Reviving the Bagmati

DEBBY NG
Feb 28, 2011
*Special to asia!

Bird Conservation Nepal cleans up Kathmandu valley's greatest river and initiates a revolutionary undertaking to restore a degraded waterway.

460 Monthly bird surveys carried out in Bagmati Nature Park registered a total of 60 species of bird. A total of 112 bird species exist along the Bagmati River system. (Photo credit: Debby Ng)

 

Mention the Bagmati River to anyone in Kathmandu valley and you're likely to call up reactions of disgust. A friend once encouraged me; "hold your breath!” as the microbus we were traveling in putted across the Bagmati Bridge. Of course I had to react contrary to the advice, just to see what I was missing. After a small choke, I realised how unfortunate it was that a once great river had been brought to its knees. I tried to imagine a past in which the river's waters were clear, and birds and fish flourished.

I'm told that not too long ago, people would swim in the river. Just one generation ago, the river was a source of recreation and a place of ritual, not a means for refuse disposal. "Today, the river is destroyed." Some valley residents have lamented.

Instead of languishing in misfortune, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) set out to develop and manage Bagmati River Nature Park - a 30 hectare green corridor at Kupondole. The aim of the project is simple: to create a suitable habitat for the valley's human inhabitants and some of its 500 species of birds

. The Bagmati Nature Park is a one-of-a-kind endeavor. Since it was established in 2008, it remains the only nature park along the river that is open to public access, and which provides a natural and educational environment for students of the valley.

From most angles, the Bagmati River is filthy and unsightly; it is omnipresent but wanted. BCN's Senior Conservation Officer, Ishana Thapa, shares that fish-eating birds have suffered the most from the river's demise. As aquatic life disappears from the polluted river, so does the bird life that depends on it. Hence, the oppotunity to give the river and its feathered inhabitants a second chance was not only too precious to pass up, but also crucial to any efforts to revive birdlife in the valley.

Having walked along parts of the Bagmati I had hoped I could teleport through, it was surreal to breathe at ease as I walked at leisure through Bagmati Nature Park. "Where's the river bank?" I eagerly coaxed Thapa to lead the way to the water's edge. I was pratically hotfooted to see what the project had accomplished for the river. Thapa however, took her time to show me around the park. We walked the length of the green corridor, up to the water station that the government had built to extract bore water from within the park.

After appreciating the government's arbitrary contributions to the park, we finally took a turn towards the water's edge. The Bagmati River itself is the main habitat for birds. Besides its muddy river bank, patches of grass and shrubs, adjacent cultivated land and patches of forest with pine and Uttis, are the main habitat types that have been restored at the nature park. In a tree alongside the river, a Black Kite roosted in a leafless wintering tree, a pair of Black Drongo's perched on some cables that were strung across the river, and tiny brown jobs peeped in the tall grasses along the banks.

In the immediate vacinity, the banks of the river were moderately free of refuse. Along this zone, it was evident that most of the physical refuse remained suspended within the water column, waiting for the river's course to slow down before being deposited along its banks. We were able to validate this hypothesis by gazing into an area just short of the horizon. As the river slowed around a bend, an island of trash comprising a riot of colours emerged out of the Bagmati's dark waters. Cows and dogs ventured to the edge to scrape what they could for their hungry bellies.

Monthly bird surveys carried out in Bagmati Nature Park registered a total of 60 species of bird. Notable records include the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Pied Cuckoo and Black-winged Cuckooshrike. Similar bird surveys of the general Bagmati River system found a total of 112 bird species, which implies that close to half of the birds that exist along the system can be found in Bagmati Nature Park.

There has been some contention about how the park can and should be used. Local newspapers abound with stories of how the park is a meeting point for junkies and "wayward" teenagers. It is a public spot afterall, and it will invite those who are welcome and unwelcome. The government has attempted to build a razor wire fence around the park's boundaries. Broken fences and walls in shambles are the only evidence of this attempt. With the load shedding issues that plague the entire valley, installing lamps in the park would hardly be a solution. But the issues that many complain about side step the success story of this unique park.

Social issues permeate all nooks of this valley, and the real story should be that of how the birds have returned, the trees and shrubs successfully reintroduced, and how one can take pleasure in inhaling deeply, the air that surrounds this 30-hectare park.

Social issues permeate all nooks of this valley, and the real story should be that of how the birds have returned, the trees and shrubs successfully reintroduced, and how one can take pleasure in inhaling deeply, the air that surrounds this 30-hectare park.

Bird Conservation Nepal pitched the idea of closing up the park and charging a small fee for entry. The fees would contribute to the maintenance of the parks natural and manmade features. That approach might have helped regulate the kind of people who choose to enter the park. Unfortunately, the governments' preference to keep access open washed any well-intentioned developments into the smut of the Bagmati.

Instead of agonising over what has not been accomplished, Thapa gleefully shares how several bird species have been found nesting in the park. More importantly the establishment of the Bagmati Nature Park demonstrates that it is possible to revive this desperate river system.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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www.debbyng.net

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