As somebody who was born and raised in an urban setting and had the privilege of running water at home, I had little appreciation of the difficulties people in rural areas faced in terms of getting safe drinking water. Since 2004, however, when I began to explore the issue, I have seen many domestic water problems in the villages of Nepal’s Tarai and hill regions. For instance, I witnessed the dramatic dropping of the groundwater table in the Tarai region, from 60 feet to around 150 feet, within just three years, a circumstance that has greatly curtailed access to drinking water through deep boring.
After working in the Tarai, I shifted my attention to building drinking water supply schemes for rural households in Nepal’s hill districts. Most of the villagers there used spring water to meet their core domestic needs. Women had to walk for around one to three hours to fill a single 20-liter gagri at the source area and then carry it home. One of the objectives of the International Decade for Drinking Water and Sanitation (IDDWWS), which began in 1980, was to build schemes and to provide water taps near people’s homes to reduce such drudgery.
Most of these schemes then, as well as today, tapped relatively unpolluted small sources of water such as springs and streams. Pipes are used to transport water to a location higher than the village to be served. There a tank is built and the water stored. The stored water is then supplied to households via nearby tap stands built. The beneficiary communities themselves are involved in the operation and regular maintenance of the schemes to ensure continued services. Unfortunately, however many such schemes have degraded: they are inadequately operated and maintained, and service delivery is poor.
(Left) Typical community based drinking water scheme in the hills; Dixit (2003)
(Right) Typical well and handpump in Tarai; Dixit (2003)
In recent times, the schemes face a new threat. Across Nepal’s hills, spring sources are depleting so rapidly that their decline threatens the integrity of thousands of schemes and the services they provide. In 2018, out of 1,115 springs investigated in the Tanahun District in the central hilly region of Nepal, 63% exhibited a reduction in flow by an average of 21% between 2004 and 2014. A preliminary analysis of 693 springs in 10 districts of the Far-West Region of Nepal (now Sudurpachchhim Province) found that the average discharge of 187 had declined by 60% between 2013 and 2016. This means that the tanks of the schemes built in that area will get less water than designed.
In Nepal’s Sudurpachchhim Province, the Rural Village Water Resource Management Project (RVWRMP), which works in the mountain districts of Bajhang, Bajura, and Darchula and the hill districts of Achham, Baitadi, Dadeldhura, and Doti is relevant. This Nepal-Finland cooperative program is helping to improve drinking water services in Nepal’s Western hills and mountains.
The seven project districts are home to 252,775 households, of which 195,554 (77%) get basic water supply services through 4,523 gravity-flow piped schemes that feed community taps. Out of those schemes, 4,470 (90%) are small schemes each serving less than 50 households. Today, about 35% of the total schemes face source depletion or conflict.
Local water challenges and integrated frameworks
In the hills, major rivers often flow along the valley floor, but in the surrounding villages on the slopes of the valley, only limited water is available. Villages used to have ponds but today such water bodies have been encroached upon to make bus terminals, public buildings, and, in some cases, playgrounds and stadiums. When I saw households without even the most basic of drinking water facilities, my urge was to do something to immediately improve their lives. But later I realized that simply constructing a scheme without a guiding framework would not be a sustainable approach. Many schemes built in the past are now poorly operated and maintained and provide a low level of services precisely for that reason. That the majority of the schemes need major repair or rehabilitation is the bitter reality of many villages in the hilly regions of Nepal.
One question that struck my mind was: How can local water challenges in Nepal’s Tarai and hilly regions be systematically addressed and how shall people be provided with sustainable services? In seeking answers, I referred to the framework of integrated water resource management (IWRM), which is defined as, ‘a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems’. Another similar framework of the World Bank says, ‘At its core is the adoption of a comprehensive policy framework and the treatment of water as an economic good, combined with decentralized management and delivery structures, greater reliance on pricing, and fuller participation by stakeholders’. The water-energy-food nexus is a third framework I explored.
However, I found it hard to translate any of the three frameworks to the field situation. In Nepal, water sector agencies take a sector-specific approach (e.g., agriculture, drinking water, and hydropower) which sees little cross-sector integration. There is little likelihood of changing this approach.
Many a time, while standing on a watershed’s ridge, I have watched a river flowing generously in the lower valley while the surrounding households on the upper slopes suffered the ill effects of poor WASH services. Bringing the water flowing in the river to the higher villages would, I concluded, need considerable technological interventions necessitating major investments in resources and management, both of whose capacities are limited. The use of local water sources such as springs would, given the circumstances, be more appropriate, but the flows of springs are depleting across Nepal’s hills. While contemplating this problem, I also thought of villages in the Tarai where groundwater levels had gone down and pumping took more effort. In the Tarai, too, though, I had also seen hand pumps submerged by muddy water during the monsoon floods, and people forced to drink low-quality water. The hills, too, suffered from excess: I also remembered the monsoon months when heavy rainfall had caused landslides and flash floods in the hilly region.
Reducing the risk of floods remains a major challenge in Nepal, and with ongoing climate change due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions making floods and droughts more frequent, that challenge has grown ever more serious. Climate change brings to the fore a basic question: how will millions of households in South Asia receive basic WASH services as intense floods and droughts become more frequent? Providing reliable WASH services is not a simple task, and climate change will make it harder.
Water Use Master Plan
I pondered over ways of using the guiding frameworks mentioned to improve WASH services to households in the hills. In 2014, I joined the RVWRMP. Its aim was to translate the concept of IWRM into practice at the level of the village development committee (VDC), then Nepal’s lowest administrative and political unit. In 2017, the VDCs were amalgamated into a new unit known as rural municipalities (RMs) and urban municipalities (UMs).
At the level of a settlement or sub-watershed, IWRM is used as a guiding principle to promote inter-sectoral integration for the benefit of local communities. The reasons for adopting this approach are three: i) there are no sectoral demarcations at the community level; ii) local communities have already had some experience in managing forest and local development interventions such as irrigation and drinking water; iii) the fact that a settlement is within a sub-watershed makes administration simpler than when hydrological and political boundaries do not match.
The IWRM approach is based on the concept of the Water Resource Management Project (WARM-P) begun by the Swiss NGO HELVETAS in the 1990s. WARM-P used the concept of IWRM to improve water services. The program began the practice of having VDCs prepare water use master plans (WUMP) of a village development committee (VDC). Each WUMP was prepared jointly by the community living within the VDC and then the program mapped all water sources and uses within that VDC. Next, the community then would identify its needs for water, including drinking, sanitation, irrigation, and micro-hydro development. After identifying their needs, the community would prioritize them and formulate a plan to implement each, or, for example, develop a drinking water scheme. The plan would also include the financial resources and other support the project needed.
RVWRMP emulated the practice of preparing WUMP in the Far and Mid-Western Development Region of Nepal. Over a period of 10 years (2006-2016), RVWRMP has worked with 140 VDCs and their communities in developing WUMPs for each household. After VDCs were consolidated into rural municipalities, the RVWRMP team began to prepare and update WUMPs in 27 rural municipalities. The updated versions are known as water use master plan/livelihood improvement plans (WUMP/LIP). Representatives of both the community and the local government are involved in the preparation of each plan.
The preparation of a WUMP/LIP involves identifying all the water sources within a rural municipality by measuring their flow and assessing their current uses. Depending on the discharge of the sources, their uses, and the priorities of the community, options for development are identified. The community then would develop an integrated plan to be implemented within the rural municipality. Some of the options identified are water and sanitation system, irrigation, and multiple uses of water services (MUS).
When the project team first started developing WUMPs in new areas, people had very little idea about the multiple uses of water and the team did not promote multiple usages. Instead, it supported the development of stand-alone schemes that would meet domestic water needs. Even after a few schemes that demonstrated the multiple uses of water were built, emphasis on promoting their optimal uses was limited.
The RVWRMP team began to explore whether or not households could optimize their different water uses and obtain more benefits. The benefits would be of three types: avoiding frequent travel to taps, growing vegetables that would add nutrition to household diets, and generating income for households through the sale of home-grown vegetables. Even today, in most villages, women still have to walk frequently to tap stands to collect water. Their drudgery could be minimized by promoting the concept of one tap for one household.
The reuse of water was another focus. Every day, a housewife would travel to a tap three to five times to fetch water in a 10 to 20-liter gagri. Thus, in a day, each would bring 30 to 100 liters of water. Out of this total volume, the household used about 40 liters for drinking and cooking purposes; the rest was used for hand-washing, dishwashing, and sanitary needs. Most of the used water is scattered, and not reused.
A simple question was whether or not users could be encouraged to reuse water? Hand-washing and dishwashing could be done at one point instead of scattering water. A platform could be built and greywater collected in a small pond for reuse in growing vegetables in kitchen gardens. Eating the vegetables grown would improve a family’s nutritional intake and it could also sell the surplus. In the Far-West Hills of Nepal, households mostly eat rice and, pulses, and very little fresh produce.
RVWRMP introduced the concept of 3-R (recharge, retain, and reuse) in those program areas that had started to encourage household members to reuse greywater and start their own kitchen gardens. They were encouraged to include vegetables in their food intake and sell the surplus in a local market to make some income. This practice brought a huge transformation and a positive change to participant households, enabling them to raise the quality of life they were living before.
Naugad RM of Darchula District is one success story: all houses in the RM were provided with a private tap. They were encouraged to collect used water in a pond and use it to grow vegetables in kitchen gardens. They also began including vegetables in their diets. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Naugad RM sold vegetables in the district headquarters. By judicious management of water and reuse of greywater, the RM has become a vegetable supplier in Darchula District.
In Nepal’s Dadeldhura District, people call local sources “naula.” They are semi-protected dug-wells with very low discharge. On an April day, for example, the discharge of a typical naula is 0.02 liters per second or 1,728 liters in 24 hours. A village of, say, 32 households would get 0.5 to 5 liters of water per person per day during the dry season. If there is a guest in the house, he or she would take just one extra liter of water since water is scarce in that district.
In some communities in Dadeldhura (“nauli communities”), the naula used to be open, and water sources were inappropriately used. Judicious use of the nauala could improve services and have overall benefits. As a first step, the project team asked communities served by more than 18 naulas to put a lock on the gates to the naulas and make water inaccessible at all times except once a day.
Next, steps were taken to augment the flow of the naulas. Pits were dug around them and filled with filter materials. In addition, earthen or stone bunds were built to catch the surface run-off from rainfall in order to promote recharge. In the micro watersheds where the naulas were located, vegetation was planted to augment natural storage and increase recharge. This process began in 2013 when WUMPs were first prepared and completed three years later in 2016 when the construction of the schemes was completed.
While the above steps were useful, the flow of naula did not increase significantly. However, benefits did come to the communities through the judicious management of the water that was available. Using pipes, the water flow from the naulas was transported to and stored in a tank and the tank was connected to a tap stand to distribute water to nearby houses. The households received more water than they had earlier when there were no storage tanks. The construction of tanks and tap stands was combined with the collection of greywater in ponds for use in irrigating vegetables. In one nauli, villagers have built 30 poly-houses in which local farmers use drip irrigation to cultivate vegetables. They then sell the vegetables in the local market.
Within the three-year program period, the villagers began conserving water sources to meet household needs and reusing greywater to cultivate vegetables. This localized approach of IWRM has helped to positively change the quality of life of the beneficiary households. Today users in villages where RVWRMP was involved a request that WUMP/LIPs be integrated with the extant drinking water schemes in their villages, too.
Photo credit: Bishnu Pokharel, Dhruba Shrestha, Parikshit Shrestha, and Pallab Raj Nepal
Lessons to be learned
This approach provides the following broad lessons:
- Improving the drinking water services provided to people takes time, money, and effort.
- It is necessary to work with local communities to optimize the use of water.
- In the hills, micro-irrigation can be one pillar of community-based IWRM and yield direct economic and social benefits to marginal households.
- Agencies need to play a catalytic role in supporting local communities in co-producing benefits from the multiple uses of water at the local scale.
- The concept of recharge, retain and reuse has a practical application to support local livelihoods in hill settlements.
- The WUMP/LIP approach needs to be replicated and scaled up in Nepal’s rural and urban municipalities for optimum water use as well as for conserving and augmenting depleting springs.
These lessons can also be adapted in the hilly regions of India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. These regions, too, face the challenges of depleting local water sources, increased pollution, and loss of livelihoods. Providing improved WASH services to local communities is a major challenge and climate change only makes the challenge all the more daunting. The replication of such practices can build local resilience, making local communities better prepared to deal with climate and other shocks.
I take this opportunity to thank Ajaya Dixit for encouraging me to write and share this story.
 I worked in the hill districts of Udayapur, Ilam, Baglung, Gorkha, Dhankuta, Sindhuli, Doti, Surkhet, Achham, Baitadi, Bajhang, Bajura, Dadeldhura, Dailekh, Darchula, Humla and Kailali.
 Central Bureau of Statistics and National Management Information Project.
 Global Water Partnership Global Water Partnership Technical Advisory Committee (2000). Integrated Water Management. Stockholm, Global Water Partnership: 71
 World Bank (1993). Water Resources Management: A World Bank Policy Paper. Washington D.C., International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, pp. 10.
 See Ajaya Dixit, Ashutosh Shukla, Shiraz A. Wajih and Bijay Singh (2021) Transcending Boundaries for Sustainability in the Koshi Basin in Water Conflicts and Resistance: Issues and Challenges in South Asia Edited By Venkatesh Dutta, Routledge India.
 Helvetas piloted WARM-P was in Bajung and Baidi VDCs of Parbat and Tanahun districts of Nepal respectively In 1998. Mr. Achyut Luitel led the WARM-P piloting.
 Parikshit Shrestha (Technical Specialist) and Dhruba Shrestha (Water Resource Engineer) of RVWRMP worked on these issues.
 A naulo is a source of water and a nauli is a community that uses naulo.
Pallab Raj Nepal specializes in rural development and integrated water resource management issues with priority on drinking water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and Multiple Use of Water Services (MUS). With more than 17 years of experience in water supply and sanitation and water resource management he is working with Rural Village Water Resources Management, a Nepal–Finland–European Cooperation since March 2014 as a Management Information System Specialist. He is also a member of the research and study team of the project. He can be reached at email@example.com.