Time to move away from a hard-engineering approach and embrace nature-based solutions for water security in hill and mountain communities
Chhirak Maya Rai, aged 82, has lived all her life in Ward-8 of Dhankuta District, nestled in the mid-hills of Koshi Province, Eastern Nepal. A revered member of the Aath Pahariya Rai, an Indigenous community native to Dhankuta, Chhirak Maya Rai has witnessed remarkable changes throughout her life, though water was never an issue in her community. The resilience of her community has been put to the test by an unprecedented water crisis that has been unfolding over the past few decades.
"I am 82 years old now, and this is the first time I am taking any training on water management and sanitation” says Chhirak Maya Rai, a member of the Aath Pahariya Rai community in Dhankuta.
Springs are a major source of water in the area; however, like other mid-hill communities across the Himalayan landscape, neighbourhoods in Ward-8 have direct experience of the springs drying up.
Not so long ago, the Aath Pahariya Rai was a thriving community, carrying on their way of life that had remained unchanged for generations. Once known for its ample water resources, Ward-8 has now become synonymous with aridity, becoming one of the driest wards in the entire Dhankuta district. The people living here, including Chhirak Maya Rai, face relentless challenges posed by this profound water crisis.
The drying up of springs has many severe consequences for the sustainability of Himalayan landscapes, river systems, ecosystems, and biodiversity. This scarcity has infiltrated into every aspect of life in these communities, reshaping the way of life as the loss of water sources has made it increasingly difficult to cultivate land. Many men are forced to move out in search of work, leaving women and children to make up for the missing labour force; this increases the drudgery of women and children. For instance, in Khambela village, once known for its many cash crops including tomato and beans, the water shortage has become so acute that residents can only fetch water once every four days – a task which takes at least 2 hours each time. This means they can no longer grow cash crops and can only cultivate species which need the least amount of water. Production overall has decreased significantly. With climate change exacerbating the situation, it is crucial to understand the characteristics of water and the value of every single drop for sustainable water management. Managing water sustainably entails ensuring a sufficient supply and responsible use of water for people, animals, farming and business, to meet the needs of current and future generations.
The remoteness of the location also adds to the daily difficulties of communities such as Ward-8, Dhankuta Municipality, “We live 20 minutes away from the main bazar yet very far from opportunities and access to facilities or resources,” says Sanjita Aath Pahariya Rai, describing the journey by vehicle.
Tackling the issue head-on
Dhankuta Municipality recognises the need for planned investment in managing the watershed – the area of land that drains or sheds water into a specific waterbody. A watershed management approach would result in extra ground water storage and flow, thus ensuring a regular supply and encourage responsible use of water and other resources for domestic, agricultural, and development purposes on an equitable basis.
An interdisciplinary team of experts on watershed and river basin management, community-based adaptation, Nature-based Solutions and environmental management and impact assessment from ICIMOD provided technical support to the Nibuwa-Tankhuwawatershed management plan, which the municipality started implementing in 2021. The plan focuses on six major components: i. Sustainable conservation, management and use of water resources, ii. Sustainable land use management, iii. Diversification and improvement of livelihoods options, iv. Climate change, disaster risk management and sustainable infrastructures, v. Strengthening institutional mechanisms, and vi. Interdisciplinary action research and extension.
The ICIMOD team’s long-standing partnership with the Dhankuta Municipality seeks to address these issues head on. Following preparation of the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed management plan, we are now supporting the implementation of the interventions proposed in the plan.
Water smart solutions for water conservation and management:
It is crucial that our scientifically proven interventions incorporate what is feasible for the Dhankuta region: our answer is in ‘water smart solutions’.
A water smart solution is an approach or technology that improves water management and efficiency, ensuring sustainable and responsible use of water resources. It integrates innovative technologies, data-driven systems, and sustainable practices to optimise water usage, reduce wastage, and enhance overall water resource management.
Considering the efficiency and sustainability of water smart solutions, we initiated three activities in Dhankuta Municipality to address the water crises: rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge activities and a programme to plant vegetation.
Rainwater harvesting is the process of collecting and storing rainwater to meet future water needs. We installed rainwater harvesting systems in two locations in March 2023, working with our partners on the ground, mainly Dhankuta Municipality, Kathmandu-based company SmartPaani Pvt. Ltd., which promotes, develops, and installs water-related technologies, and HUSADEC Nepal, an NGO whose focus is on advocacy and development work with vulnerable and excluded communities in Nepal. This system conserves up to 10,000 litres of water to meet the water needs of 20 households. The other system installed in a school will store up to 1,000 litres. These interventions will help reduce water stress but also inform the community of alternatives to address water scarcity. With use of an effective filter, the conserved rainwater is also fit for drinking. We were able to distribute ‘Tripti Water Filters’ – tabletop filters with four distinct levels of filtration for safe drinking water – to 20 households of Aath Pahariya Rai, Khambela village.
The rainwater harvesting structure that has been installed has taught us how we can use rainwater in the area facing an acute water shortage - Ward 8-Chairperson, Ras Bahadur Rai
In Khambela village, we can see the fruition of these interventions – we moved the water source closer to the community, which reduced the time people spent collecting water from four hours to a few minutes. During our follow-up visit to the community in May 2023, we were greeted by a pleasant sight surrounding the water tanks – happy faces, mostly women, as they waited their turn to collect water in their empty pots and jerrycans from the tanks that had collected water from the previous three days of rain. We could see how these women, their shoulders once burdened, now stood tall. “We feel we have a newfound sense of strength and freedom,” said Rahan Shwori Rai. The transformative power of water, harnessed through our collective efforts, has substantially reduced the drudgery of women in this village, whilst having a positive impact on the time used for such tasks.
Springs revival – ground water recharge
One of the major drivers of the water crisis in the area is the drying up of springs, which is the main source of water. Of the 97 springs mapped in the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa watershed, 23 were completely dried up. The water flow or ‘discharge’ from the remaining springs continuously decreased, leaving residents worried about the future of their water supply.
To address this growing challenge, the ICIMOD team used our six-step protocol for spring revival and management. With this proven framework in hand, we set out to revive two critical sites in the watershed: Suke Pokhari in Ward-1 of Dhankuta municipality and Dhoje Danda in Ward-2 of Chhathar Jorpati rural municipality.
We dug 50 trenches in the Dhoje Danda area to collect rainwater and runoff for groundwater recharge, and rain gauges were installed on sites to collect rainfall data. These gauges provide important data on rainfall and discharge both before and after the intervention, a useful tool to track the impact of our work.
“Traditional ponds and flowing springs were once plentiful, but today they’re a rarity. As a result, we’re facing a severe water shortage. Through capacity building, we now understand the importance of groundwater recharge and linking traditional ponds with springs.” – Krishna Kumar Thakuri, Ward-1, Dhankuta Municipality.
What’s next? Keeping the area green with native vegetation is another main activity that is crucial for the success of our Nature-based Solution interventions. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are those actions which encourage the protection, sustainable management, and restoration of natural or modified ecosystems to address societal challenges while simultaneously supporting human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits. We launched a large-scale campaign to plant trees, plants and shrubs in Dhankuta, together with a comprehensive selection of local stakeholders including: local government (Dhankuta and Chhathar Jorpati Rural Municipality), Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), Division Forest Office, Soil Conservation and watershed Management Office. Working with our partners on the ground, we were able to take on the critical task of ground water conservation and revival.
Over 1000 participants planted 46,000 seedlings and saplings of 22 different native species across various areas identified through careful field data analysis and stakeholder consultations, making sure that every tree was planted in a spot that would have the most impact. Even a small patch of green can go a long way in promoting healthy ecosystems and maintaining sanitation at the source.
Impact and sustainability of water smart solutions
Although we have seen immediate benefits of the rainwater harvesting system in Dhankuta, the long-term goal is to reap the full benefits of the other interventions – spring revival and tree planting. Moving ahead, we need to analyse the economic and social value of our ongoing efforts. These are two critical aspects of any watershed management. Having a clear understanding of the economic and social value of these interventions can help us make better decisions on the benefits for people, the economy and nature. Hence, monitoring the ongoing project activities including rainwater harvesting, planting, and groundwater revival activities is critical for the solutions to be sustainable in the long run. Funding for such water smart solutions needs significant improvement as they promote sustainability and effective water resource management in various sectors, aiming to balance increasing water demands with limited supply while mitigating environmental challenges and population growth.