A Long-Awaited Turn-Around
For the locals of the village of Gadhi in Surkhet, a UNDP-supported water-supply project has completely altered their prospects, particularly that of women
When the water sources that they had been relying on for generations dried up some 35 years ago, the people of this little village perched on a hill somewhere in Nepal’s mid-west knew their lives would never be the same. Elderly women here still tell stories of how, back then, they had to walk three to four hours everyday to fetch water.
The Gadhi Village in Surkhet, which straddles a 2,500-meter mountain, used to be a fortress accommodating a small kingdom in the days before Nepal was unified in the early 1800s. It had been a bustling place at the time—surrounded by fertile terraced land and boasting a vibrant economy.
However, as the flow of water from the centuries-old sources started to dwindle towards the late 1970s, so did the appeal of living in the area. Long-time residents started migrating to greener, more favorable lowlands to the south. And those who chose to stay put—namely, the poorest of the lot who could not afford to pick up and leave—suffered a great deal.
A drinking water system had been inaugurated by the then-King Birendra in the 1980s, but it only served to bring water up to the low-lying parts of the village, leaving those in the upper reaches high and dry.
It wasn’t until several decades later, in 2012, when the United Nations Development Programme lent its support to the community as part of a climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction initiative, that water was finally brought up to the very top of the village. To enable this, a 10-kilometer gravity-propelled water pipe, along with three huge storage tanks, had to be installed. The community received support worth Rs. 2 million under the UNDP implemented Integrated Climate Risk Management Programme (ICRMP*) that helped the community build their adaptive capability through measures such as installation of this very drinking water system, rainwater harvesting system, tunnel farming and off farm vegetation. Funded by the Government of Sweden, ICRMP is being piloted in six countries namely Armenia, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal and Uganda.
“We needed a catalyst,” says Lok Nath Bhandari, Chair of the Bayalkanda Community-Based Disaster Risk Committee and one of the beneficiaries of the drinking water facility. “Once we had some funds in hand, all the villagers came together… we contributed our own physical labor and also managed to convince the government to chip in.”
Today, Gadhi appears to have regained much of its lost glory. Once more, people have flocked to its slopes, and each of the 200 or so households that constitute the village now have piped water supplied through a locally-managed distribution system.
Yesoda Chalise, a local, says that access to safe drinking water from the comfort of their home has changed the family’s lives in many ways.
“Only those who have suffered a water crisis can know what it means to have it piped right into your kitchen: this has saved me a great deal of time and effort, which I can now invest in other more productive activities like income generation and my child’s education, among others,” she says.
Indeed, the easy availability of water has led to a sudden spurt in economic activities in the village: Gadhi is today the largest exporter of dairy products in the district. “Almost every household now has at least one or two buffaloes, and it’s a good source of income,” says Man Kumari Rosa as she prepares fodder for her own buffalo behind her house. She claims to earn Rs. 200 a day from selling milk.
Meanwhile, for Sita Acharya, Rosa’s neighbor across the street, access to water has meant substantial improvement in the health and hygiene of her family. “It’s so much easier for us to wash clothes,” she says. “We even have [waste] water to flush our toilets.”
UNDP Deputy Country Director in Nepal, Sophie Kemkhadze, says that local ownership is the key to the success of the project. “The project is locally-planned and locally-owned—co-invested, implemented and maintained by the men and women of Gadhi,” she says, referring to how the community—recognizing the urgent need of access to water in the village, particularly for women—have contributed both labor and funds to the effort. “UNDP simply offered the people the innovation and technological know-how, so as to empower them,” Kemkhadze adds.
One among the locals who played a crucial role in the project was Binisera Lamichhane Magar, 72, who donated her own land for the installation of the tanks and pumping system. “The best parts of my life were spent struggling to get water. I gave up my land because I don’t want my daughters and granddaughters to suffer the way I did,” she says, indicating towards her two-year-old granddaughter.
The continuing pervasiveness of gendered division of labor within many Nepali families means that household chores—including fetching water and cooking—still fall mainly on the women. “The project has naturally meant more to women than to men,” Magar says. “Our men are more interested in drinking,” she adds with a chuckle.
“The best parts of my life were spent struggling to get water. I gave up my land because I don’t want my daughters and granddaughters to suffer the way I did,” she says, indicating towards her two-year-old granddaughter.
Sunita Lamichhane Magar, a local social activist, confirms that since the improved water supply has allowed women more free time, there has been visible progress in the level of awareness regarding gender equality. “Now that the burden on women has been reduced somewhat, they have started taking more active part in decision-making in the village—they are more inclined to sending their daughters to school, participating in users’ group meetings and starting lucrative micro-enterprises,” Magar says. “This has, to some extent, empowered women both politically and economically, and led to clear changes in their relative positions.” This is an example to show how we can integrate Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction and livelihoods promotion with full participation and ownership of local communities and local Government, says Deepak KC, senior project officer overseeing ICRMP.
What the project has made evident is the sheer exigency of establishing and upgrading basic community infrastructure if places like Gadhi are to thrive, and in the process, build resilience against the adverse impacts of climate change. For this small community, access to water has been the turn-around the locals have long waited for, one that has completely altered their prospects.