River pollution: sewage & rubbish in the drinking water

The Nepalese people consider the Bagmati River scared, and yet it is dying.

This mighty river is subjected to a whole host of pollution: there is a chronic lack of wastewater treatment for the towns and cities along its course, meaning that sewage is dumped straight into the river. Plus, trucks dump their rubbish on the river banks too, making this river a haven for bacteria and toxic chemicals alike 

Yet, despite the high levels of pollution in the river, 80% of the water in the Bagmati is diverted for drinking water!  

The river is so polluted with rubbish and human waste that the only way to save the Bagmati River is for a wide range of stakeholders to work together and implement change. 

Bagmati River filled with rubbish

Bagmati River filled with rubbish

Agents of change? 

The Government of Nepal has realised there is a serious problem with the Bagmati. So, together with financial aid from the Asian Development Bank, it is implementing a project to improve water resources management at the river basin.  

The Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project places a heavy focus on: 

  • communicating the importance of the river 
  • its cultural and spiritual status to Nepal, and  
  • how behavioural changes can make a radical difference to the state of the river.  

It is hoped that instigating behavioural changes amongst stakeholders, combined with a commitment to river management responsibilities, will change the polluted nature of the river 

How are they intending to achieve a positive change for the Bagmati River? 

The project has put 2 million US dollars towards communication and participation, to raise awareness for cleaning and saving the river.  

Communication is key 

From consultation with the mix of stakeholders three key messages emerged: 

  1. Stop polluting the river with household and industrial waste 
  2. Participate in cleanup and beautification efforts, and  
  3. Protect water resources. 

The elements of the Bagmati River strategy 

The project team identified 4 key audiences to engage with, characteristed as:  

  • Communities along the river,  
  • river basin organisations,  
  • concerned government agencies and  
  • local government 


The project established a river basin organisation to coordinate and monitor river basin management and mainstream community participation through local government. 

The river is of enormous cultural and religious importance to the communities that live alongside. Therefore, working alongside the local government ensured that communities were informed and had a say on the design and construction of the civil works to ensure they were in keeping with their faith.  

Based on stakeholder engagements alone, the engineers incorporated at least 27 new features into the designs as well as revealing potential problems such as unverified land claims and upstream dam construction. 

 In order to ensure the health of the Bagmati would be on the mend after the clean-up and beautification, local communities needed to be engaged thorough awareness-raising activities. The project team used already established events and festivals such as the Bagmati River Festival to engage communities around solid waste management, river restoration as well as holding focus group discussions with religious organisations and the river basin organisations. 

What does this project tell us about best practice when engaging with SDG challenges? 

  • One of the most important communication points when implementing engineering solutions to a low-income country is to recruit local NGOs. These are the people who know the area and how to communicate project goals with local communities.  
  • When addressing a problem that is large scale or small scale it is vital to gain the support of not just the communities but also local authorities and key leaders who can become your communication champions. Keeping lines of communication around your project allows the communities to have input and to provide them with some form of ownership and responsibilities of the project.  
  • Ultimately showing a successful project similar to that you are trying to establish in the area can provide confidence that they too as a community can achieve the same results.  
  • And finally get internal support for communication components. Funding communication aspects can be challenging, but it has become increasingly recognized that investing in development communication is crucial to successful sustainable projects that are owned by the communities once constructor contractors have finished.  


To read the full case study, click here: https://development.asia/case-study/designing-communication-strategy-multi-stakeholder-river-management  


Ultimately, the Bagmati River project will need time and continued engagement from all involved to have a radical positive change on the state of the river, and of the behavioural practices of those stakeholders that use the river as a dumping ground. No doubt, we will see if the real fruits of success are realised in a few years – or even decades’ – time.  

In the meantime, we welcome the project’s focus on improving water quality… for the sake of the river, those that rely on it for drinking water, and the aquatic creatures that call the Bagmati home.