People and mountains are thirsty in eastern Nepal

Governments invest in pumping water up from rivers to convince farmers not to migrate out

The glacier-led Tamor River originates below Kangchenjunga seen here on the horizon, and flows below fields waiting for rain. Photo: MOHAN MAINALI

For decades, water scarcity, subsistence farming and debt had been driving farmers away from the village of Aathrai in this district of eastern Nepal. The elderly here tell the true story of one lot of people who decades ago were on their seasonal migration down to Jhapa in the plains.

In their four-day trek south, they were spending the first night under a tree by the banks of the Tamor River. As night fell, they heard a crowd of people with their livestock, coming down the path. They held flaming torches, talked loudly and their laughter carried across the river.

The travellers thought they were seeing ghosts, and watched warily. The people on the opposite side filled their brass jars with water, the cows drank their fill, then they climbed slowly back up the steep path along which they had descended.  

The migrants watched the torches until they reached the top of the ridge and disappeared into Terathum district. The next morning they found out those were villagers who came down every night with their cattle to collect water because springs up the mountain had gone dry.

That is when the people from Terathum realised that their home villages had it much better because the villagers of their district did not have to make nightly water ferry trips up and down the mountain. 

people and mountains are thirsty in eastern Nepal

More, but still not enough

Till recently, wards in Chhathar village in Terathum used to have such a severe water shortage that families had to borrow water like they borrowed money. The nearest spring was two hours walk away, and there would already be up to 60 jars in the queue. It was the job of women to fetch water, and they would trudge home with two jars in baskets on their backs and two plastic containers in their hands.

“This added to the drudgery of women, would delay the preparation of meals for the family and sending children to school, there was no time to clean the house, the livestock were always thirsty and would give less milk,” explains Tara Kharel Dhakal, deputy chair of Chhathar Rural Municipality. 

She adds: “There are settlements where water shortage is still acute, but we have managed to pipe drinking water to 90% of the households.”

Ward 3 Chair Deuman Limbu agrees that drinking water is less of an issue now, but says lack of water is still affecting dairy and vegetable farming which would have improved nutrition and increased cash income of villagers.

Chhathar’s water shortage was alleviated by building a channel from a stream 14km away. There are cliffs along the way where pipes have been laid, but these are often damaged by landslides, wildfires, and maintenance is difficult.

In large parts of Nepal, including here in the east, the main reason people  migrate out is because of the lack of drinking water. And although most people here remember the water crisis being much more serious in the past, there is still not enough in the dry season.

There used to be a tradition in Nepal’s mountains that travellers could get free food and lodging for the night from villagers along the way, and this would be reciprocated when they themselves needed to stop for the night. It was the same with water: those walking along foot trails would be offered water for free since people believed it would earn them merit in heaven. 

But not in villages like Thoklung today, where travellers know how precious water is, and offer to pay for a drink.

Springs are going dry across Nepal’s mid-mountains from east to west, partly due to erratic rainfall caused by the climate crisis but also because of over-extraction. Spring water used to be mainly for household use and the extra water would flow down the mountain, seep into the soil and recharge groundwater. These days, farmers pipe water to their homes from nearby springs to irrigate cash crops like cardamom or vegetables. 

people and mountains are thirsty in eastern Nepal

“New roads drain water away, preventing recharge,” explains watershed expert Madhukar Upadhyay. “Paddy terraces used to store water that slowly seeped into the slopes, but with outmigration there is less rice being planted which in turn has affected the water table.”

Read Also: Climate crisis → drought → food deficit → migration, Mohan Mainali

Power to pump water

Necessity is the mother of invention, so desperate villages in eastern Nepal have adopted innovative new ways to ensure water supply. Thirsty families in the parched Kummayak village of Panchthar used to look down longingly at the blue-green waters of the glacier-fed Tamor River.

They decided that instead of migrating to the Tarai, they might as well try to pump the water to their village. Nine years ago, they launched a project to dig a well near the river and pump the water up the mountain and distribute drinking water to 2,000 of the 3,200 households in Kummayak.  

But chronic drought has reduced the dry season flow in the Tamor, and villagers had to divert the river’s channel closer to the well to maintain water supply. The Tamor Drinking Water Pumping Project is now digging another well at a cost of Rs10 million to augment supply. 

Learning from Kummayak, 11 other projects are planned to pump Tamor water up to mountain villages. Some villages that would have benefited, like Aathrai, have just heard the bad news that the federal government does not have the budget to fund their Rs20 million well and pumping station. 

Part of the reason there is not enough money is because budgets are also being misused. For example, the central and provincial government are working at cross-purposes and duplicating drinking water schemes. The federal government has a Rs3.5 million pump project in the same place where the Kosi Province has set aside Rs2 million also to lift drinking water.   

The water shortage is even more severe in Dhankuta district, where in Chaubise village Ward 3, a Rs80 million project is underway to pump water up from a spring down the mountain.

people and mountains are thirsty in eastern Nepal
Before lift pumped water was distributed in Syabrumba of Panchthar district, villages had to wait for their quota of water. Today 60% of the household has piped drinking water. Photo: GIRIRAJ BANSKOTA

All these districts of eastern Nepal have lost more than a third of their population in the past 20 years, and local governments see improved water supply as a way to bring their people back. The population of Thoklung village of Terathum was 40% less in 2021 than what it was in 2001, so its municipality is working on a pumping scheme to lift water from the Tamor to distribute every household in Ward 7.

Ward Chair Rohit Kandengwa, however, is worried that the project’s electricity bill would mean that the household water tariff will be too high. 

Indeed, spring water can flow down to a village by gravity. But pumping water from a river to a ridgetop village can be expensive. The Kummayak project, for example, has an electricity bill of Rs600,000 per month. 

“Water has value. We charge 10 paisa per litre of water and that could be expensive to those who are used to free water, but it is better than no water at all, and it is cheaper than water from tankers,” says Nirmal Ghimire, chair of Kummayak Ward 5. 

But there are other non-monetary benefits from water pumps, like in curbing outmigration. For the past two years, no families have migrated out of Kummayak village since it got regular water supply.

To be sure, ensuring water supply alone will not stop people since there are other push factors at play: difficulty to access medical care, low quality of public schools, lack of jobs, the government’s low priority for agriculture driving people away from farming.

“Farmers here used to sell milk, but they have not been paid for their milk since nine months,” says Chhathar Ward 4 Chair Pushpa Karki. “They cannot sell their goats, middle men fix the price for cardamom and ginger.”

The chhurpi and ghee industries have dried up, and dairy farmers have no place to sell milk. It is also a seller’s market, and farmers have to buy everything, without credit, and cannot determine the price of their produce. 

Lack of connectivity is another reason people migrate from these remote districts. It has been 12 years since construction began on the bridge at Lumughat across the Tamor River that would have linked Terathum and Panchthar, making it easier to take produce to market towns.  

Better roads would also improve the quality of instruction – the other reason many families move to Dharan or Kathmandu. Accessibility would motivate teachers to stay in villages.

There is also a herd mentality that drives migration. If one household moves out, the entire neighbourhood ups and moves. Ten of former school principal Hari Narayan Bhattarai’s neigbours locked up their homes and moved down to the Tarai partly due to lack of water. Bhattarai lost the support of next door families that he used to rely on, so he also moved to Birtamod of Jhapa in the plains. Households in the mountains need each other to survive. Neighbours help neighbours to plough, plant and harvest. 

And then there is the litany of woes that all Nepalis face: the delays in getting driving licenses, work permits, and other services. People move to where life is easier.  

Outmigration also makes pre-existing problems of the mountains worse. Where forests are growing out of fallow terrace fields, with no one to forage for dried undergrowth fire risk has increased, crops are damaged by wildlife, and the decline in livestock has reduced soil fertility.  

“The main reason for outmigration is lack of water and low productivity,” says Chhathar Deputy Chair Dhakal whose village announced grants of up to Rs500,000 to start up agrobusinesses. Thirty families did return. However, there were no takers for Dhakal’s offer of Rs10,000 to households farming their fallow fields again. 

Even if rural municipalities find the money to install well and pumps for water supply, paying for maintenance or repairs of broken pipes or pumps can be a problem due to lack of budget.

Watershed expert Madhukar Upadhyay concedes that pumping water from a river to villages in the mountains is only a short-term fix, but not a sustainable solution.

“Over the long-term we must think of reviving traditional system of ponds near springs where water can collect and re-charge groundwater,” he explains. “That way we address the thirst of both the people and the mountains.”  

This is the second of a 3-part series supported by Barbara Foundation.The third and last instalment will appear on the 26 April edition.