MELAMCHI, Nepal — It started with a sudden spike in temperature, nine degrees Fahrenheit, around the Himalayan glaciers. Then came the explosion: a deluge of melted ice racing down at a rate of 2.5 million gallons per second, unleashing a landslide of sludge that wiped out everything in its path.
Ancient trees, fertile fields, homes, power lines, bridges — all were swallowed up. Five people died. But the flood didn’t just leave this verdant valley unrecognizable. Its effects rippled dozens of miles away to the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, which had been waiting decades for something that much of the rest of the world takes for granted: clean tap water.
The torrent that ravaged the Melamchi River Valley in June of last year destroyed a project to deliver pipe-borne water to a city that has relied since the sixth century on public spouts connected to underground aquifers. The project, started in 1972 and kept alive with hundreds of millions of dollars in international loans through political turbulence and changing governments, had been operating for just a few weeks when the main intake was buried under flood debris.
Water that had finally gushed from household taps in Kathmandu, drawing shouts of joy from rooftops, abruptly went dry. A painful realization soon set in: The project had never seriously accounted for climate change, even as evidence of the risk of Himalayan glacial melt mounted. And now it must go back to the drawing board.
Meant as a symbol of development for Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, the ruined waterworks instead exposed the great mismatch between a slow-moving donor-financed mega-project and the rapidly changing threats posed by a warming planet.
“I think we were obsessed with trying to get this thing finished,” said Arnaud Cauchois, the head of the Asian Development Bank in Nepal, the project’s main financier.
The lessons from Melamchi could echo around the globe, as development banks and civil engineers evaluate other large projects in the developing world for their ability to withstand the vagaries of climate change, and consider how to bring accountability when they fail.
Kathmandu is one of the world’s wettest capitals. During the annual monsoon, rivulets of water run down the streets and into the swollen Bagmati River.
In the rainy season, residents still use a free network of stone spouts to bathe and wash clothes. Pipe-borne water arrived in 1895, but it was available only to the Rana palaces, where members of the royal family and high-ranking dignitaries lived and worked.
By the 1970s, it had become increasingly clear that Kathmandu needed a modern water delivery system. Once a pit stop for mountaineers on their way to Everest or other peaks, with a population working mostly as rice farmers, the city had grown in stature as it found a place at the end of the hippie trail. Its sublime landscape, ancient temples and first-rate hash drew young visitors from across the globe.
Over the decades that followed, Kathmandu’s aquifers were depleted as it grew at a breakneck pace to accommodate refugees of conflict, natural disasters and climate change.
King Mahendra, Nepal’s monarch until 1972, had recognized these challenges. His ambition to make Nepal’s capital a tourist hot spot coincided with the so-called age of development, an era of big infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank and other postwar institutions.
There was a “mad rush to find investment projects anywhere,” said Dipak Gyawali, a water engineer who worked under Mahendra’s successor, King Birendra.
The World Bank approached the government with a plan to bring water from the Melamchi River to Kathmandu by tunnel. It would operate on gravity, so it would not require great technical expertise or expensive pumping.
The water would be used to provide cheaper electricity through hydropower, the capital city would have plentiful drinking water, and the Terai, a key agricultural region, would get free irrigation.
Once construction began, the project was to be completed in seven to 10 years. But even the Nepal government’s modest initial goal — to fix the city’s leaky pipes — was unfinished 15 years in, according to a survey that Mr. Gyawali co-authored for a government commission in 1987.
The broader water project remained in the idea phase for two decades after its inception. When the government’s 10-year war against Maoist rebels ended in 2006, Nepal’s monarchy was gone, leaving a political vacuum and no clear direction for the project.
All the while, money continued to be pumped in. The project’s price tag reached $464 million. After the World Bank and the Norwegian and Swedish government development agencies dropped the project, the Asian Development Bank took the lead, approving a loan of about $160 million to Nepal’s government.
“People wanted that big project because it brought money into the country, not just water, that people in government and others could get money from,” said Cheryl Colopy, who wrote about Melamchi in her book “Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis.”
Corruption riddled the project from the outset, according to Nepali government officials, international bankers and expert observers. A prime minister deposed during the instability of the war years, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and several of his ministers were later charged with corruption related to the Melamchi project. (Mr. Deuba is now serving his fifth term as prime minister.)
In 2014, an Italian company hired to complete the tunnel abandoned the project, accusing Nepali bureaucrats of pressuring workers for bribes. Finally, a Chinese company, Sinohydro, completed construction in March 2021.
Then disaster struck. Within hours of the start of testing that month, a flood forced a suspension of operations. They resumed at the beginning of April, but water flowed for only six weeks before the more devastating flood and landslide struck.
Now, 50 years after the idea was first floated, and with Nepali taxpayers still on the hook for about $420 million in loans, the government is no closer to supplying its parched capital city with drinking water.
“We are worried that if rainfall is above normal, then this kind of disaster may happen again,” said Rajendra Sharma, a hydrologist and the government’s technical adviser on the Melamchi project.
When Gaurab K.C., an assistant professor of sociology of law, was growing up in Kathmandu, the annual monsoons brought a nightly chorus of croaking frogs and jasmine-perfumed air.
But many of the wetlands and rice paddies that absorbed the monsoon rain and topped up the water table have since been paved over, as the Kathmandu Valley urbanized at one of Asia’s fastest rates, with its population rising from over half a million in 1991 to more than two million in 2021.
Like most people in Kathmandu, Mr. Gaurab relies on an elaborate system to catch, collect and buy enough water for his household. He uses two rooftop tanks of rainwater for washing and plumbing. He buys additional supplies from water tankers for washing vegetables and drinking.
Pipe laying for the Melamchi project began years ago in his neighborhood. “It’s like a myth or a story: Melamchi is coming,” Mr. Gaurab said.
What did come was climate change. But at the time of the project’s conception, global warming was an almost esoteric concept, and in the years that followed, its effects on the catchment area upstream were not thoroughly studied.
That did not change even as Nepal was hit with a series of natural disasters. In 2008, a river embankment failed, and the ensuing floods displaced more than three million people. Four years later, a glacier-fed river in Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, flooded, causing extensive damage. In 2016, a dam in neighboring China containing a glacial lake burst, washing away a hydropower project in Nepal.
The last environmental impact assessment for the Melamchi water project was conducted in 2000. No one knew that the glaciers and the sediment basin above the valley had become unstable after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Kathmandu in 2015.
“This project was designed so long ago,” said Mr. Cauchois of the Asian Development Bank. “Our focus was to get the bloody thing done.”
On the day of the disaster last year, Sharmila Shrestha was cooking dinner when she received a call from a relative living upstream, urging her to run. Her family of four managed to escape to higher ground, returning to their home days later after the water had receded. Not all of their neighbors survived.
Now, on rainy nights, she and her husband, Shyam Krishna, take turns keeping watch, listening for the thunderous sound of boulders crashing down the valley.
An early warning system has been installed in which a siren will sound if the river reaches a dangerous height. Some residents whose livelihoods were lost are now paid to collect smaller boulders from the riverbank and stack them into boxes of chicken wire to build a protective wall.
Ms. Shrestha and Mr. Krishna live with their two children on the top floor of their flood-ravaged house in a once-thriving tourist area, where people would drive two hours from Kathmandu for the valley’s trout-rich river and brightly painted houses perched on terraced paddy fields.
The water mark is still visible above the stove in their third-floor kitchen.
“My parents keep suggesting we move,” Ms. Shrestha said, “but I have a deep attachment to this place.”
The couple built their first home together out of mud and stone. The walls collapsed in the 2015 earthquake, killing their oldest child. They had just finished painting the walls of their new home, built from reinforced concrete, when the sludgy floodwaters hit last year.
“Everyone was praising us when I finished the house,” she said. “Now, no one comes to visit.”
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