, water recharge areas are turning into residential areas, sand mining has lowered the river bed, and the upper catchment area is degrading. The open sewer, that the river is called now, emits strong odour all along its course.
Not that no effort was made to restore the river. Governments and communities have created several institutions to conserve the basin. There is a waste treatment plant in place, although it has not worked as desired. Festivals are held to remind the people of the importance of restoring the river to its original glory. There is the Bagmati Action Plan of the government. Several non-government organisations are champions of the cause of cleaning Bagmati. A high-level Bagmati Civilisation Integrated Development Committee is at work, too. The Asian Development Bank has offered US$ 50 million to support the improvement of conditions in the upper and lower areas adjacent to the Bagmati River. If the plans that are in place are actually implemented, the river will see a facelift for sure. But that is easier said than done. Collecting and disposing solid waste properly and managing the sewerage system of the valley to spare the river will be challenging tasks to accomplish. Tougher will be to make the river clean and cool.