The Himalayas draw thousands of tourists to Nepal each year, bringing economic stimulation but negatively affecting water resources. In the wake of the April 2015 earthquake, the tourism dollars may not flow and water resources are still in danger. As part of the Himalayan Sustainability Initiative, Ball State University Professor Kirsten Nicholson has worked to find solutions to water issues in the region. She discussed her work and the earthquake with WQP Managing Editor Kate Cline.
Cline: What is the source and quality of drinking water for Himalayan communities?
Nicholson: Most people source drinking water from springs uphill of settlements and townships. Almost all of the water has some contamination. In the summer, the problems are worse than in the winter. Currently there is a large project to bring water to [the village of] Khumjung from over the ridge. [This water] comes from a different drainage basin that is less affected by tourists [and] human and animal waste. At the moment, Khumjung’s water, like most of the region, is generally potable in winter, but we are uncertain if it is potable in the summer.
Our preliminary data suggest that most of the water is potable in the winter, at least in terms of E. coli and coliform bacteria, but not in the summer months. We do not know if the same applies to other waterborne pathogens, as they have not been tested yet.
Cline: How will the recent earthquake affect water supply and quality?
Nicholson: The Katmandu Valley area already has water problems, but with limited power and disrupted transportation, the water supply will get worse. It is difficult to say how the earthquake activity will affect water supply and quality in the mountains. Movement along faults and fractures could open up new pathways for accessing cleaner groundwater, or it could shut the existing supplies down.
Many villages will likely notice a difference in their water supply. In fact, it is possible that many villages will notice a significant decrease in either water quality (as more surface water gets into the water supply) or flow rates.
I fear that the combination of poor water quality with the devastation from the earthquakes will increase the likelihood of disease and/or illness in the mountain villages, which will be exacerbated by the fact that many of them are currently cut off from medical supplies and food aid. It is going to be a very difficult summer in the mountains of Nepal. For example, the village my guide’s family is from has experienced widespread damage, and it is so remote that there is no aid (it is a three-day walk from the nearest road). This means that the injured are not able to get medical attention. I gather they have also lost some of their field/crops as a result of the earthquakes.
Cline: How do Himalayan communities manage wastewater and sewage?
Nicholson: Traditionally, most human waste is used as fertilizer. This method works fairly effectively in areas with few people. However, Sagarmatha National Park sees around 30,000 tourists each year, plus their support crews. The result is that much of the sewage ends up running into streams and rivers, or getting dumped into pits where the tourists cannot see it. One of the long-term goals of our project is to start working locally within communities to help change current waste management methods. Ideally, we would like to find solutions that are inexpensive, and educate the tourists, because if the tourists do not participate, then it is not worth doing.
Cline: What efforts are underway to improve drinking water quality and waste management in the Himalayas?
Nicholson: The government is starting to charge tourists fees that [go toward] disposing of waste. However, from what we have seen, this means moving waste out of sight, which does not solve the problem; it moves it somewhere else. In the long run, the issue must be addressed, and I hope we can help in this process.
Cline: How will the data from your studies be put to use in improving water quality and access in the region?
Nicholson: We hope to provide communities a map of clean drinking water sources. This will allow the communities to [choose] the best management plan. We would like to work with the communities to help find solutions, particularly where the local source waters are polluted.
In a few communities, including Khumjung and Kundee, which host the area school and hospital, we believe it might be possible to source potable groundwater through wells.
Editor’s Note: The interviews for this article took place in the weeks immediately preceding and following the earthquake. Nicholson’s next research trip, planned for May, was cancelled due to the disaster.