Plenty of land, but no water
Author: Helen Russell, Programme Reporting and Grants Manager – Renewable World.
It has been two years since my last visit to Nepal, but I am back for some exciting project site visits with Renewable World. I have come out to visit communities that have received support through the Solar Powered Water Pumping Project, Solar MUS II, funded by the Big Lottery Fund. The Renewable World team will visit other sites as well, and over the course of 10 days, we will be travelling to about 17 projects sites from across our programme portfolio.
Setting off from Kathmandu, we headed to the Mid-West, flying down to Nepalgunj in the southern plains of the Terai, where we were met with 41*C temperatures even at 6pm. After insisting that eight people can’t fit into a six-person car, we hired a second vehicle and had a further two-and-a-half-hour journey up into the hills to Surkhet District. We spent the night in the district headquarters of Birendranagar, and prepared for the work ahead.
Surkhet is one of Nepal’s most marginalised districts, being ranked as “highly prioritised” for support by the Government of Nepal. Bhupendra Kandel, from the Local NGO Sundar Nepal Sanstha (SNS), who is supporting our programme in this region, told us that only 20% of the district are electrified through the National Grid, although the expansion of solar home systems appears to be popular.
We set off early the next morning, driving north and then west from Birendranagar, to visit a potential project site. Our team for the day consisted of Baburam Paudel, Renewable World’s Global Technical Manager, Bhupendra Kandel from SNS, Paddy Vipond from Renewable World, and myself. Renewable World does not currently work in the community we were visiting, but it has been identified as a potential future site through our outreach work as part of the existing Solar Water Pumping Programme (Solar MUS II). This community has been identified to be in desperate need to resolve their lack of adequate water access, and our technical team had recognised that a solar water pumping system was a possible solution.
After about 45-minutes on a rather nicely resurfaced but winding road, we turned off on to a dirt track. For another two hours, we bumped slowly along this dusty path, rumbling through small villages, and fording at least three rivers before we finally reached the Village Development Committee (VDC) of Gutu. After an early 11:30 lunch of dal bhat – avoiding the freshly slaughtered chicken that was on offer – we drove another 15-minutes down the road until we reached the village of Saneghari.
As soon as we drove into Saneghari, it was obvious that the water access was a major issue. The fields were visibly dry and barren, with no crops growing. Houses were dotted around, dispersed amongst the fields, but not one had a tap stand or piped water running to it.
Waiting for us to arrive were a number of men in the community, sheltering from the scorching midday sun under a big mango tree. After a short introduction, we followed the men across the dry fields, down a steep dirt track and across a rickety bridge to the stream. In the corner of the stream, right up against the far bank where the hill came down, they pointed out a natural spring bubbling out from under the rocks. This is where the whole community currently came to collect water.
Soon, a group of women arrived with buckets and jugs. Wading across the stream to where the spring was flowing, they started filling their buckets, one cup at a time. Most had 15 or 20 litre tubs or traditional metal ‘gagri’ pots, while some had several plastic jugs with them.
I chatted with the ladies a little, trying to communicate in my broken Hindi. We managed a bit of conversation, and one lady asked me to try the water. I was a bit nervous, being ever cautious about getting a dodgy stomach while out for the field trips, but since this water was all that the community relied on, it seemed rude to turn it down. One lady told me, as she hoisted her plastic bucket onto her head, that this was already her 10th trip to the spring that day. We watched the ladies as they started their walk back up to the village, carrying the water on their heads.
When we returned to the main community a circle of chairs had been arranged under the mango tree, and we gathered there to speak with the members of this community. The men sat on wooden benches to the front, while the women slowly gathered behind them.
Saneghari is a large community, made up of around 180 households (a population of approximately 900), spread out over quite a wide area. Bhupendra told us that over 80% of the community belong to the Dalit (untouchable) caste, and they are mostly reliant on agriculture or migration to India for their livelihood and income.
One of the community leaders stood to speak. He told us that water access was one of their biggest issues. Pointing around he said, “We have plenty of land, but we have no water”. He went on to list the consequences of relying on the spring at the bottom of the hill. He told us that children spend several hours each morning collecting water for their homes, and this means they are often late for school. During the monsoon the river swells, contaminating the water source and causing members of the community – mostly children – to suffer from stomach ailments. A lower secondary school in the community, which has over 300 children from Saneghari and the surrounding villages, used to have water piped in from another village 10km away, but this system no longer works meaning the kids now need to run down the hill if they want to fill their water bottles during break.
Community members voiced time and again that they are desperate for a solution. They seemed to be confident that with our support they will be able to raise a good portion of the budget needed to install a suitable water pumping system.
I later sat with a group of five women and heard from them what their life was like in the village. As we talked, more women came to join us and shared their stories. All the women said that it felt like most of their day was spent collecting water; water for drinking, water for cooking, water for the toilet and washing clothes, water for their goats, sheep and cows, and water for doing a little bit of agriculture. They told us that in the mornings, it is mostly the children who go down to the spring, as the women have to cut and prepare fodder for the animals. As the day goes on the women would collect water as they need to, between working in their fields and doing their housework. One woman said she would go about 20 times a day with her 15-litre bucket to make sure her family has all the water they need. In the evening, it becomes rush hour, as everyone collects one last bucketful before it gets dark. Depending on where the house is in the village, it could take anywhere between 15 to 45 minutes for a round trip. All the women said that they get headaches because of the sun and from carrying the heavy loads.
When I asked what difference it would make if they didn’t need to collect water, the answer was unanimous; it would make a huge difference. They said that they would be able to have better sanitation, they would save time, and most importantly they said that they would have flexibility with their time so that they could do things that were more valuable. They would be able to focus on their children and their household chores, and would be able to grow more crops and produce vegetables. Again, we heard the same story, they have a lot of land, but no water with which they could cultivate it.
One lady, Surja BK, told us that this place lacked opportunities to earn a living. She told me that to make ends meet they send their children – who are often as young as 11 – across the border to India to work. The other women agreed and said that every family in the village had at least one child who had been sent away for work. When asked if any of the women had children who had finished their school successfully, only one of the women’s sons had achieved his School Leaving Certificate – the Nepali equivalent to GCSEs.
I asked what their aspirations were for their children’s future; they said that they wanted to buy proper stationary for their children to help them in school and they wanted to keep their children in the community, engaging them in agricultural work instead of sending them abroad. I don’t know if they misunderstood the question, or if their life is just too hard that they are unable to dream beyond the most basic needs.
As we said goodbye, Rupa Devi, the lady who had offered me a drink of water down by the spring, showed me her kitchen garden. She said that she had tried to grow some vegetables for her home, some chillies and tomatoes but she wasn’t able to water them regularly. The ground was dusty and dry and the plants were barely alive.
As we thanked our hosts and prepared to leave the community a young man approached me, he told enthusiastically, “We are all very optimistic”, he added, “we are optimistic in this project and that you can help”.
Renewable World and our partners plan to support Saneghari, and other communities like it in the same district, to access a solar powered water pumping system through the next phase of our Solar MUS II programme. If you would like to support this project or would like to find out more please get in touch and email [email protected]