10 July, 2009

Will work for food and water

Sushma Joshi
With the rising population, many communities in Nepal are on the edge of a major drinking water crisis

“Do you know who the current Prime Minister is?” we ask. The people of the Chidimar village eye the team of journalists scornfully and reply: “We don't know. Last time we checked it was Girija. Maybe now it's Fatteh Singh Tharu.”

They are being facetious. News media is too widespread these days for people not to know who is currently prime minister. But their answer, given with the shrug of indifference, underlies how the majority of Nepal's people feel very removed from the daily activities of the tiny handful who purport to rule the country.

The majority of Nepal's 26 millions have more important matters to think about. For instance, food and water. For a Chidimar community who live close to Nepalgunj, their main concern is water security. A project came in and installed 6 hand-pumps for 18 households. Now, only two work. The rest have dried up. This is a story heard with frequent and agonizing frequency all over the country. Communities who had water taps and handpumps installed within the last decade are now seeing a soaring ratio of dried out water taps.

Even more worrying than the dried out taps are the drying sources. A tap may dry out through a cut pipe, or water diversion into another household or community. But a dried out water source often signals that dreaded Nepali disease – chronic deforestation, absolute illiteracy about the need to maintain and recharge aquifiers, and a downplaying of traditional knowledge regarding alternative water harvesting, storage and management. Traditional methods like wells, which have served water-poor countries for millennia, were disregarded for the more sophisticated modern hand-pumps – leading to water being taken out, but never being put in.

With the rising population, many communities in Nepal are on the edge of a major drinking water crisis. But instead of solving the crisis in a more environmental friendly way which includes local water harvesting as well as forest conservation, the NGOs and government insist on their own wisdom – seek another source, further away, put polythene pipes, tap water. This robotic method neither questions itself to its own efficacy, nor wonders about how long this time this money-intensive method will serve the water needs of its users.

“We used to have springs before,” says Hasnu Chidimar, 70. “But after installing hand-pumps, they got forgotten.” The second source of their water is now 400 meters away, and many women have to go there to collect water.

Is the water shortage due to deforestation and the resulting aridity that comes when aquifers are not recharged? “There used to be jungles from here to Kohalpur,” says the old man. “Now they're all gone.”

For Radha Chidimar, 40, feeding and educating her children are her primary concerns. With three children, and a husband who works and makes Rs.100 per day, food is always a struggle. In her small and bare hut, I see the remains of the morning meal. We don't ask what they have eaten, although we do ask how much food costs – Rice is Rs.25/kg, Lentils Rs.100/kg. The villagers also eat vegetables – potatoes, tomatoes and gourds, which are grown easily in the fertile Tarai lands.

During strikes and bandhs, husband Maiko Chidimar (40) still finds casual work in bricklaying or yard work. But their income remains less than $50 per month. Despite the cash crunch, Maiko forbids his wife to go out and work since women only make a pittance compared to men. “I'll let you go and work on the day you make the same money as me,” he replies. “I don't want you breaking your back for Rs.10 per day.”

The most urgent need, says Maiko, is employment and agriculture. Would they be willing to take the 12 bigha of land in front of their village, now arid land owned by the local school, and use it to build an income generating activity like fishponds? “Of course,” they all reply. “We want it.”

It's not like the Chidimar, traditionally bird-trappers who made very little income, don't have access to credit. The local savings and credit group already has 2 lakhs in its account. So why is it not being used? “We don't dare take it because we don't know if we can pay it back,” Radha says simply.

For Hasnu Chidimar, 70, who comes and goes in politics matters little. His primary concern is his old age stipend, which arrived for three months, then stalled. When, he wants to know, will they restart the stipend? “There's money for the poor. The netas take it. Only when people like us rise, will something happen for people.”

As for the drought: “We don't care if there is no rain,” says Hasnu. “We'll leave and go to another country. We gave votes, we made kings. We got nothing in return. We will migrate to another place where we can grow something.”

Of course, this cocky statement of disregard for nationality doesn't really provide the easy, hoped-for solution. With global climate change affecting all countries with its own devastating specificity, Hasnu's plans for migration may not really provide him with the easy alternative he seeks. Television provides an all too heartbreaking reality check --drought in Manipur, migration of camelherders from Rajasthan to some wetter area till rains soak their own lands. The loss of bird species, which the Chidimar used to trap and sell, have already given them a clue that biodiversity is getting lost – and makes it easier for them to understand how water, trees and birds are inextricably linked.

More than migration, the answer may lie in planting trees and reviving dead forests, and in doing what our ancestors have done for centuries – digging deep wells which act both as water storage units during the rain-rich monsoon, and as irrigation and drinking water sources during the dry winter months. One day, the Chidimar, like urban dwellers, may have to think about concrete water harvesting tanks for each house. For now, wells may be a stopgap measure. Of course, wells by themselves are not the answer, but may be one potential solution, if somehow monsoon water could be stored inside it after it's taken off tin roofs and routed through those fabulous polythene pipes straight into the wells.

Hasnu listens to me attentively as I tell him water shortage is a global crisis, and would he be willing to dig a well for his community?

“Of course we can dig a well,” he answers readily. They used to have gaddas, 15 meters deep and 30 haat wide, before. This traditional water storage fell into disuse with the introduction of handpumps. “If somebody gave us rice to eat, we'd do it. Otherwise we'd have to go out to work to feed ourselves.” The fifteen crucial days it would take to dig the well is dependent on one simple fact – without food, people who live hand to mouth can't spare the time and labour that it would require to ensure the water security of their village.
(Joshi is the author of the "End of the World." You can find the book at Vajra, Mandala, Quixote's Cove, Pilgrims, United and other bookstores.)

Sushma Joshi

Posted on: 2009-07-10 20:30:33 (Server Time)

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