Women and water


The climate crisis is a water crisis – either too much of it, or too little. Droughts have dried up springs, and when it does rain, it comes down to unleash deadly flash floods.

If there was an effective farm irrigation network, reliable and safe drinking water in every village, Nepalis would find it much easier to cope with the impact of the climate emergency.  Historical state failure has provided neither, and blaming climate change now is just a convenient excuse to cover up for past neglect.

There have always been droughts in Nepal.  For millennia, Himalayan rivers have unleashed catastrophic floods. The climate crisis has just made them worse, as poorly designed infrastructure and settlements lead to more destructive disasters.  

Melting icecaps get all the media attention as the world deals with climate change, but it is the state of our streams, rivers, and ground water that affect more people immediately. 

With outmigration of men from rural areas, it is mostly women who are left to farm, raise livestock, fetch water, and care for the household. Even before the climate crisis hit, the work of Nepali women was demanding and undervalued. Global warming has just made their drudgery much worse.   

Climate change is a disaster in the Nepal Himalaya, Sonam Choekyi Lama

In Kavre district, women who had to walk a few minutes to fetch water now have to make one hour roundtrips because springs have dried up. With the men-folk gone, women like Namdak Sangmo in our special report from Dolpo struggle to survive after their farms were swept away by a glacial flood. 

You do not need to be a gender activist to see how women bear a disproportionate burden from the climate crisis. Across the Himalayan foothills, farm terraces lie dry and fallow. Women are not just heading households now, they also have to make decisions about planting, irrigation, harvesting, grazing, foraging, cooking, and taking care of children. 

While remittance money has helped raise the standard of living, extreme events like the deadly floods and landslides this monsoon season add to the misery. Three-fourths of Nepal’s farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and the combined impact of weather extremes and the pandemic have added to food insecurity. 

Increased work for women in the household means many daughters drop out of school to help with household chores. Most of these problems predate climate change, but global warming has added to the challenges women face every day

The most low-hanging fruit for climate adaptation in Nepal is to provide women with enough water,  or protect their families from too much of it. And that is exactly where most of Nepal’s success stories are happening. 

Himalayan floods a sign of worse to come, Mukesh Pokharel

Faced with dry springs, Mother’s Groups and Forestry User Groups in Kavre have joined forces to harvest monsoon water for household use in the dry season. They have revived traditional network of ponds for groundwater recharge, and nurtured indigenous plant species in community forests.  

In Kailali district in the western plains, farmers who used to suffer from chronic floods are using botanical buffers. Bamboo and napier grass on embankments and sugarcane on riverbanks block floods, while providing cash income. In Kanchanpur district, villagers also grow banana, watermelon, pumpkin, squash and gourd after the floods recede, taking advantage of nutrient-rich soil deposit.

While developmental partners, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations have played a crucial role in introducing climate-specific interventions, theirs is a piecemeal approach. In fact, it often lets the government off the hook. We need to scale up these successful pilot projects nationwide.

With or without the climate crisis, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure access to water for households and irrigation. After all, droughts and floods are nothing new here. 

Nepal’s delegation to the COP26 Climate Summit next week will be led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. But instead of going to Glasgow, Deuba should head out to his home constituency of Dadeldhura-1 to see for himself how the most marginalised women have coped with this year’s triple whammy – drought, wildfires and floods.  

In Glasgow, the focus is on emissions reduction and compensating countries like Nepal for loss and damage. Nepal’s delegation has little right to hold out the begging bowl when it is doing so little for its own people back home. Climate justice and historical emissions sound good in speeches, but it does not deliver food security today. 

Women and their added vulnerability to the climate emergency should not be limited to sound bites at international fora, but goad real action that prioritise them.

Read also: Think globally in Glasgow, and act locally, Raju Pandit Chhetri

Sonia Awale

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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