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Water woes, tensions and wars


In 1988, the villagers of Gadhi in Makwanpur district rejoiced as an extensive drinking water supply project was all set to deliver water to their households. Finally their water woes would be over, they thought.

But diminishing water supply and increasing demands still keep the villagers struggling for sufficient drinking water. Additionally, they find themselves in constant conflict with the neighboring community of Tara for their share of water.

“The water spring lies in our area and you dare connect pipes and take away all our water?” shouts Rajesh Thapa, a resident of the upper Tara at Sita Ram Dahal, a resident from the lower Gadhi.

“There’s not enough water for us. Our water mills are drying up and if this continues, we don’t care. We’ll wreck your intake tanks and pipes.”

As Dahal squares it out with Thapa, villagers from Tara have gathered around the small teashop where once again a tiff has broken out. It goes on for an hour or more and Dahal, outnumbered, finally walks away grumbling, “They just don’t listen…”

Dahal, secretary of the Gadhi Drinking Water Supply Project User’s Committee, later says that the conflict has been going on for two years now.

According to him, the committee took over the project in 1997 as the service from the project was becoming irregular and inefficient due to lack of proper maintenance. With the help of the Federation of Water and Sanitation Users in Nepal (FEDWASUN), it lobbied and succeeded in receiving a separate budget for the rehabilitation of the nearly defunct project from the annual plan of the District Development Committee (DDC). Since then, he says, due to some miscommunication over financial aid and benefits to the local people, the upper village communities started opposing the project rehabilitation plan.

Previously, only the people from the lower villages of the area, who were concerned about their irrigation canals, were against the project rehabilitation. But the committee came to a settlement that some part of the budget would also be used to facilitate their irrigation canals.

“But the Upper Tara community claims that the people in the lower villages were bribed and they’ve been threatening to vandalize the project, solely to get some financial aid for their community as well,” says Dahal.

Moreover, the first priority is drinking water, and not irrigation facilities, as Dahal claims and sidelines the vehement claims of the villagers in Tara. But he fears dreadful consequences if the conflict remains unresolved.

The conflict in Gadhi is a micro-level case at national and global contexts. Balkrishna Pokharel, program manager at FEDWASUN, says that as water sources have started drying up, there have been more and worse conflicts.

FEDWASUN, which has been trying to mediate several of such conflicts between communities over water rights, has also intervened in conflict cases that have reached the courts. They are currently studying water conflicts in twelve districts of Nepal as case studies to analyze an overall study of nationwide water conflicts.

“Though the detailed report of our study is yet to be published, we’ve found that there are varied reasons for water scarcity and the resulting conflict – climate change, pollution – and many other political, communal and legal aspects have also given rise to conflicts over water in Nepal,” says Pokharel.

On the legal front, Pokharel points out that the Water Resource Act 2049 stating the right to use water for drinking purposes overrides the right to use the same water for any other (irrigation/commercial) purposes. Then again, Nepal has ratified ILO Convention 169 which advocates the right of indigenous people.

This means people from a certain community have prior rights to local resources, including water, than people outside the community.

“There already are cases where people belonging to a certain ethnic community have objected to give their water away to other communities. These contradictory laws, if combined with federal state governance according to ethnicity, can ignite more of such conflicts,” says Pokharel.

The Water Resource Act also states that the user’s committee of a certain water source has to register itself with the District Water Resources Committee. “Our studies have shown that users’ committees from one village register the water source belonging to other villagers as theirs, resulting to even graver conflicts.”

Mutual understanding and cooperation can help solve most of such conflicts, he says. But for the effects of environmental degradation on the water resources, we have to start acting on resource protection, or it may be too late.

To start with, even globally, drinkable or fresh water is already very limited. Though more than 70% of the Earth is covered with water, less than 3% of it is fresh; 99 % of which is unattainable, as it is either frozen in polar icecaps or lies underground, and most of which is too expensive to tap into and filter. So the lakes, rivers, marshes, aquifers and atmospheric vapor that make up less that 1%of the world’s total water is the actual amount available for human consumption.(Source: WHO, UNICEF,
In Nepal, according to available data with National Water Plan-Nepal, there is 225 BCM (billion cubic meters) of water available annually in the form of river water and almost 35 BCM underground. Out of that, only an estimated of 15 BCM has so far been utilized for different uses, such as drinking water, irrigation and hydropower due to lack of proper distribution and supply systems. But the demands at home and globally are at a surge.

The world’s population has tripled, and water demand has increased six times worldwide between 1950 and 1990. Both the United Nations and the United States Government estimate that by 2015, at least 40% of the world’s population will lack adequate water supply. Water shortages will affect the livelihood of one-third of the world’s population by 2025, experts predict.

In Nepal, census data indicates that its population has grown from nine million in 1950 to 29 million (estimated) in 2010. A study report by the Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board (KVWSMB) in 2007-2008 outlined that the current water demand of the capital city alone is 280 million liters a day (MLD), exceeding the available water supply of 140 MLD by Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL). As the water demands rise with the population growth and industrialization, the water reserves in Nepal face imminent threats.

“A report by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had claimed that the snow in the Nepali mountains that are the source of most major rivers in Nepal would all be gone by 2035, but it wasn’t justifiable,” says Gautam Raj Karnikar, Senior Divisional Engineer at Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS). “The immediate danger that we all should be alert about currently, however, is the growing possibility of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) that can be massively destructive.”

According to a report by International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal has already experienced 22 catastrophic GLOFs, including 10 GLOFs in Tibet/China damaging some parts in Nepal as well. Moreover, a recent inventory carried out by ICIMOD and UNEP shows that out of 2,323 glacial lakes, there are some 20 potential dangerous ones in Nepal, most of which are in the eastern region.

When the Dig Tsho glacial lake in the Sagarmatha zone flooded the Dudh Koshi sub-basin in 1985, it damaged Namche’s hydropower station, 14 bridges, cultivated lands and so on. The report cites that most of the major settlements, infrastructure and trekking routes are at the lower terraces of GLOF risk area.

Karnikar points out that these GLOFs, however, pose threat to not just these settlements in the mountainous region but also the livelihoods of people in the downstream valleys and alongside the river basins. Moreover, the damage caused by GLOFs is not a one-time occurrence; it is followed by continuous erosion and landslide phenomenon with the threat of danger throughout the year, experts say.

The report also states that the warming trend in Nepal was 0.6°C per decade between 1977 and 2000, which is much greater than the global average of 0.74°C over the last 100 years, which further escalates the risks of GLOFs. The ICIMOD report also states that as an impact of global warming, 50 lakes are growing and 22 new lakes have been formed after 2000 alone.

“Besides, climate change has also caused changes in rainfall pattern. So, even though there is more snowfall, snowmelt begins very early and the water runs off too quickly without retaining much snow in the mountains,” says Karnikar. “As Nepal doesn’t have good water storage facilities and a lot of it remains untapped, almost all the water is still running off.”

Karnikar also points out that the monsoon now sees more occasional heavy rain than regular drizzles that increases runoffs. So, there’s not enough groundwater recharge, due to which many aquifers or underground water reserves are also drying up.

He shares that on one hand the warming trend has increased water flow in most snow-fed rivers and due to aquifer depletion, water flow in non-snow-fed rivers such as Kankai and Bagmati has decreased to a great extent.

The effects of climate change here and in the greater Himalayan region, also called the “the roof of the world” can affect the people not just in Nepal but more than 1.3 billion people who find their livelihoods in the basins of the 10 largest rivers in Asia that these Himalayan glaciers are source to. Moreover, the region and its water resources play an important role in global atmospheric circulation, biodiversity, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, and hydropower, as well as in the production of commodities exported to markets worldwide.

Water sustains life, and civilizations have been displaced due to unavailability of water. Recent reports inform us of villages being displaced due to water crunch. Pokhari Gaon in Dadeldhura district is one recent example. Its people completely abandoned the 200-year-old settlement as they could no longer bear the brunt of traveling for hours to fetch one pail of water.

Water is already scarce. Top that with industrial pollution and mismanaged sanitation contaminating freshwater resources, the availability of clean drinking water is dwindling rapidly; additionally having adverse effects on human health as well.

According to WaterAid Nepal, 16 million Nepalis still defecate out in the open that can directly contaminate water sources. In these conditions, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) -associated diseases remain among the top 10 causes of morbidity in Nepal. WaterAid estimates that 10,500 children die every year as a result of such diseases. That is 28 children everyday.

The official statistics from the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (DWSS) claim that national water supply coverage and sanitation coverage is 80.4% and 43%, respectively. However, sector review reports from WaterAid Nepal say that water coverage is only 53% if the functionality of water supply is considered, without even accounting for water quality. Meanwhile, though Nepal has come a long way in improving sanitation, with latrine coverage rising from 6% in 1990 to 43% 2009, improved and hygienic latrine coverage is only 27%.

Moreover, the Government of Nepal has signed  the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) under which it needs to achieve 73% drinking water coverage and 53% sanitation coverage by 2015. It also declared to achieve the goal of universal access to water and sanitation by 2017.

“The government is carrying out several district-level projects under its rural water supply and sanitation project to achieve the target goal. We already have 80% coverage and we can surely achieve the goal of universal access in Nepal by 2017, provided we have enough funds,” says Suman Sharma, spokesperson at the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works (MoPPW).

WaterAid report calculates that the annual budget allocated for water supply coverage by the Government of Nepal is about Rs 4.64 billion which sums up to be sufficient to meet the MDG and national goals. However, the annual budget for sanitation sector is only Rs 360 million, whereas a total of Rs 1 billion is required annually for universal access by 2017.

As water sources get depleted or polluted and the natural water cycle is disrupted, causing increasing water shortage, it is bound to invite more conflicts. In 1995, World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin predicted an acute water shortage for the new millennium and warned “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”

The prediction could materialize as the price of water, in many countries, seems to reach the same or even higher than the price of oil.

In case of Nepal, water supply prices have almost doubled in ten years. As per the records of Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), whereas in 1999, the rate per 1,000 liters was Rs 9.70, in 2009, after KUKL started running under public-private partnership, the rate has increased to Rs 17.50.

Ratan Bhandari, President of Water and Energy User’s Federation, Nepal (WAFED) who has been studying the effects of privatization of water, points out that the water supply system in Kathmandu and in Nepal could also add more to water conflicts in the future.

Nepal as a developing country with huge international debts, Bhandari also expresses his concern that most of the negotiations on big water and energy projects have been done in favor of the investors, multinational banks and funding nations. With the corporate world trying to commodify and privatize water worldwide, organizations such as WAFED have been advocating that water is and should be a basic human right.

According to Bhandari, when something as basic as water is privatized, consequences can be dire. “The well-off people will get by. But in case the tariff for water supply services fluctuates, the poor will be the most adversely affected,” he says.

Tashi Tenzing, a retired World Bank staff who worked in the Water Supply and Sanitation Project with Nepal Water Supply Corporation in early 2001, says that private-sector participation in water supply sector is a complex issue.

“On one hand, while the private sector can bring changes with elements of proper management and has more deliverance capacity than the public sector, they also have profit objectives. Unless both public and private sectors are in a win-win situation, and whereas private sectors are regulated by strong legislation, the public and private sector participation design can’t be well done,” he says.

Bhandari also adds that most irrigation and hydropower projects deprive local people of the right of water to  some extent. He cites an instance. The West Seti hydro project was planned in such a way that the locals had to take permission from the contractors of the project to use the river water for any of their irrigational purposes. The project would benefit India and the company but most Nepali farmers and citizens of the area would be losers.

“Water treaties like Tanakpur barrage and Gandak barrage projects have also deprived Nepali citizens of their right over their water resources. Such treaties have often given rise to continual bilateral conflicts with the neighboring country, India,” he says.

When the Kali Gandaki hydropower project came into operation, the nearby villages had to face major water crisis when their water sources dried out. Bhandari believes that, if not properly managed, the Melamchi project could also cause similar problems, and when such projects focus solely on profits and fail to address the needs of the local people, it will definitely give rise to people’s protests against the government.

“Government officials often complain that the locals of a given project site create constant obstacles with demands and opposition, but you also have to consider the fact that these are the very people who will be immediately affected,” he says. “No project can be carried out or sustained without local participation and cooperation.”

Defending the government’s stance, Sharma says that though there has not been any documentation of conflict cases as a result of water scarcity in any development project site, it is  made sure that the local people have some benefits.

“Development projects don’t just provide job opportunities and better livelihood. In cases such as the Melamchi project, the project board also carry out different social welfare programs to benefit the community as well.”

In the future, as drinkable water becomes scarce, water resources experts concur that Nepal can reap good benefits if it finds a way to trade its freshwater with the neighboring countries. However, their major concern is that it might get misused and privatized by corporate forces beforehand.

As the water supply sources of Nepal face pressure from all sides – increasing water demands to climate change effects, contamination and pollution, and privatization threats – the water woes for Nepal don’t seem to end, but rather increase.

From petty brawls among women cueing up to fetch a vessel of water from diminishing water sprouts in Kathmandu Valley to constant debates such as in Gadhi, bilateral conflicts and wars over water  all point to rising tensions. However, despite water scarcity, some communities have managed to utilize the available water resources with mutual understanding.

In the remote area of Tallo Sarangdi in Baglung, the villagers of Amalachal have sustained their water supply project by taking its ownership. The Tallo Sarangdi Drinking Water Project was set up with the help of Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH), an NGO working in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. Not only did it help supply clean water to their households but it also trained them to set up a users’ committee and maintenance fund.

After the committee took over the project, it has been running under the community’s ownership. It also carries out maintenance programs with minimal amounts they collect from the users. The maintenance fund further introduced to them the concept of saving and cooperative. Now they have formed Shree Shivalaya Saving and Loan Cooperative Organization that has provided basic banking facilities to the community.

Rajendra Singh, the Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning water conservationist from India, once said in an interview with New Scientist, “Communities should manage their water resources and the government should help them. In a democracy, it is the duty of the government to make sure every person has drinking water. If the government is unable to provide it, it should take help from communities. They can work together.”

Singh also states that when a government fails in water management and hands over to the private sector, it has to be community-based because “if multinationals gain control of water, they will squash the rights of the poor.”

Nepal has great  advantages of location and the abundance of the freshwater reserves. However, without proper conservation, mutual cooperation and careful legal treaties, water scarcity problems and rising conflicts will continue to be a damning paradox for this country, considered as one of the most water-rich countries in the world.
The Week
Published on 2011-07-29 12:45:58


About WashMedia-South Asia

WashMedia-South Asia is a group of South Asian journalists working on water, sanitation and hygiene issues. Theses journalists are from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.


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