Climate breakdown magnifies western Nepal’s woes

Parched by heatwave and drought, Western Nepal is running out of water

Rekcha residents marched to the municipality office with pitchers in their staw basket to demonstate their desperation for water. Photos: LAXMI BHANDARI

The mountains of western Nepal have always been food deficit because of the lack of irrigation. Farmers migrated to the plains, where farming has been easier.

But a searing heatwave this year accompanied by a delayed monsoon has led to a water crisis that threatens to undermine Nepal’s gains in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The climate crisis is a water crisis, and it has hit food production, nutrition and the availability of safe drinking water. 

Not everything can be blamed on climate breakdown. Wells that used to be the last resort for rice planting, for example, have gone dry because of a falling water table.

In the highway town of Attariyia, there used to be five deep tubewells that supplied 4 million litres of water each day to the city’s 5,500 households. In the last three years, all but one of them has dried up. The municipality then drilled four more 80m deep wells, but even these have water only for six months in a year.

water crisis in Tarai Nepal
Towns in Tarai are parched for drinking water, there is no water for irrigation. They have to dig deeper for water and even then, new borewells have dried up. Photos: UNNATI CHAUDHARI

In the city of Dhangadi with a population of 300,000 on the Indian border, the municipality dug three deep wells after household wells went dry. This summer, even the tubewells ran out of water. The situation is similar in other nearby border towns.

Experts say the reason for the falling water levels in the acquifers has more to do with over-extraction of groundwater both in Nepal and neighbouring India, where farmers get subsidised electricity for irrigation pumps. The area’s industries and farms also have their own wells that have tapped into what used to be a plentiful groundwater supply.

“The water begins to dry out after the end of winter,” says Phulram Chaudhary of the nearby town of Krishnapur. “And till the monsoon arrives in June there is no water at all.”

Indeed, towns and cities desperate for water are drilling ever deeper for precious water, using up a diminishing supply in the groundwater. Milanpur town dug a 90m deep borewell, but it ran out within ten days.

Water crisis in tarai Nepal
Over-extraction of ground water both in Nepal and neighbouring India is causing water lavels to fall in the Tarai.

The over-exploitation of ground water by an expanding populating and growing household and agricultural use has magnified the impact of climate breakdown which has led to chronic winter drought, heatwaves and erratic monsoons in western Nepal.

“Ten years ago, it was enough to drill 20 metres to get water all year round, now it is no water even at 80 metres,” says Kalidevi Chaudhary, a farmer in the village of Kailari.

She adds: “There is no water for drinking. Don’t even ask me about irrigation.”

Water expert and professor at Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Environmental Science Sudeep Thakuri says research has shown that the groundwater table across the Tarai has dropped mainly because of over-extraction, denudation in the catchment areas of the Chure, sand mining in the rivers, as well as climate change.

“We have disturbed the water cycle, and the climate crisis has made the problem more acute with long droughts and uncertain monsoons,” Thakuri says. “This means there is not enough recharge of groundwater.”

The distance between borewells and tube wells has also decreased as Tarai settlements grow and water demand increases. Indeed, 140 boreholes have been dug in Kailali and Kanchanpur, out of which only 91 still have water. 

Additionally, water has also been extracted through 1,001 deep tube wells in these two districts, according to the Groundwater Resources and Irrigation Development Division offices there.

Water crisis in tarai Nepal
Tarai’s groundwater is being used as a bargaining chip by elected officials, who have drilled arbitrarily to appease voters.

Nepal’s provincial and local governments have invested heavily in subsidising drilling for groundwater, as per the federal policy of maximum utilisation of groundwater with a budget to drill 100 borewells. 

Tara Dutta Joshi, head of the Mahakali Irrigation Project in Kanchanpur says that although the aim was to use the groundwater extracted from these projects for the next 20 years, six of the 90 boreholes have already dried up. 

While tube wells pump up water from up to 40m feet below ground, there is no water to be found at this depth anymore in most of the western Tarai. Meanwhile, boreholes require drilling up to 110m, and artesian water is extracted between 110-400m below. 

Experts say the Tarai’s groundwater is being used as a bargaining chip by elected officials, who have drilled arbitrarily to appease voters. There is a lack of research as well as policy regarding how many boreholes can be drilled in a given area, and how much water can be extracted. 

Sankar Dutta Awasthi of Kailari village says federal decentralisation led to competition among local politicians to see who could supply more water to their electorates. Indeed, 1,200 small-scale groundwater projects have been constructed in this municipality since the formation of the local government in 2017 in addition to larger-scale projects carried out by the provincial and federal governments.

“Elected officials are far more concerned about how to repeatedly ensure groundwater projects in their constituency than about how this uncontrolled extraction is going to affect the region in the future,” says Awasthi.

Water crisis in tarai Nepal
One tubewell used to be enough to sustain a village some decades ago, while today even three tubewells in one household in not enough to fulfil basic water needs.

One of the bores drilled in Kailari was for Ramesh Chaudhary four years ago for irrigation, but the water dried up within two years before a canal could be completed. Nearby in the village of Rampur, a 200m deep borewell drilled for irrigation also went dry. 

“The water never even reached any farmer’s field, what a waste of Rs10 million,” says Chaudhary.

Water expert Tarka Raj Joshi notes that one tubewell should be enough to sustain a village some decades ago, while today even three tubewells in one household in not enough to fulfil basic water needs. 

“The local, provincial, and federal governments’ water distribution schemes will have a major impact on groundwater levels in the Tarai,” says Joshi. “No one is thinking about what this crisis means for the future.”

The shortage of water threatens to undermine Nepal’s gains in reducing infant and child mortality as targeted in the SDG because children are forced to drink contaminated water. Their nutrition is also affected as food production is reduced because of lack of irrigation water. All this feeds into the outmigration trend.

The answer is to allow ground recharge through regeneration of trees in the Chure, zoning to regulate rampant urbanisation, a tax on extraction of deep groundwater, and channeling water from the Karnali and Mahakali rivers to augment supply so there is less reliance on acquifers.

Water shortage drives Surkhet villagers out


water crisis in Tarai Nepal
Rekcha residents marched to the municipality office with pitchers in their staw basket to demonstate their desperation for water. Photos: LAXMI BHANDARI

The delay in the onset of the monsoon rains in June meant that the village of Rekcha had a severe shortage of water. 

Residents started their day as usual, placing pitchers in their straw baskets by the community taps. But instead of heading to the wells to fetch water, they marched to the municipality office to demonstrate.

The village’s Water Supply Struggle Committee was led by Ward member Tapendra Chhetri who had to resort to a sit-in outside the municipality out of desperation for water.

Rekcha used to be an ideal place for settlers because of its fertile soil and plentiful water. Even though the 11 wells in the village produced enough water to sustain its families for decades, they have now all dried up. 

“Villagers now collect what little water is left on the bottom of the wells, using cloth for filtration,” says ward member Chhetri. “This village is dying of thirst.” 

The extreme water shortage has begun to drive residents out. Until five years ago, Rekcha village had 115 households, but 35 families have migrated elsewhere since. Khagisara Shahi was one of the villagers who walked with her water pitcher to the rural municipality headquarters. Like the rest of her neighbours she is finding it increasingly difficult to survive in Rekcha. 

“Our pleas fell on deaf ears, so we walked all the way here with our pitchers to make the leadership aware of our plight,” says Shahi. “We make do at other times, but it is impossible to live without water, especially when it is getting hotter.” 

water crisis in Tarai Nepal
Now that wells have dried up in Rekcha, the journey to other sources of water is even longer, and the drudgery falls on women.

Even when the village’s wells had water, it used to take hours of standing in queue for each household to collect water from their homes. Now that the wells have dried up, the journey to other sources of water is even longer, and the drudgery falls on women.

“There is not enough time in the day to do all the housework, look after the farm and livestock, and fetch water,” says Shahi.

Four years ago, the rural municipality made plans to bring water up to the village from the Karnali river, for which they allocated a budget of Rs17.2 million. However, the project fell through due to difficulties with road access. 

Chaukune Rural Municipality Chair Khadka BK says that local government resources alone will not be enough to provide drinking water to Rekcha. “The remoteness of the village means we need federal and provincial support.”

Meanwhile, the villagers look down on the clear blue water of the snowfed Karnali River below, while their fields are parched and their children are complaining of thirst.

Laxmi Bhandari

This article is brought to you by Nepali Times, in collaboration with INPS Japan and Soka Gakkai International, in consultative status with UN ECOSOC.

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