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Traditional Infrastructure, Modern Flows: Water Governance In The Kathmandu Valley

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Olivia Molden (Eugene OR, USA), Nicholas Griffin, Aditi Mukherji
Olivia Molden (Department of Geography University of Oregon), Dr. Aditi Mukherji
(ICIMOD), Nicholas Griffin (Wake Forest Law School).
Funded by UO Geography Department and Center for Asia Pacific Studies; Association for Pacific Coast
Geographers Larry Ford Field Study Award and Margaret Trussell Scholarship

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 9: Water allocation among competing uses and users,

The operational, economic, and social aspects of infrastructure frequently take precedence over the cultural, ideological, or aesthetic aspects of infrastructural design and management (Kaika, 2005). To connect these dimensions of infrastructure, 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 barely 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).

For over 1,500 years, the spout system functioned as Kathmandu's predominant water system until the 1950s when the government introduced a European inspired water grid (UN-HABITAT, 2008). Newars, an indigenous group in the Valley, originally built the spout system in accordance with Buddhist and/or Hindu beliefs. Spouts are water outlets connected to shallow groundwater and surface water flows through filtration pits, artificial ponds, canals, and pipelines that may extend to springs in the surrounding hills (Becker-Ritterspach, 1995).

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 foundation. Archival sources and policy documents contribute 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 creative abilities of community water management. When comparing spout-using households (19%, n=67) with those that do not (80%, n=284), spout-using respondents are more likely to be low income, migrants from outside the Valley, and lack access to a municipal pipeline. In addition to spouts use for free or inexpensive water, many Newar groups use and manage spouts because of cultural heritage and local self-sufficiency.

However, many spouts are running dry due to damage or disconnection from diverted sources or low water tables. 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). Many communities have modified and extended the spouts system in their locality to provide more convenient and reliable local water services. Some groups illegally connect municipal pipelines to the spout or fill their spout reservoirs with tanker water. Alternatively, many take preventative measures with local groundwater recharge, pond revitalization, and rainwater harvesting.

Even with modification and strong organizing, community managed water has limitations. Large-scale and intersecting issues are often beyond community control, such as, unregulated groundwater depletion and construction, or changing monsoon patterns. Meanwhile, policy conflicts, crippling bureaucracy, and economic agendas within national and municipal government offices place an unfair amount responsibility on communities.

Community leaders and non-governmental organizations call for the protection of the cultural, technological, and ecological aspects of the entire system, including sources. Despite growing government interest in the traditional system, action still only extends to the aesthetics and functioning of the water outlet. Moreover, the Archaeology Department agenda to preserve ancient monuments, like spouts, frequently conflicts with water laws that emphasize functionality over heritage. Government money and time concentrates around improving the functionality of the grid and importing water from outside the valley.

This research indicates that better governance of existing water sources and synthesis of infrastructures within the Valley can improve household water security. Fixing the pipeline leakage, increasing groundwater recharge, promoting rainwater harvesting, regulating groundwater extraction, and providing adequate assistance to community managed sources, like spouts, could substantially improve Kathmandu'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.

1. Annual Report. KUKL, (2010, January 1). Retrieved August 2, 2014.

2. Bakker, K. (2012). Water: Political, biopolitical, material. Social Studies of Science, 42(4), 616-623.

3. Bigas, H., Adeel, Z., & Schuster, B. (2009). "Seeing Traditional Technologies in a New Light: Using Traditional Approaches for Water Management in Drylands." The United Nations World Water Development Report 3 (pp. 1-18). Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

4. Becker-Ritterspach, R. (1995). Water conduits in the Kathmandu Valley. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

5. Boelens, R. (2013). Cultural politics and the hydro-social cycle: Water, power and identity in the Andean highlands. Geoforum (in press).

6. Kaika, M. (2005). City of flows: modernity, nature, and the city. New York: Routledge.

7. Melamchi Water Supply Project. (2014, January 1). Retrieved July 29, 2014, from

8. Rawal, P. (2013, February 12). Stone Spouts Fast Disappearing from Valley. Retrieved June 18, 2014, from option=com_content&task=view&id=12054&Itemid=6

9. Regmi, Amreeta. (2005). Complexities of Water Governance: the Rise and Fall of Groundwater for Urban Use. In Dick Roth (Ed.), Liquid relations contested water rights and legal complexity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

10. Roy, A. (2005). Urban Informality: Toward An Epistemology Of Planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71 (2), 147-158.

11. Traditional Stone Spouts Enumeration and Mapping in the Five Municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley. (2009). Kathmandu: NGO Forum For Urban Water and Sanitation.

12. UN-HABITAT, 2008. Water Movements in Patan with Reference to Traditional Stone Spouts. UN- HABITAT Water for Asian Cities Programme Nepal, Kathmandu.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin