Gender and Social Equity in Local Water Use Decisions

ICIMOD is working to transform water management in the Koshi basin through inclusive water use master plans

Villages in the Koshi River basin have to contend with myriad issues around water management: how much is available, distributed and, how it is used. The decisions on these issues are often made on the district and national level, and frequently lack the necessary nuance for local contexts. As a result, local-level management is usually informal and ad-hoc, and marginalized individuals are prone to be left out of the decision-making process. This sometimes gives rise to conflicts within communities and between villages. These conflicts are aggravated by the fact that the demand for water in both domestic and agricultural settings 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.

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 developed in collaboration with local communities themselves, helping them to address the specific needs of each community while also working towards the goal of basin-wide resource management. ICIMOD and HELVETAS work actively with communities in the initial stages to ensure a long-lasting impact. While HELVETAS has experience in local-level planning, ICIMOD gives communities up-to-date, scientific knowledge on trends such as monsoon weather and water availability throughout the year, as well as creative solutions for sustainable water use. This information, which communities may not have access to, is worked into the plans. Once these plans are prepared, they are approved by the village development committee (VDC), which gives support in cash and kind, and ultimately takes it over. In the longer term, the goal is that the plans will be taken up and endorsed by the district development committee, and that they will facilitate talks between communities that live along the same tributary in order to create a larger, integrated master plan at the catchment level. By working to integrate upstream and downstream issues, these plans differ from previous water use planning at the VDC level. 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 districts, which are linked through upstream-downstream dynamics of the Sunkoshi River. There are unique concerns in each place.

In the hills of Sindhupalchowk, the northernmost of the three districts, problems of mountain water runoff and water scarcity make it difficult to grow more profitable crops and vegetables. Further down in Sindhuli, significant portions of the communities are marginalized populations of Dalits and indigenous tribes. The district frequently suffers from floods, droughts, and food insecurity. In the plains of Saptari, pumping groundwater is a challenge, and frequent flooding causes soil and riverbank erosion, which leads to difficulties in field irrigation. In each of these different places, the team met with different members of the community who have a stake in water issues. The team spoke with them about the idea of water use master plans, and asked them to provide feedback on the planning. HELVETAS also contracted local NGOs to conduct technical and socioeconomic surveys on water needs in an effort to bolster plans. Local residents and local authorities welcomed the idea as a way to more effectively manage one of the community’s most vital resources.

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 hopes that they could build off of 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 in 12 VDCs of the three selected districts.

The 2015 Nepal earthquake was a set-back but also an opportunity for local level water management: Effective management has become even more vital as new challenges arise around sanitation and access to water. Sindhupalchowk was one of the hardest hit districts, and nearly all houses have been damaged or collapsed.

Families here and elsewhere have moved into temporary shelters that do not always have reliable water sources, making them more susceptible to water-based inequalities. In the weeks that followed the earthquake, HELVETAS and ICIMOD 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. As the districts move forward with recovery, it is the hope that participatory local water management will help communities re-emerge stronger. In the long-term, this project aims to spur basin-wide conversations centred on water management and based on issues that originate at the local level.

Partner: HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation Nepal
Project title: Support to Local Level Water Use Master Plan in Selected Districts of the Koshi Basin (Nepal Part): A Collaborative Action Research of ICIMOD and HELVETAS Swiss Cooperation
Years active: May 2014 – June 2016
Further reading: Nepal, S; Flügel, WA; and Shrestha, AB (2014) 'Upstream-downstream linkages of hydrological processes in the Himalayan region'. Ecological Processes, 3(1), 1-16.
 
Photo credit: Santosh Nepal, Nabil Baral