Waterway to democracy
- Water does not just provide life, it also ensures genuine development
Oct 23, 2014-
In the second week of July, four of us left from Pokhara in a taxi to observe a local water supply scheme and meet the users group. A politician was on the radio speaking about Nepal’s water resources and its power blackouts. Frustrated with the rhetoric, the taxi driver changed the radio channel. A foreign teammate said, “Do you know in ‘our’ country, more than 15 percent of the people do not have access to safe drinking water, but politicians hardly speak about it? People suffer because of insufficient and unsafe water.” This friend has been working in Nepal’s water supply and sanitation sector for over 30 years, and he says “our country” in Nepali.
Getting factual data is very complicated in Nepal and the figure could be higher than 15 percent. I have rarely met people, especially in towns, who say that they get enough drinking water supply. Who would then bother about the rural populations struggling without proper drinking water facilities. In 2008, Kathmandu reacted very late when Jajarkot was suffering from diarrhea and lack of safe drinking water, killing more than 400 people.
After a half an hour drive, we reached a village called Sunpadhali. The village was named after a king who visited in the 18th century and reportedly said that the water was so pure, one needed a gold pot to drink from it. We were dropped off in front of the Bagare stream, from where we walked up a little steep road and met a group of women.
The women represented the Sunpadhali Water Supply Scheme, built in 1978. For the last few years, they had been managing the water system there. Women are the primary users of water and the first to suffer when water becomes scarce. Before the water supply scheme was installed, the women at Sunpadhali had to walk for an hour to collect water from a spring. Water was initially channeled into the community through taps. Over time, additional taps were connected to the main and now every household has at least one tap in its yard. Enough water is supplied through these pipes most of the year, except in peak dry season when a small stream needs to supply additional water.
With water in their yards, the women began to be involved in economic activities, producing vegetables and dairy products for the Pokhara bazaar. They also became serious stakeholders in the water supply system. Several received trainings on repairing high-density polyethylene pipes and on other aspects of maintenance from the Kaski Department of Water Supply and Sewerage. Whenever there is a technical problem, they can fix it themselves. The women also realised the need for leadership and were inspired by the constitutional guarantee of 33 percent reservation for women in any public institution. They went further and formed a water users committee with all women members. The committee has hired a man as a technical assistant, who is responsible for the overall operation as well as the collection of revenue from households.
Ensuring gender equality
Ensuring gender equality
Water gives life. But just as importantly, it ensures democracy. When asked if their husbands allowed them to attend the committee meetings, one of the women replied, “If I have spent time in meetings, dealing with administrative issues to bring safe drinking water to every house, then my husband has to cook for the family. They can’t stay idle and wait for women to cook.”
Later, we had an opportunity to observe an interesting scene when we were meeting the members of the Abukhairaini water users’ committee in Tanahun. A gentleman of around 45 years was sitting on a chair close to the president of the committee. When a woman of around 35 appeared in the office, he left the chair so that the woman could sit, although the woman politely asked the man to continue sitting. This is indeed a very rare scene in Nepal when a man vacates his chair for a woman. Later, the woman said that the man vacated his seat because she was the treasurer of the users’ committee while he was a technical staff. She added, “I am getting a lot of respect from people, including men.”
But things are not always positive. As much as Kathmandu, the rest of the country is challenged with the re-construction and renewal of old water supply systems, which were constructed to serve a population much smaller than what we have today. These 40-years-old water supply schemes are becoming less relevant and less functional. Our tendency to first buy land, build homes and only then, think about water supply and sewerage is causing a lot of problems.
While the semi-skilled and skilled young population are on queue for the Arab world, water supply schemes in many parts of the country lack human resources to help with smooth operation and maintenance. This problem can be mitigated if we can train more women like in Sunpadhali to look after the communal water supply. Several institutions are already involved in providing relevant trainings, which do need to be monitored for consistencies.
There are more than 30,000 water users’ groups in Nepal. At the moment, most of these groups do not have the capacity to measure the quality of water they are providing and are more dependent on donors for the sustainability of the water supply. We need to ensure that they can independently manage their water system and also meet the expectation of users.
Currently, the concept of drinking water supply is limited to private households only. Public places like schools, VDC offices, temples, and public bus-stops should also practise safe drinking and proper sanitation. In order to tackle the list of challenges in safe drinking and sanitation, the Sector Efficiency Improvement Unit at the Ministry of Urban Development is drafting a new policy and an act.
At this juncture, we can only stay hopeful that the policy and the subsequent act will provide a good direction to the water supply, sanitation and hygiene sector and that stakeholders will seriously implement it. We need more water users’ groups like in Sunpadhali, where women play a leadership role in providing safe drinking water.
Kumar is a communication consultant for the Ministry of Urban Development
Published: 24-10-2014 13:28