Nepal has experienced significant growth in the drinks industry, yet many of the breweries have been damaging the environment with little consequences for their activities.
The 630-km-long Narayani River (also known as the Gandaki) is Nepal’s third largest. It is a pristine, low-sediment, glacier-melt river that flows just 500 metres from the Gorkha Brewery, adjacent to the village of Gaidakot-10, in the Nawalparasi district in southern Nepal, near the India-Nepal border.
Gorkha Brewery is owned by the Danish brewer Carlsberg. Tuborg, the first international beer in Nepal, was launched here in May 1990. Carlsberg beer followed in 1995.
In 2010, Carlsberg went from having a 48.3 per cent share in the Gorkha Brewery to becoming its sole owner. Today Carlsberg has a 66-72 percent share of Nepal’s beer market.
In 2013, Carlsberg ramped up its beer output from the Gorkha Brewery – and the Narayani River’s pollution problems exploded. Unable to handle the increase in production, the wastewater plant began dumping effluents in the river and its smokestacks pumped out soot from burners that used sawdust instead of coal.
But the Narayani’s problems go back further. A paper published in the December 2000 volume of the International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences on pollution in the Narayani placed the blame squarely on the Gorkha Brewery (and a paper mill that has since closed down) for much of the pollution in Nepal’s third-largest river.
The paper reported that “the wastewater discharge by the Gorkha Brewery was estimated as 96,000 m3 ”. It also said that “in the distillery industries, 80 percent of raw materials used end up as wastewater.”
Following concerns in 2015 about escalating riverine and riparian (between the river and the land) pollution from three nearby breweries in the Nawalparasi district – Sumy Distillery, Shree Distillery and Gorkha Brewery – a company spokesperson informed the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) that Carlsberg had “invested in a new wastewater treatment plant.” He said that the “problems [in 2015] were due to culture and competencies.”
The Sumy and Shree Distillery have since closed.
Carlsberg’s clarification came after the villagers of Gaidakot contracted a Kathmandu-based environmental forensics laboratory in December 2015 to test the waters of the Narayani.
The results were far worse than had been expected: the waters downstream of the Gorkha Brewery were massively polluted, with the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) at 1,475 milligrams per litre (against an acceptable standard of 30-100 mg/l), and the chemical oxygen demand (COD) at 2,808 mg/l (against a standard of 250 mg/l).
Gorkha Brewery’s Manager for Media, Communications and Digital, Bishakha Kunwar told TRT World that, “Gorkha Brewery decided to invest in a new Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) in 2015 to be operated in 2016. However, the earthquake in 2015 slightly delayed the equipment importing process. Meanwhile, Gorkha Brewery reduced the WWTP load by recycling beer waste and reducing water consumption until the new WWTP was operational in 2017.”
However, in December 2017 and March 2018, the Danish investigative media and research centre Danwatch, in collaboration with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR, collected and tested water samples near the Gorkha Brewery. The tests showed that several measurements for water pollution were above the maximum permissible value.
The investigations also showed that an adjacent village, Pitaunji, was labouring under soot pollution.
Even as the December 2017 test logged the Narayani’s BOD at far less than the 2015 level, it was still at 84 mg/l (against a standard of 50 mg/l). Most Scandinavian rivers show a BOD of less than 5 mg/l. The COD was a low 188 mg/l (as against a standard of 250 mg/l). The level of ammonia – typically present in brewery sewage and poisonous for fish – was 6.2 mg/l.
Two months later, in February 2018, the BOD had spiked to 360 mg/l – seven times above the limit in Nepal and 14 times above the European Union limit. The COD had shot up to 714 mg/l, almost three times the acceptable limit. The ammonia level had increased by 27 per cent to 8.5 mg/l. However, March 2018 result tests seen by TRT World showed the BOD declining to 21.8 mg/l; COD at 54.0; and, ammonia level at 0.72.
In May 2018, after months of arguing that the water samples “do not represent values from Gorkha Brewery,” Carlsberg admitted that it had been wrong all along.
“Our supply chain travelled to see this first hand because we could not recognise the results of your tests,” Carlsberg’s Media Director Kasper Elbjorn told Danwatch.
“There were obviously circumstances that did not conform to our own internal measurements.”
The team “examined the area and the river around the brewery, where they identified three possible sources of the increased values.”.
One of them was drainage from spent grain – waste from brewing the beer that should be used as animal feed alone.
“They identified the wet spent grains as a source of pollution,” said Elbjorn, putting the blame, however, on “farmers [who] handled the spent grains inappropriately”.
The brewery said it had stopped selling its spent grains – chokra in local lingo. But in April 2018, villagers and local farmers said it wasn’t accurate and that it had sold it to its own staff too.
While admitting that the “rainwater that runs into the river from the brewery may contain excessively high values,” Elbjorn said that Carlsberg had “solved the issue with some minor investments in rainwater drainage.”
Nonetheless, the Gorkha Brewery had restricted itself to speaking about pH levels in the Narayani’s water alone and had not clarified specific issues dealing with the high BOD, COD and ammonia levels.
“If this was in Denmark if it was here [and] the wastewater was so contaminated, one would most likely stop production immediately,” said Henrik Rasmus Andersen, a professor and wastewater expert at the Denmark Technical University.
On January 2019, Gorkha Brewery provided data and stats which showed the company had made significant progress in addressing the pollution allegations against them. The September 2018 test results seen by TRT World showed the BOD level down to 14.0 mg/l and COD at 40.8 mg/l.
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In the once-green villages that fan out from the Gorkha Brewery towards the flat Terai plains of southern Nepal, the collecting of edible niuro (fiddlehead fern) is a thing of the past. The commons are dying. In the immediate vicinity of the brewery, there used to be evidence of dumped burner sludge, river contamination had decimated fish stocks, and there were large, lumbering trucks everywhere, parked or heading in and out of the guarded gates.
The smokestacks in the 17.5-acre brewery compound spew soot – an unscrubbed emission problem that now appears to be addressed by Carlsberg.
There is still protest graffiti up on the bare-brick walls of Pituanji village: “Gorkha Brewery! Stop your air and water pollution!!!” Wary of the reach of the brewery, nobody admits to writing them.
Amar Bahadur Majhi, Founder and former chairperson of a lower-caste fisherfolk welfare association in Nawalparasi, was quoted in the 2017 book Samrakshit Chhetra ka Dwanda (Conflicts in Protected Areas) as blaming the Gorkha Brewery and the Gill Mary Distillery for the plummeting fish haul from the Narayani.
“To protect the fish and grasslands, control the pollution caused by these industries,” he said.
Downstream from the Gorkha Distillery, the ammonia-laden Narayani snakes its way southwest into Chitwan National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), choking stocks of more than 100 species, stopping the northwards run of the Nepalese cousin of the blind Ganges dolphin, driving away mugger and gharial crocodiles, and depleting otter habitats on sandbanks and mudbanks in the braid of shallow channels that make the park a standout biopreserve.
Eventually, after winding 760 km southeastwards from the India-Nepal border, the Narayani’s waste ends up adding to the significant toxicity of the Ganges in India.
The Gorkha Brewery’s Bishakha Kunwar told TRT World, “At Gorkha Brewery, we always strive to comply with local regulations and standards. Gorkha Brewery is regularly conducting tests on different environment parameters; our treatment plant has been working according to requirements and local standards.
“A further investigation identified pollution from other businesses up-stream, river hydraulics issues around the brewery and the distribution of wet spent grains near the brewery as potential sources of the excessive BOD-levels. To improve the river hydraulics, we conducted dredging and also changed the distribution of the wet spent grains to avoid the risk of nutrient-rich run-off reaching the river.”
Kunwar added, “As a good corporate citizen, we are passionate about further improving our standards and protecting the environment. In that context, we would like to share with you that we have further increased the capacity of our Effluent Treatment Plant. This new capacity will be operational from February 2019.
“We will therefore further improve our standards and follow the most rigorous standards from February 2019”.
A chart, prepared after an onsite test by the Nepalese government’s Department of Environment on 23 March 2018, only dealt with the pH level. It shows the pH level in the pre-treatment equalisation tank at 5.3, in the post-treatment secondary clarifier 7.9, and in the final discharge into the river 8.3 (all against a government standard of 5.5-9). The September 2018 report provided by the Gorkha Brewery shows significant progress as the pH level now is 7.1.
In March 2018, Madsen asked the Minister of the Environment, Esben Lunde Larsen, a host of “section 20 questions”, and suggested that he investigate the matter further and become part of a critical dialogue with Carlsberg. The minister chose not to respond.
Pelle Dragsted, Unit List Chairperson, said: “I think it's some embarrassing noise that comes from Carlsberg on the survey. That’s just not good enough...”
Dragsted told Danwatch: “I think it's shameful. We are talking about an old Danish company, which in many ways is a fire for Denmark. That’s why it’s a shame, not just for Carlsberg, but for all of us, [because] they’ve apparently acted in a deeply irresponsible way...”
Madsen also considers it problematic that the state was party to Carlsberg’s ambitions in Nepal.
“The case is particularly serious because Carlsberg has received government investments in connection with their business in Nepal, investments aimed at developing those countries.”
Carlsberg’s purchase into the Gorkha Brewery was partly financed by Danish development funds. A self-governing government fund, the Development Fund for Developing Countries, contributed US$1,565,400 to the brewery. The IFU's cooperation with the Gorkha Brewery ended in 2008.
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The Nepalese government is beset with environmental problems that include melting and vanishing glaciers and high-altitude waterbodies, such as the Nhubine Himal glacier in the Higher Himalaya in northwestern Nepal, which is the source of the Narayani.
The government is not paying particular attention to the tribulations of the Narayani much farther downstream, despite the river’s enormous catchment area of nearly 46,500 sq km – and despite that, because it forms part of the increasingly-fractious international border between Nepal and India, its pollution is affecting historically intricate cross-border environmental relations.
Like most of Nepal’s glaciers, the Nhubine Himal has also been affected by shrinkage and overmelt. At the Gorkha Brewery, this means seasonal and waste clogging.
“The stream behind the factory becomes stagnant during the dry season [October and May]. When there is less water and water doesn't flow, it can naturally get clogged,” said Carlsberg’s Kunwar.
Meanwhile, in Nepal, a bare bone, civil rights-based resistance to the Gorkha Brewery was being carried out alone by a now-closed three-year-old petition, ‘Severe environmental pollution by Carlsberg in Nepal’, on Change.org.
With a maximum of 453 signees, the petition never quite trended.
It does seem that Denmark will now not have to carry the Narayani River’s environmental flag.
Sagar Kadariya, a local resident, told TRT World: “The factory has improved the situation significantly. It is not like in the past, and we are happy about it.”
Since September 2018, the Carlsberg factory in Nepal has made significant changes to its factory and DanWatch reported the same. The results of that month showed total suspended solids stood at 11.0 mg/l and total dissolved solids at 1230.0 mg/l.
The other breweries, however, continue to meddle with Narayani River.