Thirsty Children

A Clean Water Expedition to Kathmandu

Written by Alan Kropf | Photography by Eric Stowe

"Back in 2003 you could at least see the bottom," says A Child's Right Executive Director, Eric Stowe, as we walk along the heavily polluted Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal. I ask what changed. "Overpopulation. Horrible government. No city services. I mean, if you want to get rid of your shit, you have to put it somewhere. It's not getting better, I mean, this is worse annually. And this is probably a decent time of year because the water is flowing so heavily." The stench of rotting garbage, decomposing animal carcasses and sewage, both livestock and human, fills the air and hits you without mercy. The water is a thick brownish-black, oozing over mounds of trash that have become a habitat for local birds. As unbearable as the scene is, some have become desperate enough to pitch tents amidst the waste with hopes of salvaging something of value to be traded or sold. Our senses are wrecked after only a few short minutes. We retreat to the car in search of a more breathable environment, though even beyond the reaches of the river's stink, there is a heavy cloud of dust and pollution that hangs in the air in a way that coats your skin.

The mission of A Child's Right is simple: to change the lives of vulnerable children in impoverished urban areas by providing clean, safe drinking water to orphanages, schools, children’s hospitals, street shelters and rescue homes. The organization does not dig wells and only existing water supplies are purified, which includes tainted water from pre-existing wells and municipal sources.

Pollution has had a devastating effect on Kathmandu's already limited water supply.

I've traveled to Nepal's capital with Stowe and members of his team to observe the installation of water filtration systems at five urban public schools funded by beverage companies through the Mutineer Clean Water Crusader project. Our entourage also includes A Child's Right Water Program Manager, Aaron Walling, and Nepal Country Director, Prakash Sharma. Country directors like Sharma allow A Child's Right, which is based in Washington state, to effectively operate in countries around the world including Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Vietnam, India, Thailand and Nepal. Raised in Kathmandu, he draws off his decades of experience working with water filtration, shipping and logistics, and entrepreneurial leadership to oversee the day-to-day operations of A Child's Right in Nepal.

Today, Sharma serves as both our local guide and driver, expertly piloting our hatchback through Kathmandu's tiny streets which are filled with a manic mix of buses, automobiles, mopeds and pedestrians. It's dizzyingly claustrophobic, with dried trails of vomit running down the sides of nearly every bus from passengers unable to cope. All it takes is a stubborn cow to create a traffic jam, and buying gasoline becomes an adventure in itself with lines of vehicles stretching for blocks waiting for the next gas truck to arrive at the station. We end up procuring gas from a friend of a friend who sells fuel out of his home to those in the know. A siphon is required.

Water tanks are a common sight on the rooftops in Kathmandu.

As challenging as it is, Nepal is a place Stowe cares about immensely. "Nepal is where I did my first water installation back in 2003. At the time, it was at a small orphanage of about 100 kids. They went from 12 bouts of dysentery a year down to one, and it was seasonal. Watching such an immediate and sustainable change just hooked me on water. Eight years later, here I am. This is by far our hardest country, but it's the one I love the most deeply."

Water is scarce in Kathmandu to begin with, and pollution makes much of the water that is available unsuitable for human consumption. Combine this with severe overpopulation and a government that struggles to provide basic municipal services, and you have yourself a serious water crisis with little hope of a resolution on the horizon. The municipal water that is provided is largely unsafe and subject to year-round rationing, meaning it only flows for as little as four hours a day. In an effort to adapt, residents have resorted to installing large plastic water tanks on rooftops to fill when the water is available and to live off of when it is not. Electricity is also a strictly rationed resource in the city, creating another clean water logistical hurdle in situations where electric pumps are needed and making it impossible to use ultraviolet (UV) water purification technology.

Those without access to municipal water must source water from public taps, most of which are contaminated. We stop at one such filling station where a long queue of buckets and other various water transport vessels wait to be filled by the single faucet. We are told that the tap only flows for three hours a day, so everyone works together to get as many of the buckets filled as possible. It's a jovial atmosphere, with an ongoing game of hacky sack using a balled up piece of electrical wire offering a break from the monotony of bucket filling. Some leave with a single bucket, while others strategically load up to four or five large containers onto a bicycle for transport home.

Buying water from tanker trucks is another option for the people of Kathmandu, but while some of these trucks may offer clean drinking water, there is documentation of tanker trucks pumping water directly out of the polluted river and then selling it, making it a very dangerous option.

Site No.1

Students demonstrate just how fun hand washing can be.

The facilities at Padmadaya Higher Secondary School are typical of Kathmandu public schools, with multiple levels wrapping around a courtyard for the children to play in. Many of these buildings were once palaces or government facilities. Around 40% of the students at Padmadaya are child workers from the rural countryside whose families sent them to work and attend school in the city in hopes of attaining a better life. Most of the remainder are children of parents who work as street vendors.

The students have gathered in the courtyard to receive us, and the sea of bright blue uniforms creates a technicolor cinematic aesthetic. After a brief ceremony, we all sample the water out of the newly installed fountains, which the kids can't get enough of. They gulp water until either their little bellies are full to the brim or they run out of air, at which point they switch to splashing themselves in the face and giggling profusely. For some, the concept of drinking out of a water fountain, or “bubbler" as it's called in the biz, is completely foreign. Educating the children to not drink out of their cupped hands is a crucial part of reducing illness as toilet paper is nonexistent at the schools. Even after explaining and demonstrating, old habits are hard to break.

It is equally important to educate the kids to wash their hands using soap at the hand washing stations, which up until now flowed with contaminated water. "None of the [water] stations worked," says Stowe. "The parent teacher association in the school had built the stations, but they weren't able to afford water to go through. The water that did was too unsafe. It was like building this great automobile with no engine and no wheels."

Site No.2

A classroom at Tiling Tar School.

The roar of a gas generator fills the courtyard of Tiling Tar School. The entire school runs off this generator due to the aforementioned electricity rationing. With the school leadership in tow, we visit the filtration system located behind the drinking station.

The water goes through two steps of filtration, the first of which is “ultrafiltration." Stowe explains, "If you imagined your smallest bacteria at about .2 micron, and imagine that's the size of a basketball; our filter is a .015 micron, or 15 nanometers, and that's about the size of a straw. So it's literally like trying to take a basketball and put it through a straw; you can't do it. It's not killing and not deactivating the DNA of bacteria, it's impeding it. It cannot get from inlet to outlet." The system features an automatic system to flush out the bacteria and keep the system in working order. After passing through the ultrafilter, the water is technically safe to drink, but it doesn't necessarily taste good. So it passes through a carbon filter to remove any off-aromas and flavors.

Before water can pass through A Child's Right's filtration system, the high level of iron content and other particulate matter in Kathmandu well water often makes it necessary to run the water through a series of vertical drip pans and drain through a large tank filled with gravel and coal. The drip pans expose the iron to air, which changes it from a dissolved to a solid state to be captured in the gravel and coal tank. A Child's Right tries to install the iron removal component at every Kathmandu site, because while iron isn't necessarily a problem on a daily basis at some sites, in cases of extreme water shortage the water table drops, creating a higher concentration of iron that can clog and severely damage the filtration systems.

Site No.3

Students quench their thirst with clean water.

At Koteshor Sarwati School, we have the opportunity to meet with most of the teachers and administrators to discuss the progress being made through making clean water available to the students. Sharma translates for one of the teachers, "Clean water is a huge priority in her perspective. She is also very impressed with the follow-up plan put in place by A Child's Right. Most of the time, a donor comes and donates their stuff and just goes away. The burden isn't being put entirely on them." Stowe responds with an ear-to-ear grin, "Tell her it's a very deep partnership and that she's stuck with us."

Stowe's vision for A Child's Right is not limited to supplying these schools with clean water, but to firmly commit to a long term relationship that ensures the systems are operational for a full 10 years. According to Stowe, "They've had so many people come in and donate then leave, and there's no follow through. After the implementation of a project, we make sure that project exists long-term. We do quarterly visits, literal physical visits, to the sites to make sure the equipment is operational and fully functional. If there are any issues, we attend to them."

To raise this commitment to follow through to the next level, A Child's Right recently launched the website The website tracks every A Child's Right site on the planet in real time, which at the present moment includes 425 active sites serving 224,851 children. It's ambitiously thorough, with updates available on water quality testing, filtration system information, project costs, ongoing site inspections and hygiene trainings. A lot of the data is open for the public to view, with some information reserved specifically for donors and others directly involved with the project. The website takes transparency to a new level and allows donors to stay connected with the sites that they've funded.

Site No.4

A newly installed hand washing station at the school.

Sharma's team is still wrapping up the last bits of construction on the stations at Ganesh Higher Secondary School, though the clean water is flowing and the kids are loving it. We spend some time going from classroom to classroom, observing the students as they observe us. Stowe has mastered the art of interacting with the kids, leaping into classrooms unexpectedly to the delight of rambunctious cheering and laughter.

We again have the opportunity to meet with the school's staff over chai tea, which Stowe is a fiend for, and everyone is enthusiastic about the water system going in. "The water was not clean," says Pradip Shrestha, a teacher. "After this project, we have very clean water to drink, and the students are very glad and happy. Before this, the students were frequently sick because of the water, and now hopefully that will improve." Stowe is equally enthused, "We counted 18 out of 20 kids today come out of the bathroom and use the hand washing station with soap, and that's without any hygiene training at all."

The staff thanks us again and again for our support, yet I feel that they are the ones deserving the praise. This is their story, not ours. We are merely guests in their world, and when we leave, they will remain here, educating Kathmandu's youth with the added burden of unimaginable challenges. For every piece of praise thrown our way, I want to give it back tenfold. I want to give them my energy and inspiration like a donor gives blood. I want them to succeed.

Site No.5

Playing duck duck goose with the students.

The process of installing of water stations and the filtration system has not yet begun at Shaheed Shukra, providing a stark contrast to the other sites we've visited. We cringe as the children drink from a contaminated fountain, but they think nothing of it because contaminated water is all they've ever known. "It's a brilliant juxtaposition," says Stowe in a somber tone. We check out the hand washing station, and Sharma explains that not only is the water contaminated, but the large design of the station is intended for adults and inaccessible to children. With perfect timing, a small child validates Sharma's observation when he has to literally crawl onto the large sink to reach the faucet.

It's a difficult scene to witness, but we find comfort in the fact that clean and accessible water will soon be available to all these students.

I wasn't sure how this trip would affect me. I had mentally prepared myself for the extreme poverty, and even thought I might find some sort of spiritual truth through the experience. The truth that I ultimately found was that the poverty that surrounds these children does not define them as much as their determination to attend school every day, many while working grueling jobs. These kids are just thirsty and want a glass of water that isn't the equivalent of drinking dead animal toilet water. Not only is that an understandable desire, it's one of the few motivations shared by every human being on the planet. It's a rare common denominator for us as a species and the very substance we are made of.

Aaron Walling and kids.

I'm left feeling inspired. I'm inspired by what has been accomplished by everyone involved with this project. I'm inspired by the small dent we just made in a big problem, and I'm inspired to make another. I'm inspired to see if we can make enough small dents in this big problem to create a gaping hole to let the light shine through onto our ability to have a positive effect on this modern beverage crisis. I'm inspired by the patience and strength of the students and school staff we encountered to be able to live life without clean water and maintain a sense of humor. I'm inspired by everyone at A Child's Right for fighting this battle on a daily basis. I'm inspired by Charity: Water, and the long list of other water relief organizations spreading clean water around the world. And finally, I'm inspired that you've taken the time to read this article and see what I saw in Kathmandu.

I ask Walling if there is a particular aspect of A Child's Right's work in Nepal that resonates with him. "When I'm back in my office, I forget that these kids are there every single day, and that water is there for them all the time. I happened to see a small snapshot of that while I'm here, but it's amazing to think that the supply is there for them for the next 10 years at least." It's certainly an encouraging perspective, and I ask Stowe if he thinks it is possible for A Child's Right to reach a place where their services are no longer required in Kathmandu, and if so, what does that place look like. "I'd love it. It's an odd place because for us to pull out of Nepal, it would imply that the government would take over what we're currently doing. These are all government-run schools. We would love to be put out of business, but the problem is that's going necessitate NGO (non-governmental organizations) intervention. What we're trying to do right now is work in 50% of all public schools in Kathmandu; right now there are over 600 of them. We'd like to be able to complete those and challenge the government to do the rest. It would be a wonderful moment to be put out of business."

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