Water, Water Everywhere


As a child growing up in Kathmandu, I became familiar with the splutter of a pipe trying to pull water and coming up with empty air. Kathmandu is a paradox – it is a Valley surrounded by the Himalayas, the mountain range which fulfills the water needs of an entire subcontinent, and yet it is unable to satisfy its own demands. Kathmandu used to be filled with rivers and ponds, uptil the eighties, when I was growing up. Today, tankers go through the city, selling people their quota of drinking water for the week.

My childhood training in using minimal amounts of water led to spats with eco-conscious but high consumption hippies with whom I shared a co-operative house at Brown University, where I found myself at age nineteen. I watched a woman as she boiled an entire pot of water for a cup of tea, then liberally poured the other cups of clean, boiled and unused water down the sink. My suggestion that simply boiling the needed cupful would save water and energy was waved aside as a Third World anxiety. Even my relationships suffered– asking a boyfriend to shut the tap for the minute or two it took to brush his teeth or soap the dishes, I found out, was most likely to be read as control-freakiness in the United States.

After graduation from college in 1997, I returned home to Nepal. A friend who worked with CECI, a Canadian development agency, hired me to do an evaluation of a water project in Dadeldhura. As a consultant, my job was to conduct interviews with women whose life had been impacted by the drinking water system brought with the active intervention of the development agency. The stories I brought back would be used for a conference in Canada. I was asked to take photographs as well as collect pots for the exhibit. My assignment was framed as one in which I would tell a success story. I went there expecting to find one.

Dadeldhura is in the far-West of Nepal. In the morning, I woke up to icy cold water coming out of the tap, in which we brushed our teeth and washed our faces. It was a startling and refreshing experience. The doorless toilet faced the snow-capped mountains, and I watched the sun rise as I squatted on the little charpi toilet. The spectacular landscape was matched only by the lack of amenities in the villages. For the next three weeks, I traveled through the villages with a couple of engineers, who had come to inspect the irrigation and storage tanks I was going to photograph.

My first morning, I talked to the women and girls who clustered around the   functioning taps with their pots. Dressed in colorful reds and oranges, the women carried water containers of all shapes and sizes, including recycled kerosene cans. I asked them when and how they had started to get piped drinking water. They told me that the pipes and taps had arrived in their village two years ago. Water had flowed for the first few months, but soon the taps had started to go dry, the pipes had been cut, and the system had started to malfunction. Most drinking water systems in the villages were broken down and in a state of disrepair, while others had run dry.

After a few interviews, it became apparent that there was deep conflict around this issue. Nepal’s terrain shoots up thousands of feet in the air. A house in the same village can be located hundreds of feet above its neighbours’ house. The houses perched higher on the slopes did not receive as much water as their low-land neighbours. This angered the houseowners, and they cut the pipes in order to stop their villagers from enjoying the benefits of the co-operatively funded system.

Tellingly, the women who were supposed to benefit from the new system told me that while their lives had briefly changed for a few months, the disrepair and non-maintenance had soon led them back to the rivers to fetch their daily ration of water. One old woman complained that a beautifully constructed irrigation tank in the middle of the village, which was not being used but instead zealously guarded as an aesthetic and decorative feature by the man who chaired the water users’ committee, would have been a useful tank for her cattle to drink from. Instead, the tank was fenced in and she had to walk three hours down to the river to water her cattle.

When I came back, I wrote up the oral histories according to what my informants  had told me. I handed the interviews in. A new supervisor read over my fieldwork ethnography and told me tactfully that while the information I had gathered was very interesting, I would need to submit – in  her own words – a “censored version.” The censored version had to include narratives where women explained how much their lives had changed with the advent of the pipes and taps, but had to leave out the conclusion about mismanagement. Then she told me she was sorry she could not stay and talk to me more, but she had to rush out for a meeting with the World Bank.

This was one of my first encounters with the industry of development. For an idealistic graduate, it was a shock to realize that most development agencies ran on their own imperatives of programmatic goals and objectives, that the end goal was to satisfy the donors rather than their “target” group. Mistakes and mismanagement, it appeared, were not acknowledged.

Two years after this eye-opening experience, I was selected by a Dutch film company, funded by IRC Netherlands, to make a documentary about another drinking water project. This was in the village of Lele, a few hours away from Kathmandu. The project was implemented by Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH), a Nepali NGO. Again, as an outside consultant, I was given a liberal hand in representing what was going on at the grassroots level. I was asked by the Dutch film company to use my own judgement and to show the real state of affairs in the community. The Nepali NGO, on the other hand, was clear it wanted a success story. The villagers of Lele wanted their own version – a sit-com along the lines of the INGO-funded media serials that often appeared on Nepal Television. As a director, I was asked to merge these three desires and demands into one film – and I was given a very tight budget to do it.

As a director, I made several choices about how the documentary would be made. First, I wanted to focus on the reality of the community and their issues, rather than highlighting the accomplishment of the Kathmandu-based office. Later, I would realize this was a mistake not only because the men in Kathmandu remain important decision-makers, but also because their presence and expectations would have given a whole new dimension to the way development works. Secondly, I wanted the story to come out through the words of the village people themselves, rather than through narration. For better or worse, these two directorial choices dictated the form of the final product.

Documenting a community project can take on the same level of time management and organizational skills as implementing a project itself. I sympathized with the difficulties that the field workers who had put the drinking water system in place must face as I tried to arrange interviews, make shooting dates, and co-ordinate between the different parties involved. The phone in the village did not work very well. I often found myself taking an expensive taxi ride to Lele, three hours out of the Valley on a bumpy, dusty road to find out that all the people had gone to Kathmandu for a meeting.

The “village” actually turned out to be two villages. One was composed of Chettris, the upper caste group, with a few households of tailors (considered untouchables); and a village higher up composed of Tamangs, an ethnic group that was considered to be lower on the caste hierarchy but who maintained a fierce independence as well as their own language and religion. The project had put together these three communities as a unit. The water users group was headed by a younger man who was from an affluent, upper caste family. The Dutch filmmaker who was managing the project suggested I focus on him as a character who had brought the village together and created a successful project. While the young leader was dynamic and appeared to be doing a good job, it became apparent that things ! were not going as well as they appeared on the surface.

The project had facilitated and put together a water users committee. They had implemented a monthly fee that people paid for the maintenance of the water system. A thousand rupee fee, paid by an outside mineral water company for the privilege of bottling the village’s spring water, was also put in the kitty to maintain and build the water system.

As the meetings progressed, it became increasingly clear that the water users group was dominated by a group of wealthy men who did not allow democratic decision-making. There was no transparency in how the funds were being used. People were unclear about how their monthly fee was used, and for what purpose. Half of them had declined to pay.

More importantly, although women had been initially included in the water users’ group, they remained there only as a token presence. They were not active participants who took part in maintenance and building. Since women were the main users of water, there was little imperative to repair the taps when they broke down.

A few days later, I went to the Tamang village, perched a little higher up on the mountain, where an extremely active women’s group was operating. Formed through the intervention of another INGO, this women’s group not only saved money and bought cattle on a regular basis, it had also brought a toilet into every house. The contrast between a women’s group actively changing their community, and a user group where women felt frustrated and inadequately informed, was stark.

Caste was an important factor in the community. Lower caste households, including the tailors, were fearful of the Chettris who monopolized the decision-making process. One of the tailors reported his middle son’s tap had been taken away by the committee. When I asked him why, he said he had no idea. There was no system of justice or recourse in this situation. Since water is a marker of purity, and lower caste groups are often not allowed to touch the water before their high-caste counterparts, there is a lot of underlying tensions about access and allocation. In another meeting, a jhankri (shaman) from the Tamang community seemingly got drunk and berated the water users group for their lack of respect of him in the presence of the foreign funders – in hindsight, it was apparent that he was probably the only man in his comm! unity who could get away by telling the truth without fearing repercussions.

An accident that left me with multiple fractures on my wrist while shooting the last day left me with no choice but to edit speedily with the help of benevolent assistants. My rough-cut apparently did not please the decision-makers in Kathmandu: I was asked to edit out footage which I considered important to the narrative, including an elderly tailor woman because she “mumbled”. I thought she was one of the most important characters in the film, highlighting the segregated nature of a society where caste was very much alive, and which impacted the way the community functioned.

The video was well-received by the village community and the Dutch funders. The decision-makers in Kathmandu didn’t like it, and the next version of the video was made by some other more amenable filmmaker. PANI was eventually shortened down to 30 minutes and was shown on the Q and A with Riz Khan on CNN International, as well as the World Water Forum in Kyoto, where it ignited a lively discussion.

Nepal is a country whose main resource is hydropower. Who will reap the benefits of this hydropower and when remains in question. Decades of extreme inequality between different strata of Nepali society has finally exploded into the most active conflict in South Asia. A civil conflict between the Maoists and the Army rages, bringing most of Nepal’s public life to a standstill.

Yet India, just across the border, has been pressuring Nepal to give more and more of its water over to its larger neighbour. International companies vie with each other to get lucrative, multi-billion water contracts. This water, if properly tapped, would provide water and electricity not just to Nepal but also to the other major countries of the subcontinent, including India and Bangladesh, say optimists.

But its not that easy. The Melamchi project, which modestly aims to tap water from the Melamchi area to fulfill the needs of Kathmandu, is already a disaster. The South Korean company contracted to do it bid so cheaply it is now unable to finish the work. Locals from the area are not compensated for the water that has been taken away, and they are unsure the project will leave them enough water for their own drinking needs. This unfair appropriation where water is diverted from areas without concern for local usage is sure to be the norm if and when the larger hydropower projects start to take hold in Nepal.

A strong grassroots movement was able to stop the megadam in the Arun Valley in Nepal. Proposed by the World Bank, this dam would have cost 1.1 billion dollars. Activists protested, saying that the cost was unreasonably high, and the building time excessively long. Besides, Nepal did not have the manpower to maintain this dam. The World Bank eventually caved under the public pressure. This was one of the first instances in which a grassroots movement had impacted public spending in Nepal, and was a landmark moment.

Today, mega hydro-projects continue to get proposed in Nepal. Millions of dollars are in the pipeline. Most of that money will disappear in the pockets of the capital’s development elite. Almost none of the money, it is certain, will benefit local communities from which the sources of water originate.

The argument that mega hydro-projects would benefit all segments of society is a fallacy. Marginalized groups of society, including women and lower caste people, will continue to suffer as long as the water gets routed to those who can pay in urban areas. Even in urban areas, wealthier neighbourhoods will get more than the poorer ones, as the full swimming pools of five star hotels in Kathmandu show.

What is to be done in this situation? There are other untapped alternatives, say activists who have worked on this issue for a long time. Even Kathmandu’s water needs, they point out, can be met through repair and maintenance of old pipes. Unmaintained pipes are major culprits in leaking precious water to the ground. The other option is rainwater tanks, the models that have been so useful in drought-prone countries like Australia. These tanks capture the wealth of the monsoon and allow a family to bathe, wash dishes and water their garden comfortably for a year.

It is urgent that water, which remains Nepal’s strongest resource, not fall in the hands of decision-makers who will exclude the majority of users. Women in Nepal continue to walk an average of three hours to fetch water for their daily needs. Nepal’s haphazard stewardship of her natural resources, including the drastic deforestation of hills, is partly responsible for the yearly catastrophe of floods in the Indian and Bangladeshi plains. Poor farmers shaving raw hilltops of trees are only partly to blame – multinationals from India have also moved in and started to harvest alpine herbs and trees in massive and unsustainable quantities, without any opposition from either the state, which is not present in most areas outside district headquarters, or the Maoists. It is imperative, more than ever, to work together as a region ! and create a system where all people living in the subcontinent can benefit from the wealth of water resources of Nepal. Unfortunately, heavy-handed moves by Indian politicians to instigate unequal water sharing agreements have made the Nepali stakeholders wary, and uncooperative, of any future water treaties. A unilateral proposal to link rivers inside the Indian state has left environmentalists protesting about the potential impacts upstream.

But India is not the only country in the region that needs to work more carefully and sensitively to create a fair and environmentally friendly vision of shared wealth and shared resources. Large multi-nationals and international corporations from Europe have also moved into Nepal, trying to grab control of nature’s freest gift and turn it into a commodity. If multinational entities like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, in cahoots with companies from Italy and France utilizing wealthy Kathmandu elite as their spokespersons become the bodies that decide where water gets routed, for what purpose, and at what price, Nepal will not just lose her economic independence, but also her political sovereignty.

Of course, water is never just a national issue. The impact of global forces – including global warming and ozone depletion caused by petroleum overusage – is felt most drastically in the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers. More worrisome than the burst of glacial lakes is the prediction that the entire area of the Northern Indian subcontinent, including Nepal and parts of north India, will be out of water in 40 years as the ice recedes and the snows no longer accumulate to create the spring melt needed to fill the rivers. This is a drastic prediction, but one which needs to be given urgent  consideration and active follow-up by policy-makers, and voters, around the globe.

A civil conflict rages in Nepal, disrupting the democratic process and leaving a stateless void in most parts of the country. Some observers say that nothing can be done in other sectors until the conflict is resolved, and peace is restored. But dealing equitably with issues like water, and making sure that future international agreements take all stakeholders fully into account, may actually be the first path towards a negotiated peace.

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