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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK

World: South Asia

Nepal's sacred river under threat

The Bagmati has become a vast garbage dump

Alastair Lawson reports from Kathmandu

The World Conservation Union in Nepal has warned that the country's most sacred river, the Bagmati, is in danger of being destroyed by pollution.

Listen to Alastair Lawson's report on the Bagmati
The Union's senior representative in Kathmandu, TB Shrestra, says the river is being used as a repository for sewage and garbage by the growing population of the Kathmandu valley.

The Bagmati was once used by thousands of Nepalese for recreational and religious purposes. Celebrated in music, poetry and literature it is often referred to as the Ganges of Nepal.

Holy site

Over the ages Nepalese monarchs have been cremated on its banks. In April, the pollution of the river was brought to public attention with the funeral ceremony of Opposition Leader Man Mohan Adhikary.

[ image:  ]
His body was cremated alongside the Bagmati, which environmentalists say is little more than a sewer. TB Shrestra of the World Conservation Union explained how the river had shrunk.

"The volume of the water has reduced to such an extent that that the river is no longer the big river that it used to be," he said.

"Most of the waters are tapped by the increasing number of factories, especially carpet factories and households. So most of the water is tapped before it reaches here," he added.

Garbage dump

Mr Shrestra said the state of the river at the time of Mr Adhikary's funeral was a national disgrace, especially because the opposition leader was one of Nepal's most respected and widely known politicians.

"Household garbage...comes from shops and houses and its brought here in plastic bags and thrown here," he said.

The Bagmati is a huge rubbish dump effectively, crawling with flies and rubbish. "The water is jet black. It's almost a dead river; it's not only dead - it's dead at the same time as being rotten," Mr Shrestra said.

The demise of the Bagmati has been swift. Middle aged men such as Keshab Poudel live close to its banks in Kathmandu and can remember when the revered river was clean.

"When I was a child we used to swim in the river, but right now it's like a sewer. I cannot believe that. It's a national tragedy because this is our holy river," Mr Poudel said.

"From birth to death it's a link with our life, but today people don't like to be cremated near the riverside which used to be so holy."

Battle to clean up

The scale of the problem is recognised by the Nepalese culture minister, Shaphalya Amatya.

"The situation is so critical that its very difficult for the government or any other agency to change the situation at Bagmati at once," he said.

[ image:  ]
Mr Amatya said the government was building sewage channels in sections of the river. He said once the sewage was separated, a major battle in the war to clean up the river will have been won.

Cash crunch

But all that is too little, too late for Nepalese political commentator, Karnak Dixit.

"Even though we all realise that the Bagmati - where we will all be cremated at some point - has turned into a sewer it is nevertheless a sociological phenomenon that the public while realising it, is not been able to do anything about," he said.

"The second problem is not sociological, but purely economic. There's a sort of determinism about it. If you are well to do enough, you start thinking about the environment.

"If not you will really suffer all kinds of indignities, including the indignity of your very holy river turning to essentially a carrier of excreta.

"And you still live with it, you just turn your nose up, but you suffer it. If the Bagmati is to be cleaned up, it looks as if most of the money will have to come from overseas donors.

"Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and doesn't have the money to tackle other key environmental issues such as pollution and deforestation in the Himalayas. If money from abroad isn't forthcoming, it looks as if the Bagmati will remain sacred in name only," he added.

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