Access to water changes the face of rural Nepal

Irrigation in the far west empowers women and helps them adapt to climate impact


Water is life. Nowhere is that adage as relevant as in a village along the Tila River in this valley in far western Nepal.

Fed by glaciers higher up, the river flows strong all year round. But just a few metres above its banks, terraced farms are high and dry and crops depend on the annual monsoon.

Farmers here have a traditional irrigation system that channels river water through wooden conduits carved out of tree trunks along the contour of the mountains to water their fields.

But many of these wooden canals have fallen into disrepair, most of the water leaks out destabilising slopes, destroying homes and little water reaching the fields. 

The village of Ghodesim is located on a steep slope below one of these water canals, and its 86 households are at risk of landslides because of the leaky irrigation canals.

Instead of relocating the village to a safer place, the municipality has replaced the wooden conduits with a more permanent cement canal: providing year-round water to the fields, generating electricity, and reducing the drudgery for women here.

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“Now everyone has as much water as they need. People have started to plant not just paddy but also vegetables,” says Lakshi Rokaya, a farmer in Ghodesim.

Jumla and the adjoining Sinja valley in Nepal’s remote northwestern mountains has the highest-grown rice in the world, a red starchy variety that is extra nutritious.

Lakshmi Rokaya had stopped planting wheat and barley because the village’s traditional irrigation canal had gone dry. Now, she points proudly at her terraces ripe with wheat and barley swaying in the afternoon breeze.

“For so long, these terraces were barren and dry, just look at them now, they are ready for harvest,” Rokaya says.

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Plentiful water has given the 30-year-old the confidence to plant vegetable cash crops on a larger scale from next year, so she can sell the surplus in the market.

The adjoining district of Kalikot in Karnali Province,  Shubhakalika Rural Municipality has also built a 658m long irrigation canal that also generates 35KW of electricity, providing households here with power for the first time.

“Our whole world now looks brighter,” beams 50-year-old Jokala Shahi of Howdi Gad village in Kalikot. Until two years ago, she had never before seen an electric bulb, and she says the light has made life much easier. 

The irrigation project was built with Rs2 million from the local government and Rs2.3 million from the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and shows how much can be achieved with a relatively small investment just by providing water. 

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Batti Chaulagain, 50, of Shubhakalika used to wait for spring rain to plant corn, and monsoons for paddy. Rest of the year, her terraces were empty.

Now, even her narrow terraces now grow enough rice to feed her family of four so that her husband no longer has to migrate to India for seasonal work.

Every family in this village in Kalikot has the same story, and indeed the gift of water was all it took for many households across Karnali Province to grow enough food, reduce drudgery and empower its women.

Chaulagain tells a visiting reporter: “Now, we are not limited to just one crop of paddy a year. I am already thinking of planting seasonal vegetables.”

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Chaulagain’s neighbour Primkala Acharya also used to grow only one crop a year, and it was not enough to feed her family. She says, “We no longer leave our terraces fallow since we have irrigation throughout the year. We plan to grow as much as possible and sell it in the market.”

Farmers here used to plant potatoes only in the rainy season when they would have enough water. This year, they were done by early May and are now going to invest in apple orchards. 

The irrigation canals do not reach all farms, and villagers are now asking for the same facility from their local governments. If there is water, they say they can grow chillies, cucumber, tomato and onion, sell the surplus so they can afford better healthcare and education for children.

One of the other visible changes the visitors see in this part of the country is women in construction. Of the 1,600 residents in Shubkalika of Kalikot, 800 are men, half of whom are working in India. Women are therefore seen in the farms, in the households, and even earning income building roads, irrigation canals and bridges.

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Many of the irrigation canal construction in Jumla and Kalikot were also led by women. In Jumla’s Ghodesim, the irrigation canal was built by 50 women and 35 men in two months.

Seventy villagers, more than half of them women, built the Howdigad irrigation scheme in Kalikot.  Women are also the chair and secretaries of irrigation management committees.

Rupa Rokaya, 36, of Shubhakalika is among the women who have taken up the construction job. The 0.2 hectares of land is enough to feed the family for only four months. Her father-in-law, husband and son, all went to India in January but are yet to send her any money. In the meantime, she has been taking care of her three young children and mother-in-law with her own earnings. 

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“I earned Rs18,000 a month working on the irrigation project. This money means we can eat rice and dal for a few months,” she says.

Gorikala Budha, vice chair of Tila Rural Municipality in Jumla says the irrigation projects are ideal because they generate employment during construction and then provide downstream benefits when finished. 

“The projects also give confidence and independence for our women,” she says. “Some of them probably for the first time are able to buy what they want for a change, not just what they need.

In Kalikot, Jokala Shahi earned Rs30,000 after 40 days of construction work and is delighted that she will buy her food for three months. She has also experienced that having an income increases confidence as well as respect for women in their families and communities.

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She says: “Earlier, we women used to cover our faces, sit in a corner, and did not even dare look at the men. Now we speak up, we do things that only men used to do in the past.”

This was always not the case. Before, women were not considered good enough to do construction work, especially the harder bits. But with the men away women have got the opportunity to prove they are strong as the men.

In time, the past disparity in wages has also started to disappear with the increasing ability of women in construction. “Our husbands used to get more wages in the past, now the daily wages are the same,” adds Jokala Shahi.

Jumla and Kalikot are proof of how modest investment in irrigation, honestly implemented, can make the once chronically food deficit region self-sufficient by giving women more say. 

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