Panchkhal Valley in central Nepal is one of many areas in its middle mountain region that has progressively suffered from drying water sources in the last decade. Unless someone is regularly measuring the discharge to compare with the base line information, the dilemma with water is that when its sources begin to deplete initially, it is difficult to verify let alone quantify it, which many people including the decision makers demand to get convinced and take the matter seriously. Unfortunately, we do not have such baseline figures for water sources in the villages. And of course, no two successive years have the same quantity of water flow anyway: there is variability. So, most people consider depletion of sources, when they are reported, as a normal phenomenon. Some even take the easy way out to blame the users for extracting more water causing the depletion. But the water problem being observed in the Panchkhal Valley seems to be more than that, and if not taken seriously can be lot worse in the next few years.
It was only in 2007, that few springs in the upland showed sign of drying earlier than in the years before. Irrigation channels had reduced flow in May when farmers needed to irrigate vegetables. Some irrigation channels had stopped supplying water due to lack of water at the intake. Farmers in upland could no longer grow vegetables that they had been growing for more than three decades, while the land in the valley along the Jhiku Khola (the only stream in the valley) were covered by rich green farms because farmers there were pumping water from the Khola using kerosene pumps. In general, vegetable supply from the area suffered. The story of water shortages became news. Government declared some of these areas as ‘drought affected’ especially after the paddy plantation failed.
Since then, the valley seems to be getting drier every year. The springs in the lower parts of the hills, which are supposed to yield sufficient water even in the driest month of May and June have also reduced discharge. As a result, the local water sources such as wells and Kuwa had to be put under lock and key to save remaining water. Further down in the valley, the Jhiku Khola has responded in the similar manner. It has ceased to flow even in the middle of the monsoon. In winter, the dry Jhiku Khola is used as road by trucks that go into the inner villages to collect vegetables.
Potato is grown in winter in the valley. Potato crop requires lot of water which the farmers extracted by digging pits in the river bed. Because the Khola does not have flowing water, every farmer having land adjacent to the Khola dug such pits that cost about 10 – 20,000 rupees to dig using bull dozers. The pits used to provide enough water for pumping daily. Come monsoon, the pits got filled with debris rocks and sand. Farmers had to re-dig the pits the next winter. There are hundreds of such pits all along the Jhiku Khola. As the Khola has not flooded like in the past for more than three years, the pits have not been filled with debris.
Since 2013, the scenario began to change further. Water in the pits also went down. Water can be pumped every other day limiting the area that it can irrigate. What this means is that the green farms that existed around the Khola have shrunk in size. Lack of irrigation at critical times has now cost dearly for farmers.
The ponds have been developing scums, which is an indication that the farmers have not been pumping as much water as in the past. Consequently, many terraces either remain fallow or have dying maize vegetable plants on them.
The efforts of the past four decades to improve agriculture in the valley by making irrigation channels (there are more than 30 such channels) and other inputs have turned out to be going in vain just because the water sources have ceased to exist in many areas. It is a national loss. One does not need to begin calculating what the costs of drought is. It is purely seen in the naked field that have dead maize plants at a time when it is about to bear fruits.
A simple question needs to be asked: ‘what happened to the water?’
This simple question perhaps is the most difficult to answer. It is not that more people are drawing water, nor is it that deforestation in the watershed has caused drying of springs. And it is not at all, the Climate Change, because no one has yet established if the climate has changed. It is only speculation and projection. The local hydro-met station does not show any sign of reduced rainfall or significant rise in temperature. And yet, the question remains: ‘what happened to the water?’
NB: Photo by: Arun Rai taken on May 24, 2014.