Neglected Necessity: Communal Taps in Urban Water Supply for (Peri -) Urban Poor
Ensuring fair and affordable access to safe drinking water is a primary objective of donor-funded large-scale urban water supply systems in Nepal. Unfortunately, the high installation costs associated with private taps have posed a threat to water accessibility to urban poor in peri-urban areas. The provision of communal taps has important implications for accessing water to households who cannot afford a private connection.
As urbanizing towns in Nepal grapple with mounting drinking water challenges, the Government of Nepal is placing high priority on large-scale and integrated water supply initiatives. A notable example is the Asian Development Bank funded Small-Town Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project (STWSSSP) , which is advancing to its third phase. The initiative aimed to achieve universal household water tap connections and provide affordable water supply to all town residents, including those in poor, marginal, and vulnerable groups.
However, the case of Diktel, a rapidly urbanizing town located in lower Himalaya region of Eastern Nepal serves as a cautionary example of how the rhetoric of inclusive and community-based water supply schemes can be deceptive. It falls short in addressing the real drinking water problem faced by underprivileged groups. This raises significant concerns about the broader implications of the large-scale water supply in the emerging towns of Nepal.
Despite rapid expansion of market and commercial activities, Diktel still remains a peri-urban rural setting, with a population of 43,000 people. The majority of residents in the upstream and peripheral areas rely heavily on rural subsistence farming as their primary livelihood. In 2021, water delivery commenced under the STWSSSP project in Diktel. This water scheme has provided individual water taps to 1,049 households in the town’s core that covers 10.43% of total households in Diktel (see Figure 1). For the town’s inhabitants, who have been grappling with severe water shortages in recent years due to increasing demand and depleting water sources, the project comes as a much-needed relief. However, concerns have emerged due to the project’s service being limited to the core town area. The mandated individual water connections, along with a substantial installation charge, have prompted questions about the equitable distribution of water across all socio-economic classes.
Figure 1 Diktel Town Drinking Water Supply Sources and Supply System @ Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies
While affluent homes and business owners in the town center are the primary beneficiaries of the individual water connections provided by this supply scheme, many poor and marginalized households—relying primarily on farming and wage labor—are left without access to water services. Furthermore, even within the town center, the exorbitant installation charge for private water taps is beyond the means of many marginalized households. Previously, these marginalized households depended on communal taps as their primary water sources under a community-based water supply system (see Figure 2). However, the decision to replace this prior supply system with individual household tap connections, aiming for an ‘improved supply system,’ has resulted in unintended consequences, depriving these marginalized households of the water access they previously met through shared communal taps.”
Under the former water supply system, the presence of community taps greatly benefited disadvantaged neighborhoods. One Dalit male described how they were able to manage their basic water needs through communal taps under the old supply system and their challenges following the new project implementation as follows. Approximately 8 to 10 families would collectively pay NRs 200 for a single tap under the former water delivery plan. Of course, that quantity of water was insufficient as well, but bread of any kind is preferable to none. He further said, in this new water supply system, paying a large amount individually along with the monthly tariff is not possible for us.
Figure 2 Abandoned communal tap after implementation of new water supply project. @ South Asia Institute of Advanced Studies
The implementation of the new project requires each household to pay a substantial payment, along with higher monthly tariffs. The project, valued at 22.55 crore, receives 70% funding from the Nepal government through the Asian Development Bank, 5% from user contributions of NRs 10,000 per household, and 25% from a loan obtained from the Town Development Fund. The water user committee is responsible for paying 5% interest on the loan every six months. In order to meet this interest obligation, the committee is collecting additional deposits from households. As a result, the cost to connect an individual tap for each household is approximately NRs 60,000–65,000 ($500), which is about five times higher than the cost in the capital city, Kathmandu. A male from low-income households residing in the southern periphery of the town mentioned that “For us, it is very hard to manage NRs 60 – 65 thousand for a water tap connection, financially capable people have paid but those who are not, are struggling.”.
This higher installation cost has become a major obstacle for low-income and marginalized households, severely hindering their access to basic drinking water. “Naya project le ta hamilai sajilo haina jhan garo po banaidiyo”– the new project has instead, intensified our hardships rather than easing them, expressed one male farmer, reflecting disappointment with the high monthly tariff. Farm-dependent households require more water than off-farm households due to the need for watering animals, resulting in higher monthly tariffs. Another Dalit woman mentioned “paila paani ta khana paiyeko thiyo, ahile ta bhako paani ni khosera lage”– before the project, they at least had drinking water, but even that water has been taken away now.
Some of the households, whose livelihood depends on subsistence wages are even willing to take loan for water supplies, driven by necessity despite the likelihood of perpetuating extreme poverty. Another Dalit household who could not install individual piped water connection due to an inability to afford the high installation charges fetches water daily in a number of trips from the traditional well for drinking and collects rainwater in small plastic drums for other uses. He observes people connecting water pipes to their yard and some of the pipe goes near his house but convinces himself that his financial constraints have prevented him from accessing such services. If the well dries, the only option for him will be to fetch water from the river, which is about two-hours walk from his house. As he is unhealthy, his wife has to fetch the water.
Figure 3 Water stored by Dalit household in bottles, Diktel @ Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies
Our arguments so far are not against the new water supply project in Diktel, but our field observations and a series of interviews conducted during this study indicate that the mandates of the individual water connection, with high installation charges and monthly tariff, have instead exacerbated the issues of water access to the marginalized and low-income households. Representatives of the municipality and drinking water users’ committees argued that the need to repay the loan has led to an increase in the water tariff. Additionally, they opined that the communal tap users tend to waste water more compared to individual connections, which could limit water availability for other households and exacerbate water insecurity. In fact, the removal of communal taps, previously in practice, to provide a universal household connection aligns with both the ADB’s current approach in the STWSSSP project and the government’s strategy in one-house-one-tap projects.
Therefore, considering the differential purchasing capacity of people, the provision of communal taps in the large water supply is still valuable in the peri-urban rural contexts. By sharing a communal tap, poor households can collectively bear the cost of installations, making it more affordable for everyone in the neighborhood. Communal taps are equally important in municipality-funded ‘one-house-one-tap’ projects for the neighborhoods that cannot afford individual connections. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the immense need for publicly available communal taps in terms of hygiene and cleanliness, particularly in crowded and open spaces.
The provision of communal water taps should continue to be acknowledged as a crucial water supply option for underprivileged households. While the formal sector continues to idealize the notion of the ‘modern infrastructure , which primarily focuses on expanding piping networks, the significance of communal water taps, especially for the marginalized and low-income communities in peri-urban rural areas, should not be underestimated. Thus, the approach underlying the development of private drinking water connections through large-scale urban drinking water projects needs reassessment, considering diverse needs and priorities of various socio-economic groups.
While the goal of providing individual tap connection for exclusive use is rational, it is essential to ensure equity in drinking water access. This requires policy makers, planners, and funders to carefully consider the potential of communal taps in guaranteeing safe water access for the urban poor who may lack the financial means to pay the mandatory fees and monthly water tariffs required for private tap connections.
Acknowledgement: This op-ed is based on research conducted under the JustClime project at the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies-SIAS. The authors thank Dr. Dil Khatri, Executive Director of SIAS for his feedback on an earlier draft.
- https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional document/363611/tapping-unreached-nepal.pdf
- Furlong, K. (2014). STS beyond the “modern infrastructure ideal”: Extending theory by engaging with infrastructure challenges in the South. Technology in Society, 38, 139-147.