The constitutional provision of local governments (LGs) is meant to provide excellent opportunities for local development to take roots, but the sudden shift of responsibility from the better-staffed and resource-full central government (CG), which was responsible to deliver development, to yet-to-be fully functional LGs leaves an array of uncertainties for some time to come. How fast will the picture be clear will depend on which one of the two possible sequences of events will  the LGs follow.

Sequence 1:

As the funding grants received by the LGs will not freeze, there should be absolutely no hurry to start implementing projects right away. The LGs can take time to formulate local development plans and gradually address issues facing the communities through a broader consultation with the local population and those who have had experiences in specific sphere of development in the area. The LGs are also well placed to improve coordination with agriculture, forestry, water resources, and road sectors; who in the past had to work mostly under the ministerial guidelines and policies that sometimes were conflicting and hindered integration of works in the field. The fact that the LGs can continue using the unspent money onto the following year would help them deal with local political pressure too. But, for all this to happen, the elected leaders have to convince the voters that only a well thought out development plan would result in a meaningful development of the area, for which they need to work together. But the likelihood of this sequence of events happening is less, and alternately, the actionsand the haste may lead to the second sequence of events.

Sequence 2:

With no prior guidelines and in a hurry to keep the promises made during the election, the leaders are likely to end up implementing infrastructures projects, emulating exactly the kind of projects that CG supported in the past. It will basically be following the traditional way of implementing projects in which a huge gap existed between local needs and the projects. Therefore, despite huge investment in agriculture, water source development, and natural resource protection, we see a steady increase of reliance on income from remittance to support families. This needs to change. However, should the gaps continue in the LG administered development, things will not differ much from what we have seen so far. It will particularly be true in improving the state of agriculture and access to drinking water both of which depends on available water.

20160507_161217About 4 percent of the national budget goes into providing irrigation and drinking water. In addition, the local governments and the NGOs also invested in these two sectors. The official figure for the coverage of drinking water supply is more than 80%.  What this figure does not include is the drinking water systems that have stopped functioning either because the system is damaged by landslide caused by a rural road, or because the water source has dried. The functioning system at any point in time would be hardly 50% of what has been reported. No wonder, these two sectors have remained a priority for last several decades and yet the demand seems to be rising consistently.

The case of irrigation is even worse because most of the systems use open canals to deliver water to the farms. Unlike drinking water systems, which are used every day and reported on damages immediately when it stops functioning, the irrigation canal is used only when it is planting season and when there is no rain for longer period. If the rainfall occurs when needed, no one pays attention to the canal. Unused canal are usually damaged by rodents and crabs making holes through or by cattle walking through canals. In such a situation, the canal is usually broken and not functioning when needed.

The drying of local water sources in the hills has added a new problem. Many tap stands across the villages are seen in dilapidated conditions where sources have dried. Increasing number of families in such areas are abandoning their homes and migrating to new places where water is available. Similarly, the groundwater has depleted in the valleys and plains. Small rivers are flowing low, and even smaller ones remain dry for most part of the year rendering the irrigation canals useless. The water agencies have expertise on transferring water from one place to another using pipes or canals, and when the sources dry out, they look for alternate sources to tap the water from.  In villages where springs have dried, the water agencies are investing in making drill holes to draw water from the lower aquifers.  There is no agency to follow drying springs or dying streams and ask question about how did the water that flowed for so long gradually disappeared. Instead they drill deep down to tap water from the lower aquifers which when dries out, there will be no other source to fall back on, and this is perhaps the biggest environmental question we all should be asking.

Will managing local sources such the springs and streams figure out in the development priority of the LGs? Probably not, if they follow the sequence of events 2. Additionally, environmental issues and management of natural resources in the last several decades centered around narrowly defined areas such as promoting greenery by protecting trees and reforestation. It was and still is believed that more trees would bring more water. Therefore, maximum that the LGs would do is plant trees and protect forests and expect the springs to flow again. Or worse, blame it on climate change and implement programs on reducing carbon concentration in the atmosphere, which despite being right will not help revive the local water sources. For LGs it is not the global agenda, which is important, but localizing the global agenda to see how it is linked with well being of the people.

The Economic Survey (2016/17) published by the CG (Ministry of Finance) has broadly identified the cases of drying springs as an emerging problem in the mountains. LGs need to be specific and start giving due attention to rising problem of loss of water sources, which is seen in most part of the country. It is for the LGs now to see how much focused they can be in their plans to address real issues facing the local economy and livelihood. Hope the LGs’ actions follow sequence 1. It will be a missed opportunity if they failed to do so.

With support from Irene

Until next