For our regular annual field visit, last week we visited Panchkhal. This was our 10th visit to Panchkhal in the last 10 year, which we have been doing every summer since 2007 to study the water problem in the area from below the town of Dhulikhel to the valley of Panchkhal. The incentive for us to visit the same places and talk to the same families every year is the fact that one could see the progressive decline in water availability in the area year after year, and examine the responses being made from national to local level to solve the water problem.
Every year the mere sight of drying springs and wells gave us goose bumps; it made us realize how fast the water has been disappearing in the area. We kept asking where had the water gone? The visit this time, however, was quite depressing because the stone spouts that had gone dry after the earthquake near the village of Khawa did not flow even during the monsoon last year. The farms and the homestead garden of the villagers have turned into barren slopes. We realized that the aquifer that provided water to the stone spout has been squeezed so tightly by the Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015 that it will probably never flow again. We can only wait to see what happens this monsoon.
In the same place, there is a well dug by a local entrepreneur in a rocky slope on the road side. This well was dug two years ago by shear chances. It so happened that the owner, a hotel entrepreneur, was cutting the rocky slope to make space to open up a road side restaurant. While cutting through the rock, he saw some water seeping out of the cracks in the rock, which he was so happy to see in a water scarce hill slope. He then built a well about 30 feet deep using concrete rings in the same spot, which is now in the kitchen of his restaurant. The well provided water to him and his neighbors until last year. This time, the well has almost dried and it barely yields enough water for his family and restaurant.
Further down at Tin Piple, there is a small well on the road side that was kept under lock and key since 2013, when the water in the well decreased substantially. The local people would open the well twice a day to distribute whatever water was collected in the well in the morning and evening. About 20 households would queue up before the village leader would open the well to distribute the water. This arrangement continued for about two years until the Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015. Meanwhile, several other initiatives were taken by the villagers, including a weeklong recital of Bhagwat Gita (in Nepali saptah lagaune) to generate funds to drill a deep well in the hill, which they did in hopes of bringing enough water to the village. Not only did they not yield enough water through the new well, but the water also didn’t taste very good. Therefore, they continued to use the old drying well which they had kept under lock and key as their source of drinking water until the earthquake.
After the earhquake, when we visited the Tin Piple area in May last year, the drying well did not have the lock and metal door. They were removed because the water yield had increased so much that not only did it fill the 2 feet deep well, but it was flowing out of the well. Obviously, there was no need to keep the well locked. The only reminder of the water shortage pre-earthquake was a small metal frame that was wielded around the well hole, was still hanging there. Everything else including the locking hinges and metal door has been removed.
But this time the well was in a dilapidated condition. It was almost dry and hardly yielded few buckets in a day. A well that was an accessible source of water on the roadside for the villagers as well as to the drivers on the highway, is now in ruins.
The Jhiku Khola, the lifeline of Panchkhal, which was fed by thousands of wells and springs like the ones described above have ceased to flow even in the monsoon (see photo), precisely because the springs have dried out gradually over the decade. With this, the vegetable farming has dwindled and income of farmers has dropped substantially. All hopes of reviving the water system through local efforts have consistently failed. Putting new wells has become the only remedy left for the local people to draw water from shrinking water source, which will reduce water availability further rapidly in the days ahead. The impact of the EQ on overall water sources and aquifers is anybody’s guess, and will be clear only with the passage of time.
During each visit, we asked ourselves some questions. Who is it that the villagers can go and talk to in order to find a solution to the long term problem? Which institution/s should be held responsible for, at least, taking note of the situation? There are at least four ministries that are closely related to water source development and utilization. The Ministries of Energy and Irrigation use available flowing water – the blue water. Ministry of Forest and Agriculture depend on available soil moisture – the green water. But none of them have any programmes to address the declining water sources. In such case, which institution is it that would take initiative to restore water sources? And without flowing water, how would irrigation or energy or forests or agriculture further their sectoral objectives in Panchkhal? How is the state connected with this saga?
Slight showers have occurred in the valley since last week, which lowered the mercury and helped clear the valley air by reducing the dust blowing from unfinished road expansion work. The light showers, in of itself, have been a respite for people who were hit by the scorching sun and polluted air. However, these rains have not reduced the problem for farmers waiting to sow maize. Nor did it help to augment water supply in places such as Panchkhal.
The bad news is that there is no institution to look after declining water sources. Future of millions of people in rural Nepal and Nepal’s economy largely depends on availability of water for farming. The emerging water context does not seem to be encouraging. It’s been more than a decade since the problem has surfaced in many parts of the country and has only grown deeper. Now, it’s turning into a race against time for people in places like Panchkhal.