The El Nino of 2015/16 has been one of the strongest with severe impacts felt in many parts of the world including South Asia. In India, for example, water shortages in already water scarce areas of Maharashtra and Bundlekhanda have been quite severe. In order to meet the minimal water needs of the people, the government transported water to the area using railway bogies. The situation in Nepal is not as severe but much more difficult to deal with due to its poor infrastructure, institutions, and resources.
In Nepal, water shortages have been seen from districts of Panchthar in the east to Bajura in the west and from Siraha in Terai in the south to Gorkha in the north. Most small streams and springs in the mountains have dried. Water levels in the rivers have been at their lowest. Groundwater in Tarai has significantly depleted. Of course, nearly 31 districts in central Nepal were also affected by the 2015 earthquake which damaged or deformed the aquifers leading to a temporary rise in water discharge in the springs, but which have reduced and dried up thereafter. The water shortage across the country is, perhaps, an indication of an emerging problem which is not only large in size and coverage, but something that is poorly understood. Hence, the current water shortage needs to be looked at from a different perspective than just a normal dry period following a failed winter rain.
In city areas where the municipal water corporation supplies domestic water, water is supplied to the consumer through tankers, but the shortages caused by the drought is also affecting farming and other water consumers. There has been no plan of action on the government’s part to address such problems. Conflicts near the water sources in regards to the allocation of water have been common, but with growing shortages, it often turns into minor scuffles and physical spats.
The critical thing that we need to realize is that our capacity, as a society, to deal with unprecedented events is very limited. The EQ has further illuminated the limitation of our institutions and bureaucratic machinery to plan and address problems when they happen over a large area affecting thousands of people, who need support both in the short and long terms.
Here is a need to focus on the following key areas.
A general understanding about water as a key natural resource has been that more trees equals more water. Therefore, deforestation was blamed for all floods and water shortages ever since the environmental movement began in the 1970s in Nepal. The good news is that after the successful implementation of community forestry, the greenery has improved significantly and, as claimed by the latest survey of 2015, the forest covered has increased from 39.6% to 44.75%–a significant increase from the initial goal of 40% cover. But then, why is water shortage increasing despite a significant increase in forest cover? It only raises the question that we have misunderstood or exaggerated the forest–water relation. It is not as simple as it was believed to be without any evidence.
A recent study by South Asia Institute for Advanced Study (SIAS) in Roshi Khola watershed revealed that in a small watershed which has a forest cover of near 85%, the water discharge in the river has declined gradually.
The demand for water is increasing with increase in population as well as in economic activities and the change in lifestyle of people. Without an improved understanding of the degree to which the demand for water has increased and a blueprint of how has it put pressure on each of the local water sources in water scarce areas, it is unlikely that we will be able to solve the emerging water crises in the days ahead. The conventional approach of tapping into additional sources within the watershed or inter-basin water transfer to provide water to meet the demand will not work because; i) there is less water in all possible sources because of a reduced yield across the country, and ii) there is already a growing sense of ownership of the resources and local people are unwilling to share water to the communities outside the watershed as they did in the past. The question of payment for water also may not be an answer because of visible decline in water at local sources and increasing demand.
The drought has not only caused a momentary problem but has also shown what lies ahead in the future and where our weaknesses lie in terms of institutions, policies and our understanding of water and its management. Gone are the days when we took monsoon rain for granted and expected it to fill all our aquifers which would continue to supply us with water throughout the winter. Now, we need to realize that a major change has occurred in local water cycles. The August Springs (also called the Saune Mul in Nepali), which burst into life for a month or so in August, are indicative of the fact that the aquifers in the hills have fully recharged and are capable of yielding water for a long period in the dry months of winter. Unfortunately, in many areas in the hills and mountains, the August Springs have not burst in the last decade. It only means that the aquifers have not been fully recharged to provide water in the dry period. The reason why the aquifers have not been fully recharged since so long is not known. It is definitely not deforestation as we have believed it to be for many years. Water in that sense has been a neglected field of development and always taken for granted.
We did enough of leap services. We marked many Earth Days and Water Days, and vowed to take steps to manage water. We talked brilliantly about managing and saving water. But, in reality, we have neither learned to manage water nor have we learned to save it, let alone actually doing it. Our understanding about water has not improved. The way we (mis)use water remains as it was when there was plenty of water for a limited number of users and limited economic uses. But things have changed and changed for good. Now, there are a lot more users trying to tap water from the same sources, which are declining in yield.
For people in the village of Bhakunde Besi in Kavre, water shortage began in 2007, when they failed to plant paddy due to insufficient rain and reduced flow in Dapcha Khola, which flows through the valley. They still hope that someday the river will have enough water for them to irrigate their farm. There are many such areas where people have suffered due to water shortages for years and yet remain hopeful that the situation will improve one day. But the fact remains that their woes have only deepened further with the current drought and will continue to get worse with current management.
There is a need to look at the entire water issue more seriously and begin to prepare for what lies ahead, which is a more intensely amplified case of ‘too much’ water in the monsoon and ‘too little’ water during the rest of the year.