Sixty years ago, when Swiss geologist Toni Hagen walked across the length and breadth of Nepal he used to ask villagers what they wanted most. The reply was almost always: a footbridge. Rivers divided Nepal into an archipelago of isolated valleys, especially in the monsoon. Nepalâs trail bridge-building campaign is a success story which we will talk about some other time. But when Hagen returned to Nepal in the 1980s and again asked mountain dwellers what they wanted, the demand was for motorable roads.
Today there is scarcely a part of Nepal where an excavator isnât in action digging a road. More roads have been built in the past ten years than in the last 60. Humla is the only district that is still not connected to the national highway network, and even that not for much longer.
If Toni Hagen were alive and once more asked villagers in the mid-hills of Nepal what is their most pressing need, it would most certainly be: water. The more arid western districts of Achham, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Pyuthan were always synonymous with water shortages. But in the past two decades areas never before associated with the lack of water like Ramechhap, Kavre and Dolakha are reeling under acute water scarcity.
As our reporter found out in a recent visit (page 14-15) water shortage continues to be the biggest worry in Nepalâs mountain villages. While erratic rainfall and drying up of perennial springs have had a severe impact on agriculture, water scarcity has also spurred out-migration from the mid-hills.
Entire villages are emptying as farmers sell their homesteads and move to Kathmandu, while city folk are migrating in the opposite direction buying up viewpoint property as investment. Many terraces are barren not just because there is no one to till them, but also due to the water shortage.
Most villages located along ridges have always suffered from lack of water as soon as the rainy season drew close to. This year, despite a healthy monsoon that ended late, even water sources located next to community forests have dried up. Desperate villagers (mostly women because the men have left) have to walk hours to fetch water. Vegetable patches have wilted. Children are dropping out of school to help carry water. Districts may have been declared open-defecation free, but there is no water in the latrines.
Many reasons have been put forward for this Great Desiccation. Across most of the 12 districts affected the 2015 earthquakes disrupted aquifers, drying perennial springs especially along the higher slopes. The haphazard construction of roads, and urban sprawl have also diverted natural recharge points for ground water.
It is tempting to blame it all on climate change because that lets the government and local officials off the hook. It was the stateâs responsibility to provide alternative sources of water even before global warming made the problem worse. This was not a new problem: Nepalâs mid-hills have always suffered prolonged drought, flash floods and water shortages. Despite irregular monsoons and extreme weather patterns, theÂ monthly rainfall graph across Nepal hasnât changed much in the past 20 years. If the total precipitation is the same, why are springs going dry?
Global warming is melting the Himalaya, and glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. Water stored as ice along the Himalayan arc and on the Tibetan plateau is the fountainhead for 1.2 billion people from China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. But snow melt provides less than 20 per cent of the net flow of rivers that originate in the Himalaya, the rest are fed by springs. In fact, the Himalaya is not so much the water tower of Asia as a gigantic sponge that stores water under its mountains. That sponge seems to be going dry.
Whatever the cause, there are certain things that can be done immediately to reduce the water stress of Nepalâs villages. Some of these are featured in our reportage: farmers in Kavre are already harvesting rain from rooftops in underground tanks to tide over the familyâs water needs till the next rainy season, collecting monsoon runoff in ponds so they recharge the aquifers. Besides making it mandatory forÂ new buildings to be earthquake resistant, the government should also require them to have rainwater harvesting.
But, as we see in Kavre, much of this already is happening out of necessity. It is too late to blame climate change, we need to catch rain wherever it falls.