30 October, 2005

Water, Water Everywhere

It is urgent that water, which remains Nepal's strongest resource, not fall in the hands of decision-makers who will exclude the majority of users. Sushma Joshi explores the politics of water and development in rural Nepal.
This piece originally appeared in Samar 21, published online October 30th, 2005, and Znet, the online portal of Z magazine, in November 2005.

As a child growing up in Kathmandu, I became familiar with the splutter of a pipe trying to pull water and coming up with empty air. Kathmandu is a paradox—it is a Valley surrounded by the Himalayas, the mountain range which fulfills the water needs of an entire subcontinent, and yet it is unable to satisfy its own demands. Kathmandu used to be filled with rivers and ponds, until the eighties, when I was growing up. Today, tankers go through the city, selling people their quota of drinking water for the week.

My childhood training in using minimal amounts of water led to spats with eco-concious but high consumption hippies with whom I shared a co-operative house at Brown University, where I found myself at age nineteen. I watched a woman as she boiled an entire pot of water for a cup of tea, then liberally poured the other cups of clean, boiled and unused water down the sink. My suggestion that simply boiling the needed cupful would save water and energy was waved aside as a Third World anxiety. Even my relationships suffered-- asking a boyfriend to shut the tap for the minute or two it took to brush his teeth or soap the dishes, I found out, was most likely to be read as control-freakiness in the United States.

After graduation from college in 1997, I returned home to Nepal. A friend who worked with CECI, a Canadian development agency, hired me to do an evaluation of a water project in Dadeldhura. As a consultant, my job was to conduct interviews with women whose life had been impacted by the drinking water system brought with the active intervention of the development agency. The stories I brought back would be used for a conference in Canada. I was asked to take photographs as well as collect pots for the exhibit. My assignment was framed as one in which I would tell a success story. I went there expecting to find one.

Dadeldhura is in the far-West of Nepal. In the morning, I woke up to icy cold water coming out of the tap, in which we brushed our teeth and washed our faces. It was a startling and refreshing experience. The doorless toilet faced the snow-capped mountains, and I watched the sun rise as I squatted on the little charpi toilet. The spectacular landscape was matched only by the lack of amenities in the villages. For the next three weeks, I traveled through the villages with a couple of engineers, who had come to inspect the irrigation and storage tanks I was going to photograph.

My first morning, I talked to the women and girls who clustered around the functioning taps with their pots. Dressed in colorful reds and oranges, the women carried water containers of all shapes and sizes, including recycled kerosene cans. I asked them when and how they had started to get piped drinking water. They told me that the pipes and taps had arrived in their village two years ago. Water had flowed for the first few months, but soon the taps had started to go dry, the pipes had been cut, and the system had started to malfunction. Most drinking water systems in the villages were broken down and in a state of disrepair, while others had run dry.

After a few interviews, it became apparent that there was deep conflict around this issue. Nepal's terrain shoots up thousands of feet in the air. A house in the same village can be located hundreds of feet above its neighbours' house. The houses perched higher on the slopes did not receive as much water as their low-land neighbours. This angered the houseowners, and they cut the pipes in order to stop their villagers from enjoying the benefits of the co-operatively funded system.

Tellingly, the women who were supposed to benefit from the new system told me that while their lives had briefly changed for a few months, the disrepair and non-maintenance had soon led them back to the rivers to fetch their daily ration of water. One old woman complained that a beautifully constructed irrigation tank in the middle of the village, which was not being used but instead zealously guarded as an aesthetic and decorative feature by the man who chaired the water users' committee, would have been a useful tank for her cattle to drink from. Instead, the tank was fenced in and she had to walk three hours down to the river to water her cattle.

When I came back, I wrote up the oral histories according to what my informants had told me. I handed the interviews in. A new supervisor read over my fieldwork ethnography and told me tactfully that while the information I had gathered was very interesting, I would need to submit—in her own words—a "censored version." The censored version had to include narratives where women explained how much their lives had changed with the advent of the pipes and taps, but had to leave out the conclusion about mismanagement. Then she told me she was sorry she could not stay and talk to me more, but she had to rush out for a meeting with the World Bank.

This was one of my first encounters with the industry of development. For an idealistic graduate, it was a shock to realize that most development agencies ran on their own imperatives of programmatic goals and objectives, that the end goal was to satisfy the donors rather than their "target" group. Mistakes and mismanagement, it appeared, were not acknowledged.

Two years after this eye-opening experience, I was selected by a Dutch film company, funded by IRC Netherlands, to make a documentary about another drinking water project. This was in the village of Lele, a few hours away from Kathmandu. The project was implemented by Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH), a Nepali NGO. Again, as an outside consultant, I was given a liberal hand in representing what was going on at the grassroots level. I was asked by the Dutch film company to use my own judgement and to show the real state of affairs in the community. The Nepali NGO, on the other hand, was clear it wanted a success story. The villagers of Lele wanted their own version—a sit-com along the lines of the INGO-funded media serials that often appeared on Nepal Television. As a director, I was asked to merge these three desires and demands into one film—and I was given a very tight budget to do it.

I made several choices about how the documentary would be made. First, I wanted to focus on the reality of the community and their issues, rather than highlighting the accomplishment of the Kathmandu-based office. Later, I would realize this was a mistake not only because the men in Kathmandu remain important decision-makers, but also because their presence and expectations would have given a whole new dimension to the way development works. Secondly, I wanted the story to come out through the words of the village people themselves, rather than through narration. For better or worse, these two directorial choices dictated the form of the final product.

Documenting a community project can take on the same level of time management and organizational skills as implementing a project itself. I sympathized with the difficulties that the field workers who had put the drinking water system in place must face as I tried to arrange interviews, make shooting dates, and co-ordinate between the different parties involved. The phone in the village did not work very well. I often found myself taking an expensive taxi ride to Lele, three hours out of the Valley on a bumpy, dusty road to find out that all the people had gone to Kathmandu for a meeting.

The "village" actually turned out to be two villages. One was composed of Chettris, the upper caste group, with a few households of tailors (considered untouchables); and a village higher up composed of Tamangs, an ethnic group that was considered to be lower on the caste hierarchy but who maintained a fierce independence as well as their own language and religion. The project had put together these three communities as a unit. The water users group was headed by a younger man who was from an affluent, upper caste family. The Dutch filmmaker who was managing the project suggested I focus on him as a character who had brought the village together and created a successful project. While the young leader was dynamic and appeared to be doing a good job, it became apparent that things were not going as well as they appeared on the surface.

The project had facilitated and put together a water users committee. They had implemented a monthly fee that people paid for the maintenance of the water system. A thousand rupee fee, paid by an outside mineral water company for the privilege of bottling the village's spring water, was also put in the kitty to maintain and build the water system.

As the meetings progressed, it became increasingly clear that the water users group was dominated by a group of wealthy men who did not allow democratic decision-making. There was no transparency in how the funds were being used. People were unclear about how their monthly fee was used, and for what purpose. Half of them had declined to pay.

More importantly, although women had been initially included in the water users' group, they remained there only as a token presence. They were not active participants who took part in maintenance and building. Since women were the main users of water, there was little imperative to repair the taps when they broke down.

A few days later, I went to the Tamang village, perched a little higher up on the mountain, where an extremely active women's group was operating. Formed through the intervention of another INGO, this women's group not only saved money and bought cattle on a regular basis, it had also brought a toilet into every house. The contrast between a women's group actively changing their community, and a user group where women felt frustrated and inadequately informed, was stark.

Caste was an important factor in the community. Lower caste households, including the tailors, were fearful of the Chettris who monopolized the decision-making process. One of the tailors reported his middle son's tap had been taken away by the committee. When I asked him why, he said he had no idea. There was no system of justice or recourse in this situation. Since water is a marker of purity, and lower caste groups are often not allowed to touch the water before their high-caste counterparts, there are a lot of underlying tensions about access and allocation. In another meeting, a jhankri (shaman) from the Tamang community seemingly got drunk and berated the water users group for their lack of respect of him in the presence of the foreign funders—in retrospect, it was apparent that he was probably the only man in his community who could get away by telling the truth without fearing repercussions.

An accident that left me with multiple fractures on my wrist while shooting the last day left me with no choice but to edit speedily with the help of benevolent assistants. My rough-cut apparently did not please the decision-makers in Kathmandu: I was asked to edit out footage, which I considered important to the narrative, including an elderly tailor woman because she "mumbled." I thought she was one of the most important characters in the film, highlighting the segregated nature of a society where caste was very much alive, and which impacted the way the community functioned.

The video was well received by the village community and the Dutch funders. The decision-makers in Kathmandu didn't like it, and the next version of the video was made by some other more amenable filmmaker. Pani was eventually shortened down to 30 minutes and was shown on the Q and A with Riz Khan on CNN International, as well as the World Water Forum in Kyoto, where it ignited a lively discussion.

Nepal is a country whose main resource is hydropower. Who will reap the benefits of this hydropower and when remains in question. Decades of extreme inequality between different strata of Nepali society has finally exploded into the most active conflict in South Asia. A civil conflict between the Maoists and the Army rages, bringing most of Nepal's public life to a standstill.

Yet India, just across the border, has been pressuring Nepal to give more and more of its water over to its larger neighbour. International companies vie with each other to get lucrative, multi-billion dollar water contracts. This water, if properly tapped, would provide water and electricity not just to Nepal but also to the other major countries of the subcontinent, including India and Bangladesh, say optimists.

But it's not that easy. The Melamchi project, which modestly aims to tap water from the Melamchi area to fulfill the needs of Kathmandu, is already a disaster. The South Korean company contracted to do it bid so cheaply it is now unable to finish the work. Locals from the area are not compensated for the water that has been taken away, and they are unsure the project will leave them enough water for their own drinking needs. This unfair appropriation where water is diverted from areas without concern for local usage is sure to be the norm if and when the larger hydropower projects start to take hold in Nepal.

A strong grassroots movement was able to stop the megadam in the Arun Valley in Nepal. Proposed by the World Bank, this dam would have cost 1.1 billion dollars. Activists protested, saying that the cost was unreasonably high, and the building time excessively long. Besides, Nepal did not have the manpower to maintain this dam. The World Bank eventually caved under the public pressure. This was one of the first instances in which a grassroots movement had impacted public spending in Nepal, and was a landmark moment.

Today, mega hydro-projects continue to get proposed in Nepal. Millions of dollars are in the pipeline. Most of that money will disappear in the pockets of the capital's development elite. Almost none of the money, it is certain, will benefit local communities from which the sources of water originate.

The argument that mega hydro-projects would benefit all segments of society is a fallacy. Marginalized groups of society, including women and lower caste people, will continue to suffer as long as the water gets routed to those who can pay in urban areas. Even in urban areas, wealthier neighborhoods will get more than the poorer ones, as the full swimming pools of five star hotels in Kathmandu show.

What is to be done in this situation? There are other untapped alternatives, say activists who have worked on this issue for a long time. Even Kathmandu's water needs, they point out, can be met through repair and maintenance of old pipes. Poorly maintained pipes are major culprits in leaking precious water to the ground. The other option is rainwater tanks, the models that have been so useful in drought-prone countries like Australia. These tanks capture the wealth of the monsoon and allow a family to bathe, wash dishes and water their garden comfortably for a year.

It is urgent that water, which remains Nepal's strongest resource, not fall in the hands of decision-makers who will exclude the majority of users. Women in Nepal continue to walk an average of three hours to fetch water for their daily needs. Nepal's haphazard stewardship of her natural resources, including the drastic deforestation of hills, is partly responsible for the yearly catastrophe of floods in the Indian and Bangladeshi plains. Poor farmers shaving raw hilltops of trees are only partly to blame—multinationals from India have also moved in and started to harvest alpine herbs and trees in massive and unsustainable quantities, without any opposition from either the state, which is not present in most areas outside district headquarters, or the Maoists. It is imperative, more than ever, to work together as a region and create a system where all people living in the subcontinent can benefit from the wealth of water resources of Nepal. Unfortunately, heavy-handed moves by Indian politicians to instigate unequal water sharing agreements have made the Nepali stakeholders wary, and uncooperative, of any future water treaties. A unilateral proposal to link rivers inside the Indian state has left environmentalists protesting about the potential impacts upstream.

But India is not the only country in the region that needs to work more carefully and sensitively to create a fair and environmentally friendly vision of shared wealth and shared resources. Large multi-nationals and international corporations from Europe have also moved into Nepal, trying to grab control of nature's freest gift and turn it into a commodity. If multinational entities like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, in cahoots with companies from Italy and France utilizing wealthy Kathmandu elite as their spokespersons become the bodies that decide where water gets routed, for what purpose, and at what price, Nepal will not just lose her economic independence, but also her political sovereignty.

Of course, water is never just a national issue. The impact of global forces—including global warming and ozone depletion caused by petroleum overusage—is felt most drastically in the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers. More worrisome than the burst of glacial lakes is the prediction that the entire area of the Northern Indian subcontinent, including Nepal and parts of north India, will be out of water in 40 years as the ice recedes and the snows no longer accumulate to create the spring melt needed to fill the rivers. This is a drastic prediction, but one which needs to be given urgent consideration and active follow-up by policy-makers, and voters, around the globe.

A civil conflict rages in Nepal, disrupting the democratic process and leaving a stateless void in most parts of the country. Some observers say that nothing can be done in other sectors until the conflict is resolved, and peace is restored. But dealing equitably with issues like water, and making sure that future international agreements take all stakeholders fully into account, may actually be the first path towards a negotiated peace.

18 October, 2005

Indira Suzuki: Ethical Leadership in Tokyo

18/10/2005, Kantipuronline.com

Indira actively supports new and old Nepali migrants, giving personal loans, paying rents for those who are fired from work, finding new jobs, accompanying people to hospitals, organizing new festivities and events.

06 October, 2005

The Melting Glaciers of Manang

SIU's publication is here: www.siu.no/vev.nsf/o/ SIUs+publications-Global+Knowledge-The+Melting+Glaciers

Original unedited article: Sushma Joshi

The glaciers of the Himalayas are receding faster than any other glaciers in the world, including those in the Alps, Andes or Rockies. After the two polar caps, the Himalayan glaciers are third in line as fastest melting bodies of ice. So say researchers from a host of respected international organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Integrated Center for Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the International Commission for Snow and Ice.
ICIMOD has predicted that glacial dams will burst, triggering wide-scale floods that will affect large populations. The Commission for Snow and Ice also that this will lead to severe water shortage in Northern part of the Indian subcontinent as early as in thirty years time. The melt is thought to be triggered by rising temperatures and other climatic changes caused by greenhouse gases and ozone depletion.
Dr. Ram P Chowdhary, professor of Botany at Tribhuwan University, Kathmandu, teamed up with a research team from the University of Bergen, Norway, to look at the local effects of large scale global changes on a community in Mustang, Nepal. Dr. Chowdhary, who believes scientists have to work with society, met up with journalist Sushma Joshi for this interview in Kathmandu.

What's special about Manang?
Manang is a high altitude, geographically isolated community with a very low population. A large number of Himalayan glaciers - more than 50 - are based in the Manang district. These include both small and large glaciers.

What do Manang's people do?
There are two kinds of Manangis: those who became involved in international trade after King Mahendra gave them special rights to this trade in 1960s and who subsequently left to settle in urban areas like Kathmandu. Some people from this group have returned to invest in hotels in Manang, but they stay predominantly in urban areas. And then there are those who still live in Manang and farm for a living. These folks also do cross-border trading of salt for grain, and keep horses during November to March. They descend down to lower altitudes during the other months. About 9000 people still maintain this lifestyle.

What kind of crops do people in Manang grow?
We don't know the history of what crops were cultivated. But we do know what is grown in Manang in the present: primarily wheat, barley, potato and buckwheat. Wheat, a new introduction, is increasingly replacing barley, which requires more labor to grow and to clean. I thought wheat was grown for tourist consumption, but apparently the tourists don't like wheat ground in water mills, but prefer the white flour brought in from Pokhara. The people use the stone ground wheat to feed their horses!
One interesting thing about wheat in Manang is that the rate of productivity is higher than the national average - about 4 tons of wheat grows per hectare in this area. Cowdung is mixed with pine-pitch to fertilize the land. There is also a very low boron content in the soil. We could probably replicate the conditions for higher wheat yield in other parts of the world.

Has the agricultural pattern changed since the glaciers started to melt?
The southern glaciers are melting faster than the northern glaciers, according to some colleagues of ours who came and looked at the way the sun was hitting the surface of the glaciers. We are now keeping track of climate change through a "Climate Logger", a little yellow box with red and green lights, which is installed on both the north and south slopes of the Manang glaciers. The majority of the fields are in the south. Because the glaciers are melting, this will clear more land for agriculture. But land is not a problem in Manang, there is already a lot of land available for agriculture. Irrigation is more of a problem. The source of water is getting further away from the fields. Consequently, more labor is required to repair and maintain canals every year. Because there is a big labor shortage in Manang, repairing canals become difficult.

What other changes are predicted after the glaciers melt?
The fauna and flora will change as climates rise. Now people raise sheeps in the high pasturelands. This will probably change to goats as the temperatures go up. Also, people use forest resources - pine pitch mixed with cowdung, and birch - for fuel. These trees may also give way to other trees, depending upon how many degrees the temperature goes up.

Which are the communities most affected by glacial melt?
Ghyaru and Khangsar villages, for examples, are most severely affected by glacier melt. Even the glaciers in the north are rapidly melting - older people remember that the glaciers used to be almost at the foothills, now they have receded. Small glaciers would provide water during spring. Spring is the most crucial time for agriculture -- for planting and the first weeding. But nowadays there is less water during April, when planting has to start. Ghyaru and Khangsar villages depend upon rainwater but this is a very unpredictable source.

Are there a lot of fields abandoned in this area? Would you say these villages could be abandoned in ten years time?
There is a lot of fallow land, a lot of outmigration. I wouldn't doubt it could get abandoned in a few years time.

Is the government doing anything about the situation in Manang?
It has given local communities some water pipes, which has eased the stress on repairing irrigation canals.

Has there been a lot of out-migration of Manangi people?
Outmigration has increased. There are multiple factors for this - there is a lack of tourists and other opportunities in Manang, as well as the water shortages caused by glaciers melting. Because the young people leave, a lot of the traditional knowledge around herbs and healings are not being transmitted by the amchis (healers.)

Managis who have left have done very well outside. Some of them have hotels in Austria, Hongkong and Bangkok.

Is there a lot of tourism in Manang? How has that affected the local population and lifestyle?
Until 2001, there was a dramatic increase in tourists. Around 40,000 people would visit Manang every year. The local people were happy with the foreign earnings. But since 2002 (When Emergency was declared in Nepal), there has hardly been any tourists.

Tourism led to economic empowerment, health care, and social equity. But it also had negative impacts. The tourists came from April-May to September-October - which was also the planting and harvesting time. So the industry took labor away from agriculture, and it was difficult to get enough people to repair irrigation canals. This led to seasonal laborers from Gorkha and Lamjung and other parts of Nepal working in Manang to fulfill labor needs. These laborers are primarily Brahmin, Chettri and Biswokarmas. But even if the outsiders have money, they are not allowed to buy land in Manang.

Do locals who have migrated come back and invest in Manang's local economy?
Besides the hotels, there has been a lot of new building of goombas. For the past three years, people have been investing in their culture. For instance, they airlifted a statue for the Milarepa (an ancient Tibetan sage) caves. The status is installed outside the caves. It apparently cost 11 lakhs for the statue, and 8 lakhs to charter the plane.

So the links between the expatriate Manangis and the ones living in Manang are still very strong.
There is a big festival in Manang, and recently the community decided that every Manangi family living outside must send at least one member to attend, otherwise they have to pay a fine. People can pay fines but their social status goes down if they don't show up.

Is the community decision-making process still very strong in Manang?
In Hongay, there was an incident when an outside came in and killed a deer. This was a very grave offence, and the community fined the outsider as well as his local guide. The outsider could pay the fine, but the local couldn't, so he had to leave everything and move to Kathmandu. That's how strong their decisions still are. They are also very good on conservation issues. They recently decided to ban yarchagumba, a rare herb, from being harvested because the plants were getting depleted. Their word is law in this district.


Manang remains a community that has been hard-hit by both the impacts of global climatic changes as well as the flow of globalization. But the impacts, as the interview shows, has been mixed. While many people have left their traditional lifestyles for bigger pastures, others have remained back to maintain the traditional lifestyle. The links between those who left and those who stayed have remained strong, and will no doubt help to create more links and bridges between the two worlds. The remittances from the outside world has helped maintain tradition and culture. On the other hand, the strong traditional decision-making process, which has decreed that local land should not be sold to outsiders, ensures that natural resources are not overconsumed and depleted, leading to some measures of protection for the environment and for an age-old lifestyle.

( Both Norwegian and Nepali students benefited from the field research they conducted for this project. Nepali students rarely get the chance to do research in their own country, especially in remote areas, due to the high costs of airfare and living. Generous funding for nine masters and two Ph.D students has allowed for this possibility, and built the capacity for Nepalis to understand the issues of their own country.)