No matter whether it is rainy monsoon day or a dry winter day, the Trishuli river in central Nepal is always muddy. It has been years since the river flowed clear. Along the Prithvi highway – the busiest road in Nepal, which links the country’s capital Kathmandu to the rest, hundreds of sand and gravel mines have exploited the river brutally. Sand washing machines employed by these mines – working with no regulation – filter and wash the sand, and dump the muddy water directly into the river.

The Trishuli river named after the trishul, or trident, of Lord Shiva – one of the most important Hindu gods, with a particular resonance with the Himalayan region – originates in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China and is called Kirong Tsangpo. Its defenders in Nepal, the Trishuli Bachau Abhiyan (Save Trishuli River Campaign), run by volunteers, has worked tirelessly for the last 15 years. They have eschewed fund-raising, focussing on the core work of activism.

Uttam Kandel by the riverside [image by Nabin Baral]
Uttam Kandel by the riverside [image by Nabin Baral]

“We have been threatened by the goons, a few of our friends were even beaten but we have been raising our voice to stop these sand mines violating the laws and polluting the river on which the livelihood of thousands of communities depends,” said Uttam Kandel, who has been leading the campaign.

Despite this, a few of their friends have bargained with the sand miners and are now shareholders. “Those who deceived us will realise one day that the river’s value is more than the money they earn,” said Kandel. As this is loose network, it is hard to be sure of its numbers, but about 20 people have been continuously involved. Last week they blocked the highway for half an hour to pressurise government, and managed to get another 1,500 locals to support them.

A ban that exists only on paper

There are more than 1,000 trucks registered in the Dhading district only to carry sand and gravel to the capital and other cities. Although riverbed mining has been banned in Nepal since 1991, the ban exists only on paper. More than 200 sand washing machines have been installed on the banks of the river over a distance of 150 km. Thousands of tons of sand mixed with mud is mined from nearby terraces and washed in the river.

Legally banned in 1991, sand mining from riverbeds continues illegally in Nepal [image by Nabin Baral]
Legally banned in 1991, sand mining from riverbeds continues illegally in Nepal [image by Nabin Baral]

“The first thing we need to do is to have a study of every river and find out how much sand (and boulders) can be extracted,” said Madan Koirala, Professor at the Central Department of Environmental Science in Tribhuwan University. “But this is happening on an ad hoc basis that has left the river into the dire situation.”

He said that once the study is done, the sand and boulders could be sold, while maintaining the health of the rivers.

Despite a barrage of complaints from the locals, the authorities are either silent, or take little action. “In the last one month we have given two petitions to the district offices to stop sand mining and washing but they haven’t acted on it,” said Shivaraj Sapkota from a nearby village called Malekhu. He alleged that the companies bribe the authorities to look away.

The district local development office opens bidding for the sand mining but that is where the things start getting wrong. Allegedly the bribery starts right here, with bidders handing over money to the officials in exchange for low rates – thus depriving the state of tax income which could be used to strengthen institutions. “Once they go to the field to excavate nobody monitors how much has been excavated so they are free to do whatever they want,” said Sapkota.

No fish, polluted feed for animals

With the destruction of the river, the fish population has declined severely. In Malekhu – a popular fish-eating stopover on the highway – the fish they sell come from other rivers.

The Trishuli has turned from clear blue to muddy brown [image by Nabin Baral]
The Trishuli has turned from clear blue to muddy brown [image by Nabin Baral]

Rana Bahadur Magar, who lives in Thewatar in the Gorkha district, has witnessed this steep decline and worries about the future. “While we used to fish we never returned empty handed as the river was clean but nowadays catching fish has been very hard, in addition all the hotels in the highway pour sewerage in the river further polluting it.”

The locals have also complained that due to uncontrolled dust from the sand and gravel companies, they have faced problems feeding their domestic animals. “Trees that could be used for fodder are covered with dust so how to feed that fodder to our animals as that may have negative impacts on their health, let alone go our own health,” said Sapkota.

Rights of local residents curbed

If the pollution, the loss of fish, and the lowered livelihoods of people with domestic animals was not bad enough, the locals cannot even access the resources without going through contractors. Sapkota and his colleagues argue that the rivers, public land and water resources are the local’s property and they should be allowed to use first. “If I have to build my house I can’t take sand from the nearby area, instead have to buy from the contractor and pay as much as they ask,” he said. “It is violation of community rights.”

Tirtha Silwal petitioned the chief district officer in public to stop the illegal mines and crusher industries across the river. According to him there are 26 crusher companies in the district and out of them 25 are not even registered officially. “I feel like crying every time I see this river,” Silwal said. “They don’t care about anything, the only thing that attracts our bureaucrats is money and they lure politicians who also earn enough from these illegal activities.”

Despite everything, the activists fight on [image by Nabin Baral]
Despite everything, the activists fight on [image by Nabin Baral]

As the river is continuously degraded, the small group of activists have not given up hope, but they have little to show for 15 years of activism, as the government continues to be deaf to their petitions and the officials turn a blind eye.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.