What is the steepest trail in the mountains that one can imagine walking on? The metaphorical representation of such a slope in the Nepali language is naak thokkine ukalo, i.e. a slope where one’s nose hits the slope while walking uphill. Such a trail is a ‘no–no’ even for a village person, but there are millions of such not so fortunate people, especially women, who have to walk daily on those trails to fetch domestic water, because the water sources are found in the springs that only appear hundreds of feet below the villages. This situation in most water literature is referred to as ‘women need walk for 2 to 3 hours to get water’. What these literatures do not mention, is the fact that more than half of this 2 to 3 hour involves walking uphill on one of those naak thokkine ukalo with a gagro (water pot) on the back.
This uncompromising verticality could not deter Nepali villagers, from making their living on these acutely water scarce villages for hundreds of years. With development, came water supply projects. Water projects became priority of politicians and planners alike in order to reduce this drudgery. Within three decades water supply coverage in the country crossed 80% mark, making all those involved very happy. Indeed, it has been a remarkable achievement. But the story does not end there. The drudgery has not ended; rather it has increased for a different reason that many water planners have no information about, and those who have information have no idea of what is going on, let alone finding solution to it. One can only be stunned upon learning the fact that springs have dried out after three decades of successful forestry programme in restoring greenery in the once degraded hills.
Something unusual is happening to the nearest water sources of these mountain villages. Drying of springs is not limited to drier areas of the country but to other places as well. As a response to the water crisis, people are migrating to new location where water is available. Shortage of water has also forced people to abandon villages. In the far-western district of Dadeldhura, for example, thirty families from two villages of Navadurga VDC close to the district headquarters, 23 families from Alital and 10 from Jogbuda have abandoned their villages due to water scarcity. The newspaper reports that Nwali, Makawanpur and Bhitrisain villages of Alital, and Rampur, Damang and others in Jogbuda have almost become empty. In some villages, the villagers have banned bathing in taps due to water shortage. The officials admit that more than 60 per cent of water sources in Dadeldhura have dried due to drought.
The story in the eastern part of country, which supposedly receives high rainfall compared to the west, is no different. More than four dozens families of Soyak VDC- in the district of Illam in eastern Nepal have been displaced in the past few years due to water scarcity. According to the reports, migration is on the rise because of water crisis. Villagers have a hard time finding buyers to sell their land. Most of the people in the village have migrated to the Tarai region where groundwater is easily available.
It was not a surprise to find that people in the village of Dhe of the rain shadow region in Upper Mustang, had to move to lower plains because the water from what little source they had, had gradually dried up. This has left the villagers with no option but to move. The entire village is shifting to the lower area close to Kali Gandaki flood plain where water is available.
There are equally alarming stories of water scarcity reported from the central part of the country. More than 300 households of village of Chharchharedada in Belghari VDC of Sindhuli were displaced after water sources dried making their already hard lives even more difficult. They migrated to lower valleys for five to six months only to take turns to look after their land and houses in the village until the springs got recharged in the monsoon. Most of the villagers made small huts close to the local streams below the villages. Those with no land close to the stream had to take refuge at relatives’ places.
Chharchharedada does have a well, but the water yield is so low that a person needs to wait for more than two hours to fill a bucket of water. Only the person reaching the well early can get water whereas other are forced to wait in a long queue or walk more than 5 kilometers and spend an entire day to bring home a bucket of water from a nearby source.
Something unusual and perhaps very serious is happening to the water sources in the hills and mountains. What is needed is not just debates on whether the climate is changing to affect water sources, or collecting more hydrological data to prove that things are changing significantly, or implementing cross basin water transfer projects; but simple solutions to help these people who endured unimaginable hardship of walking on naak thokkine ukalo with gagro full of water, and are now forced to abandon their homes. The challenge in front of the venerated water experts of the country is to suggest doable solutions.