Frequently, the operational, economic, or social aspects of infrastructure take precedence over the cultural, ideological, or aesthetic aspects of infrastructural design and management (Kaika, 2005). To connect these dimensions of infrastructural governance, this research investigates the contemporary role of traditional water technologies in urban modernization and development efforts (Bigas, Adeel, and Schuster, 2009; Bakker, 2012; Boelens, 2013). By focusing on the meaning, use, and management of traditional infrastructure this research provides a unique standpoint to understand water security in growing Asian towns and cities.
Empirical evidence from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal points to the potentials of considering the role of diverse infrastructures to improve water supply for the most vulnerable. As water from Kathmandu's public water company meets only around 50% of annual water demands, households must rely on water from private and/or communal sources (KUKL, 2010). For around 10% of the Valley's approximate 2.5 million people, community managed water conduits, or stone spouts, are crucial (NGO Forum, 2009).
Built originally by the Newars, an indigenous group in the Valley, stone spout systems usually include Buddhist and/or Hindu shrines and statues, filtration pits, brick courtyards, artificial ponds, canals, and pipelines channeling water from rain-fed surface sources and aquifers (Becker-Ritterspach, 1995). From around the 6th century C.E. the spout system functioned as the predominant water system until the 1950s when European inspired water pipelines were introduced (UN-HABITAT, 2008).
In the context of recent rapid modernization and urbanization, this research investigates how different institutional domains interact with traditional infrastructure, and to what effects. Data from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development's (ICIMOD) 2013-14 Lalitpur District water survey of 351 households provides a basic foundation. Archival sources and policy documents provide insights into the political history and development agendas surrounding water supply. Finally, over 45 semi-structured interviews with households, community leaders, international and non-governmental actors, and government officials provide qualitative insights on the use and management of spouts. Household and community interviews covered nine different spout sites to account for a variety of variables.
Overall, findings point the strong abilities of community water management for vulnerable households and indigenous groups. When comparing spout-using households (19%, n=67) with those that do not (80%, n=284), spout-using respondents are typically of lower income, recently migrated from rural areas, and lack access to a municipal pipeline. Although more vulnerable groups rely on spouts for their free or inexpensive water, many indigenous groups use and manage their local spout because of both its cultural heritage and functionality.
Many spouts have been modified and extended to provide convenient and reliable water services to households. In many cases, when the spout starts to run dry in the winter some groups illegally connect municipal pipelines to the spout, or fill their spout reservoirs with tanker water. Alternatively, take preventative measures with local groundwater recharge, pond revitalization, and rainwater harvesting. Spouts have come to symbolize a way for communities to be self-sufficient and organized.
However, community management isn't infallible. Of the 389 stone spouts recorded, over 200 are still functioning, but 45 have disappeared and 68 have run dry in recent decades (Rawal, 2013). Large-scale and intersecting issues of unregulated groundwater depletion and construction, and changing monsoon patterns are often beyond community control. Yet, policy conflicts, crippling bureaucracy, and economic agendas within national and municipal government offices place an unfair amount responsibility on communities.
Although there is growing government interest in the traditional system, this only goes as far as the aesthetics and functioning of the water outlet in spite of community calls to consider the cultural, technological, and ecological aspects of entire spout system including their source areas. Most money and time of the government is focused on improving the functionality central water grid and bringing in water from outside the valley. Additionally, the Archaeology Department agenda to preserve ancient monuments at times conflicts with water laws where water and heritage laws could be mutually supportive.
This research indicates that better governance of existing water sources and infrastructure within the Valley can improve household water security. For example, fixing the leakage of pipelines, increasing groundwater recharge, promoting rainwater harvesting, regulating groundwater extraction, and providing adequate assistance to community managed sources, like spouts, could substantially improve Kathamndu's water security.
Beyond Kathmandu, development groups and governments frequently frame traditional, informal, or alternative infrastructures as rudimentary artifacts that provide temporary services to the poor who lack connection to large-scale modern systems (Roy, 2005; Kooy, 2014). Yet, contemporary use and management of traditional infrastructure in Kathmandu points to the importance of considering a range of water sources for growing urban areas. Traditional infrastructure in Kathmandu also emphasizes the critical role of multiple scales of governance required to manage and protect diverse sources. Finally, the management of spouts indicates the potentials of greater overlap between resource provision and cultural heritage preservation ideologies in government and international development agendas.
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