Lessons from the Barahchhetra community in the Koshi River Basin of Nepal

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Local community from the Barahchhetra community in the Koshi River basin believe in collective action for the sustainable management of natural resources and long-term livelihood security. They live near the Koshi River, but are at a safe distance from annual flooding. However, they face challenges and limited resources in drawing water from the Koshi River for irrigation. 

Barahchhetra, a famous Hindu temple in Dhankuta District, attracts thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year from all over Nepal and across the border in India. Several villages in Barahchhetra VDC attract visitors for another reason: to witness, document, and learn approaches to sustainable management of natural resources by local communities. A multidisciplinary team from ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme (KBP) and The Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) consisting of Dr Golam Rasul, Nand Kishor Agrawal, Laxmi Dutta BhattaDr Shariar Wahid, Dr Santosh Nepal, Hari Krishna NibanupudiMadhav Dhakal and Neha Bisht along with the staff of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) visited three wards in the VDC to better understand and document the challenges of hazards, livelihoods, and community resilience and responses to challenges through sustainable resource management.  

Environmental degradation and natural hazards

The Barahachetra area is just below the confluence of the Sun Koshi, Arun and Tamor rivers. The wards visited are located in the remote hills, two kilometers from the district headquarters. Remoteness, lack of irrigation, and limited access to markets don’t deter the entrepreneurial spirit of communities in these wards. However, these wards have witnessed the rampant destruction of rich forest vegetation from outside contractors since the 1990s. In less than a decade, the area has lost rich plant diversity and soil fertility, ground water potential, and natural springs as a result of forest destruction.  

As a result of forest depletion, the area suffers recurring landslides and occasional droughts and is vulnerable to monsoon floods. Torrents, fast flowing streams during monsoon season, regularly cut the banks of remaining good forest land. The team also visited flood-prone areas in the downstream part of the Koshi River basin of Sunsari and Morang districts and observed the changing geo-morphological pattern of the Koshi River. The embankments along the river system were visited, including the part of the embankment that was breached in 2008. The 2008 flood damaged the agricultural land below the breached point, which included houses and a part of the major east-west highway. The land which once was fertile now looks like an ocean of sand.

Community members describing the forest land they lost to erosion.

Community members describing the forest land they lost to erosion.

Torrential floods destroy forest land every year

Torrential floods destroy forest land every year

Structural response to hazards

The team observed the Koshi barrage, which was developed to control flooding and provide irrigation facilities in Nepal and India. According to the community, the embankments and spurs constructed along the river protect their land from flood and sedimentation to some extent. They also draw benefits from the Sunsari-Morang irrigation canal, which provides water for a handful of farmers. 

The team also visited the small 3.2 MW hydropower station in the canal system of the Sunsari-Morang Irrigation Project (SMIP). SMIP – which has a canal intake at the Chatara area of the Koshi River – is one of the largest irrigation projects in Nepal, covering 68,000 ha of arable land in Sunsari and Morang districts. The VDCs visited by the team do not derive major benefits from this infrastructure.

Diversion structures at the intake of the Sunsari Morang Irrigation System upstream of Chatara

Diversion structures at the intake of the Sunsari Morang Irrigation System upstream of Chatara

Diverted sediment

Diverted sediment

Community options, responses, and coping strategies

In response to the rampant felling of trees by illegal contractors, communities came together to fight for their rights. This effort effectively stopped further destruction of the forests around them. With the help of the Forest Department and NGOs, the communities were able to protect and revive their forest resources. The ICIMOD team interacted with Kousika, a community forest group. and visited their 170 ha of lush green forest, abundant with flora and fauna. It’s no surprise that hundreds of development workers and researchers visit them every year to learn their approach. These community forest groups have been well trained in institutional rules, norms, and leadership. A good representation of women in these groups actively participate in discussions and decision making processes.

Villagers say that only two per cent of cultivated land is irrigated with groundwater; the rest is rainfed producing paddy in the summer and wheat in the winter, with maize being cultivated on some land. While most villagers are largely dependent on subsistence farming and the rearing of livestock, some have recently begun vegetable farming with external support. Villagers say the cost of surface water irrigation is prohibitive at NPR 45 for 1,000 litres. Most haven’t explored the option of groundwater irrigation and believe that one day the water from the Koshi will be supplied through pipes to their lands. However, groundwater, considered to be of the highest quality in the eastern region of Nepal, is used extensively for drinking. 

Office of the forest protection committee

Office of the community forest user
group

Community leader Bal Bahudur Thapa and other forest group members

Community leader Bal Bahudur Thapa and other forest user group members

There aren’t any large commercial fish ponds, but small-scale fish farming is practised in small fish ponds. Villagers generally take their livestock to demarcated grazing zones on the opposite side of the Koshi River in an effort to relieve pressure from grazing on their own forests. 

The community members showed an interest in developing commercial livestock farming together with the plantation of Rudraksha trees and fruit trees, including pear, in the visited upper wards and developing commercial vegetable farming in rest of the wards. However due to insufficient supply of water, large-scale fish farming was not feasible.

Community members expressed the need for technical support in commercial livestock husbandry and vegetable and fruit farming, including trainings on water, soil, and nutrient management, identifying suitable varieties of seed and livestock breeds, and subsidies for implementation of appropriate farming technologies. Community members felt that if all available sources of water for irrigation are efficiently used, at least four crops can be grown each year in the lower wards of our VDC.

With some additional training on new technologies, modern farming, and greater flood mitigation measures, the communities in this area can improve their lives and withstand the challenges posed by climate extremes and natural hazards. The visit by the Koshi Basin team enhanced the understanding of local issues of land and water management and flood hazards in the Koshi River basin, which will be beneficial for the successful implementation of ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme.