Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
MELAMCHI, Nepal — It all started with a sudden rise in temperature, 5 degrees Celsius, around the Himalayan glaciers. Then came the explosion: a deluge of melting ice descending at a rate of 9.5 million liters per second, unleashing a landslide that swept away everything in its path.
Ancient trees, fertile fields, houses, power lines, bridges – everything was gobbled up. Five people died. However, the flood not only left this green valley unrecognizable. Its effects spread tens of kilometers to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which had been waiting decades for something much of the world takes for granted: clean tap water.
The flood that swept through the Melamchi River Valley in June 2021 destroyed a project to pipe water to a city that has relied since the 6th century on public drains connected to underground aquifers. The project, started in 1972 and sustained through political turmoil and changes of government thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in international loans, had only been running for a few weeks when the main intake was buried under flood debris.
The water that had finally come out of the taps of houses in Kathmandu, generating shouts of joy from the rooftops, abruptly dried up. Soon, everyone realized something terrible: The project had never taken climate change seriously, even as evidence of the risk of the Himalayan glacier melting mounted. Now you need to redesign the project.
Though intended to be a symbol of the development of Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest countries, the failing waterworks instead exposed the vast mismatch between a slow-moving, donor-funded megaproject and the rapidly changing threats posed by a planet that is getting hotter and hotter.
Arnaud Cauchois, director of the Asian Development Bank for Nepal, the main financier of the project, commented: “I think we are obsessed with trying to finish this thing.”
The lessons from Melamchi could reverberate around the world, as development banks and civil engineers assess other large projects in developing countries for their ability to withstand the vagaries of climate change and consider how to ensure accountability when fail.
Kathmandu is one of the wettest capitals in the world. During the annual monsoon, rivulets of water run through the streets and flow into the swollen Bagmati River.
In the rainy season, residents still use a free network of stone drains for bathing and washing clothes. Piped water arrived in 1895, but was only available to the Rana palaces, where members of the royal family and high-ranking dignitaries lived and worked.
By the 1970s, it was becoming increasingly clear that Kathmandu needed a modern water supply system. Once a rest stop for climbers en route to Everest or other peaks, and populated largely by rice farmers, the city had risen to prominence by finding a place at the end of the hippie trail. Its sublime landscapes, ancient temples and world-class hashish attracted young visitors from all over the world.
Over the following decades, Kathmandu’s aquifers were depleted as the city grew at breakneck speed to house refugees from conflict, natural disasters and climate change.
King Mahendra, Nepal’s monarch until 1972, recognized these challenges. His ambition to turn Nepal’s capital into a popular tourist destination coincided with the so-called development era, a time of massive infrastructure projects financed by the World Bank and other post-war institutions.
Dipak Gyawali, a hydraulic engineer who worked for Mahendra’s successor, King Birendra, said there was a “race to find investment projects anywhere.”
The World Bank approached the government with a plan to bring water from the Melamchi River to Kathmandu through a tunnel. It would operate on gravity, so it wouldn’t require great technical knowledge or expensive pumping.
The water would be used to provide cheap electricity through hydropower, the capital would have abundant drinking water, and the Terai, a key agricultural region, would have free irrigation.
Once construction began, the project would be completed in seven to ten years. Yet even the Nepalese government’s modest initial goal — to fix the city’s leaky pipes — was still incomplete after fifteen years, according to an analysis Gyawali co-authored for a government commission in 1987.
The larger water project remained in the concept phase for two decades after its initial proposal. When the government’s ten-year war against Maoist rebels ended in 2006, Nepal’s monarchy had disappeared, leaving a political vacuum and no clear direction for the project.
Meanwhile, the money kept flowing. The cost of the project reached 464 million dollars. After the World Bank, as well as the development agencies of the Norwegian and Swedish governments left the project, the Asian Development Bank took the lead, approving a loan of around 160 million dollars to the government of Nepal.
Corruption plagued the project from the start, according to Nepalese government officials, international bankers and expert observers. A prime minister deposed during the unstable period of the war years, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and several of his ministers after him faced corruption charges related to the Melamchi project. (Deuba is in his fifth term as prime minister.)
In 2014, an Italian company contracted to complete the tunnel abandoned the project, accusing Nepalese bureaucrats of pressuring workers for bribes. In the end, a Chinese company, Sinohydro, completed the work in March 2021.
Then disaster struck. A few hours after the start of tests that month, a flood forced the suspension of operations. They resumed in early April, but the water flowed for only six weeks before the most devastating flood and mudslide hit.
Now, fifty years after the idea was conceived and with $420 million in loans still owed by Nepalese taxpayers, the government is no closer to providing drinking water to its thirsty capital.
Rajendra Sharma, a hydrologist and technical adviser to the government for the Melamchi project, said: “We are concerned that if the rainfall exceeds normal levels, this type of disaster could happen again.”