Making water use decisions locally  

Three districts in Nepal attempt to transform water management through water use master plans Villages in the Koshi River basin have to contend with a myriad issues around water management, including how it is distributed, how much is distributed, and how it is used. Decisions on these issues are often made at the district and national levels and frequently lack the necessary nuances to make them suitable to local contexts. As a result, local-level management is usually informal and ad-hoc, and certain marginalized individuals tend to be left out of the decision-making process. This sometimes gives rise to conflict within communities and between villages; these conflicts are aggravated by the fact that the demand for water in both the domestic and agricultural setting is increasing, while in many places water availability is decreasing.  

Beginning in 2014, ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme, in partnership with HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation Nepal, started an initiative in three different ecological zones in the Koshi Basin to help promote effective, efficient, and equitable water management at the local level. The initiative’s goal is to encourage the use of water use master plans, which are locally-prepared plans that lay out a five-year usage strategy for all water-related issues, including irrigation, drinking water, sanitation, and disaster reduction. The aim is to improve access to water and ensure equal water distribution among all individuals – especially those who are routinely marginalized, such as women and the poor.  These plans are unique in that they are products of local communities themselves, and thus are able to address the specific needs of each community. ICIMOD and HELVATAS work actively with communities in the initial stages in order to ensure a long-lasting impact. While HELVATAS has experience in local level planning, ICIMOD provides communities with up-to-date scientific knowledge on trends such as monsoon weather and the availability of water throughout the year, as well as creative solutions for sustainable water use. This information, which communities may not have access to otherwise, are worked into the plans. Once these plans are prepared, they are approved by the village development committee council, which gives support in cash and kind and ultimately takes it over. In the long term, the goal is for the plans to be taken up and endorsed by the district development committee and for the plans to facilitate talks between communities that live along the same tributary in order to create a larger, integrated master plan. If successful, the project will be replicated in other districts in the Koshi basin. 

At the start of the project, the team spent time visiting villages in Sindhupalchowk, Sindhuli and Saptari, three districts that are linked through the upstream-downstream dynamics of the Sunkoshi river. There are unique concerns in each place. In the hills of Sindhupalchowk, the northernmost district, there are problems with mountain water runoff and water scarcity, which makes it difficult to grow certain types of vegetables. Farther down in the selected sites of Sindhuli, significant portions of the communities are marginalized, including populations of Dalits and indigenous tribes, and poverty rates are more than 50%. The district frequently suffers from floods, droughts, and food insecurity. In the plains of Saptari, frequent flooding causes soil erosion, which leads to barren fields. In each of these places, the team met with different members of the community who have a stake in water issues and spoke with them about the idea of water use master plans. In Sindhuli, HELVETAS also contracted a local NGO to conduct socioeconomic surveys to determine water needs in an effort to aid in planning. Local residents and local authorities welcomed the idea as a way to more effectively manage one of the community’s most vital resources.  Then, in March 2015, 30 selected participants from Sindhupalchowk, Sindhuli and Saptari travelled to Kathmandu for a four-day training on how to create and execute a water use master plan that is gender sensitive and socially inclusive. The training consisted of presentations, group discussions, and fieldwork, and encouraged interaction among the participants with the hope that they could build on one another’s ideas. By the end of the workshop, the participants drew up plans for how they could start the water use master plan process in their area. The plans, if effectively executed, should reach around 12,000 households.  

The 2015 earthquake was a set-back, but also an opportunity, for local-level water management. Effective management has become even more vital now, as new challenges arise around sanitation and access to water. Sindhupalchowk was one of the hardest hit districts by the earthquake, and nearly all houses have been damaged or destroyed. Families here, and elsewhere, have moved into temporary shelters that do not always have reliable water sources, becoming more susceptible to water-based inequalities. In the weeks that followed the earthquake, HELVATAS distributed rice, lentils, tents, and solar lamps to some of the neediest families in Sindhupalchowk. One of the largest lessons learned from the earthquake is that disaster mitigation plans need to be strongly integrated into water use mater plans, because disaster is linked closely with water. As the districts move forward with recovery, it is the hope that participatory local water management will help communities to re-emerge stronger. In the long term, this project aims to begin basin-wide conversation around water management, based on issues that originate at the local level.