Thousands Families Denied Access To Safe Water In Nepal
Nepal: Thousands Families Denied Access To Safe Water In Nepal
Indra Maya Shankar
Life like hell in the place like heaven -- Mountainous region
As a right to food activist for the last five years, I had a dream to travel to the Karnali region, a mountainous area while doing field work. Mugu in the Karnali region is surrounded by nature. Out of the 75 districts in Nepal, it is listed last in terms of the human development index. Many people around the world appreciate its natural beauty -- sky blue Rara Lake nearby Mugu. However, one can find extreme poverty and hardship that the villagers face in their daily life. In April 2011 I visited Mugu for the first time along with my foreign colleagues. (PHOTO RIGHT: Pots to collect water, Palpa district, taken by Jin Ju)
We went down from the airplane landing area to Rugha Village Development Community (VDC) in Mugu. The village is on the lap of Mugu where anyone can observe the difficult life of the villagers. There we had an informal conversation with a woman from the Dalit community who expressed various problems in her life. "This is hell, not Mugu" she said with tears in her eyes. "We face death even from a common and curable disease because they don't have access to medical treatment here. Sometimes we even feel like we are living in a desert when we face scarcity of water, who said that Nepal holds second position in world's richest country in water resources?"
People come here with many programs for sanitation and health but do not last long since there is no water. How could the medicine work if there is absence of basic things like water? Indeed, the first job of the day that women are expected to do is fetch water to wash dishes, make tea and cook food. Women in Rugha VDC ward 4 always think about how to get water and there is no exception in Mugu. Women carry a water jar on their waist and on their head and go a long way down to the Karnali River, which is a hard labour and causes health issues. In summer, the river is contaminated by rain and flood. A woman of Rugha has lost three children out of seven due to diarrhea after drinking contaminated river water. Yet, she does not have any other option to get water. Taking one and half hours back and forth to fetch water from the river, walking on slopes and rough paths with jars filled with water, she spends 18 hours a day for housework. There is no respite even during pregnancy.
A 80 year-old woman expressed her feelings with tears in her eyes that she spent her whole life thinking about getting water from river more easily. But it has not happened. She even lost her child in the Karnali River who drowned while playing. Her husband went to India looking for employment opportunities while she looked after her children. At that time she found it difficult to go for taking water every day from the river. She never took rest even when she was sick or pregnant. "The problems I faced are being faced by my daughter and daughter-in-law now, which is very intolerable for me." Holding my hands, she was so eager to ask me to bring water for her village. "I will bless you if you did but curse you if you made fake promises."
The villagers are mostly engaged in agricultural labor in an environment of high temperatures but a shortage of drinking water. Spending so much time in getting water for various purposes all day long, women are physically and mentally under pressure. They often suffer from anxiety, stress, lightheadedness, vomiting and vertigo after walking hours and hours with a huge gallon of water in an empty stomach. (PHOTO LEFT: Mugu, Nepal, taken by Jin Ju)
women and water - Far Eastern region
Similar problems have been faced by the Dalit women living in Koteli village ward no 5, of Dadeldhura district which lies in far eastern region. They have been facing a shortage of drinking water for the past 16 years merely because they are Dalits. In 1995 the government introduced the safe drinking water scheme in Koteli village ward no 7, 5, and 4 where upper caste Brahmin and Dalit communities jointly reside. Brahmin households reside next to the Dalit households. Around 100 Dalits households live in ward no. 5. The administration installed water-pipe and tap for all villagers but the non-Dalit community blocked water from flowing to the Dalit household's tap. The Dalits could not get a single drop of water from their tap. When the Dalit community made a complaint to the district drinking water office, nobody listened to them. They hence have to go to another village to fetch water taking more than 5 hours from their village back and forth with the jar of water, which causes health issues for the Dalit women. The women carry 25-30 liters of water on their head and back at the same time. This result in delays in sending the children to school. They also suffer from different types of diseases. This daily discriminatory practice against the Dalits which causes water scarcity in farming also harms their food production.
Water first! - middle-east region
Palpa district is one of the well-known tourist areas to foreigners. Being located on the way to Lumbini, Buddha's birth place, one can see some foreigners enjoying Nepali culture as well as nature. Yet women living here are not free from lack of water either. Upland villages like Vuwan Pokhari are the worst examples. The villagers produce maize and millet on this dry slope area with which people feed themselves for only 3-4 months and the men usually migrate to India or other districts of Nepal for the rest of the year to feed the family. The women and children are left behind. The picture is rather common in many rural areas in Nepal. In Vuwan Pokhari village ward no 9 in Palpa district 75 Dalit households have been residing here for generation
After climbing up to the village in a van that quickly filled one can see two big jars built in front of almost every household. They are there to store rain which will be used for various purposes; washing, cooking, drinking, etc. This scheme was financially supported by Friend Nepal to provide two jars to each house. There is a tube to connect the jar to the roof, which makes rain water go into the jar. If the family wanted to have more than two, they have to pay the full cost. There is no other water supply in the village. Indeed, it looks beautiful and unique though it is a symbol of water scarcity and pain of the village. When we arrived all the villagers shouted at once, "Give us water first!"
What if rain doesn't come? April is not the rainy season and there was no water in the jars when we visited the village. Thus it is a huge burden for women. Women have to go down to fetch water from the well on the roadside, which usually takes one hour. Though the road was constructed in the village five years ago to commute to other villages, it is narrow, steep, stony and dusty.
A villager, Ms. Sukmaya Pariyar said, "If there is any social function like marriage ceremony or funeral in the community, every household has to collect a jar of water for the function. After we wash dishes and cloths, we reuse water for our domestic animals and vegetables farming".
There is a belief in Nepal that while carrying water a woman should not stop walking because if she stopped to take a rest the water would get impure. This custom makes it even more difficult for women who have to carry heavy loads of water for more than one hour without taking a break.
A 75 year-old woman, Sobhi Pahadi, seemed to be in charge of all the rituals. She is the oldest woman, who prays for all villagers, according to Hindu tradition. She even gave a big warm hug to the visitors. She is proud of her son, a Constituent Assembly member, Mr. Binod Pahadi. She has been living in the village since she was 13-years-old when she married her husband who was then in the army. She recalled her memories about water. She also went down to fetch water, which was enough for her family on those days. But many women are now in the queue for water as water from the same well is now far less than before. Due to road construction nearby the well, the source of water seems to have been buried by dust and soil. Her son has tried to initiate a safe drinking water scheme in the villager but the outcome is uncertain.
Caste based discrimination, denying
access to safe drinking water
In the villages, though water resources are common for everyone, Dalit communities find it difficult to access water. Residential areas are separated between Dalits and non-Dalits or so called upper castes. In general, upper caste communities reside in the lowland where more resources are available or easily accessible. Due to Hindu traditional practice which is a social caste-based discrimination, Dalits are often denied to access water resources in the villages. In Vuwan Pokhari of Palpa introduced above, Dalits live in the upland and the so called upper caste communities reside in the lowland with easier accessibility to various resources including water and farmland. Water, like oxygen, is necessary in our life and the most significant determinant of food production as well as health. Although we might have enough food, without safe drinking water, one could die of water borne diseases or be affected by food contaminated by water. As the climate gets drier, food production is considerably affected by shortage of water as many depend on rain for cultivation. Given the fact that women take all responsibility for housework and child care in Nepal, they confront more discrimination and difficulties to manage housework, food, and child care at home. The erroneous belief that Dalits are dirty by birth may be rooted by this. Within limited water resources, it is natural that they use less water for washing and bathing than others, which has been daily practicing among Dalits. If people, just to wash their hands and mouths have to walk more than one hour, how can they maintain their health and sanitation?
It is not a matter of budget but the matter of access, control and ownership over the resources, utilization and equal sharing of it without any de facto discrimination. For example in the Dadelhura case, the government provided a pipeline and tap for Dalits but the so called upper caste persons do now allow Dalits to use the same water. The government has failed to intervene to prevent this or eliminate the deeply rooted caste based discrimination. The government believes that their duty does not go beyond providing resources or facilities. It is indeed more important and difficult to change routine practices committed among different castes and the government should give a priority to the issues related to the fundamental rights. Needless to say, right to access safe drinking water is one of the fundamental rights to enjoy right to life with dignity as a human being. Regardless of the budget availability, it should be properly respected by efficient policy and its implementation, which will be promoted by the active and collective participation of the Dalit communities in the process of policy making and enforcement. Participation is the basic element of democracy and equality. Both cases in Palpa and Mugu narrated above expose lack of participation of the Dalits. They are shouting, though no one pays attention, "Give me water!"
Water Supply Policies and obstacles
The government's 9th Five-Year Plan (1997-2002) estimated national urban water supply coverage at 62.5\%, and set a target for 100 \% coverage, with sanitation for 40 \% of the population, by the end of the plan. This proved to be an ambitious target and Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Department projected early on that by 2002 only 71 \% would be covered by drinking water quantity and 30 \% by sanitation. These figures are also questionable, because they do not take into account the poor operational status or the poor quality of water supplies from the facilities that have already been built. As high as 92\% of the piped water supplies and 25\% of the tube wells are reported to be either out of operation or in need of rehabilitation. The development of the water and sanitation sector remains a high priority of the government, and in this regard the 10th Plan (2003-2007) targetted to supply water to 85 percent of the rural population and 100 percent for the urban population. The polices and commitment of the government have resulted in an extension of this sector under multilateral aid agencies like World Bank(WB), Asian Development Board (ADB), bilaterally assisted projects and International/National Non-Governmental Organizations (I/NGOs) working in this sector. Different approaches are being used by different organizations working with different projects in many parts of Nepal, but the goal is the same: the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation for all.
The government has realized that providing drinking water and sanitation facilities to all, especially in rural areas, promoting people's participation for making water and sanitation systems can be sustainable, reliable and cost effective, through the mobilization for community based organization. But the policy frameworks are either often isolated from the international provision in right to access to resources like the article 14 of the CEDAW over land resources but although being a signatory of CEDAW, there is no concrete provision made by the government to fulfill the obligation of international instruments.
Human rights standard
On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon states and international organizations to provide financial resources help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all. In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Article I.1 states that "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights". Comment No. 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses1.
The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. These uses ordinarily include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 50 and 100 liters of water per person per day are needed to ensure that most basic needs are met and few health concerns arise. The water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe, therefore free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person's health. Measures of drinking-water safety are usually defined by national and/or local standards for drinking-water quality. The World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for drinking-water quality provide a basis for the development of national standards that, if properly implemented, will ensure the safety of drinking-water. Acceptable. Water should be of an acceptable color, odour and taste for each personal or domestic use. All water facilities and services must be culturally appropriate and sensitive to gender, lifecycle and privacy requirements. Physically accessible. Everyone has the right to a water and sanitation service that is physically accessible within, or in the immediate vicinity of the household, educational institution, workplace or health institution. According to the WHO, the water source has to be within 1,000 meters of the home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes. Affordable. Water, and water facilities and services, must be affordable for all. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) suggests that water costs should not exceed 3 per cent of household income2. Nepal is a state party to ESCR rights 1996, WHO, but nothing has implemented.
The Dalit community we mentioned above is denied all this provision because of the state weak policy which could not reach to this community. Whatever policy and provision related to drinking water is very general. Access to quality water supply is one of the fundamental requirements for sustaining human life. Without safe, good quality water, people are vulnerable to various water related diseases. Therefore the concern of the government and the people should have safe water accessibility of adequate water supplies without discrimination to any community. This is not the lack of water resources but due to lack of participation in local government to concern themselves in the problem. The government should take immediate measure to allocate budget for Vuwan Pokahari village, create an environment to allow water for the Dalit community in Koteli village and initiate collective efforts in Mugu district to provide safe drinking water.
1. Resolution A/RES/64/292.
United Nations General Assembly, July 2010
2. Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. UNDP, 2006
About the author: Indra currently works in FIAN-Nepal as a program officer.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.