Towards Resilient Communities
© Simrika Sharma / WWF Nepal
“Just when I thought life was becoming better and more economically sound, the ill-fated earthquake took away my house and my cattle,” laments Tak Kumari Khadka, a 41 year old farmer residing in Sundardanda village of Kavrepalanchwok district. “I was having lunch with my youngest son when the earthquake struck. We were able to dash out of the house quickly and survived else we would have been buried under our own home,” Khadka added.
Tak Kumari’s neighbour, Bholanath Bajgain who is also a farmer has a similar story to tell. “In less than a minute I saw my house turn into rubble. With all our food stock destroyed under the house, we relied solely on boiled potatoes with weeks spent praying for our lives.”
Sundardanda (or beautiful hill) is one of the many villages Nepal’s mid hills that faced the major brunt of the devastating earthquake of 25 April 2015. All of the 35 houses in the village were flattened by the quake leaving the villagers with next to nothing leave alone a roof above their heads. Even after nine months had passed since the earthquake, the villagers received no more than Rs. 15,000 (USD 150) and about 15kg of rice per household in government relief.
Yet life moved on for the people of Sundardanda. When asked what kept them going amidst the crisis, the villagers had one unanimous answer: water! For a village that was once reeling under acute water shortage, it was this very resource that came as a life-saver during this dark period thanks to a simple yet innovative integrated water resource management program that had helped improve water access in this village over the years.
Let us travel back in time to Sundardanda, 16 years ago, to when it all started.
© Arpan Shrestha / WWF Nepal
Tired of wildlife such as wild boars and monkeys eating their produce, villagers such as Tak Kumari and Bholanath migrated to this village in 2000 from Sindhupalchowk district with a hope for the better. Their hopes got a reality check when they started coming to terms with the water scarcity in the village. The whole area around the village was in fact dry and barren and nothing much would grow here given the water shortage.
“We had to walk for an hour just to bring home one bucket of drinking water,” Tak Kumari reminisces.
Farming became another major challenge as villagers had to depend solely on rainwater for irrigation. During winter and spring, with very little rainfall, the villagers could only grow a few traditional crops such as maize, millet and wheat. The rainy season in itself posed new problems because the rains came in excess destroying important rice harvests of the season.
Tak Kumari recalls how the rains had also started getting erratic further affecting agriculture. “Earlier it used to rain on time and we could time our farming accordingly, but now the rain patterns have changed and are uncertain in all the seasons,” she says. While both Tak Kumari and Bholanath owned about one and three acres of land respectively, much of it used to be left barren since nothing would grow on it except during the pertinent seasons.
Selling the surplus of whatever grew in their lands gave people like Tak Kumari and Bholanath some source of income but was still insufficient to support their homes for a whole year and afford quality education for their children. As an alternative Tak Kumari began to work as a daily wage laborer in Kathmandu which earned her a meagre Rs. 300 (US$ 3) a day while Bholanath settled for loans from a local cooperative.
© WWF Nepal
To address the water woes of the local communities, WWF Nepal together with the government’s Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) initiated the Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) project mainly funded by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Finland, in nine catchments, including Sundardanda, of the Indrawati sub basin in 2010. The project was part of the broader Koshi River Basin Management program launched in 2008 to action the government’s National Water Plan.
The project work in Sundardanda starting with the conservation of three natural spring sources, a primary source of water for the villagers, through plantation and forest conservation activities. Two water tanks were in turn built to channel and store water from the conserved spring sources to provide clean drinking water to the households. With water more directly available, villagers particularly women and children did not have to walk for hours to collect water.
In order to manage water for irrigation, four conservation ponds were constructed with a storage capacity of about 12,000 liters of water. The conservation ponds served as collection centers for rain and run-off water which could then be used for irrigation purposes especially during the dry season. This also meant households could start cultivating vegetables which was practically impossible earlier owing to the parched lands. For people like Bholanath and Tak Kumari, being able to grow vegetables was a life-changer. For them, vegetables used to be a luxury as much of their income would go into buying such produce for consumption. With the help of the conservation ponds, they could actually save on such costs and in fact make money by selling their surplus produce.
To further support agricultural practices, the concept of Farmers’ Schools was introduced in the village whereby local farmers were given practical lessons on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and water smart farming. With the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides being a prominent practice amongst farmers in the region, the Farmers’ Schools helped build wider understanding on the benefits of organic farming for both people and the land.
© Simrika Sharma / WWF Nepal
These were some of the positive changes brought by the project’s interventions in Sundardanda. The project’s success rests on the sustainable benefits the project was able to provide to the local communities even during the damaging aftermath of the earthquake.
After the earthquake, of the four conservation ponds constructed, three were still functioning through which the villagers could grow vegetables both for personal consumption as well as sales. The villagers were actually able to earn a profit of Rs. 400,000 (US$ 4,000) from the sale of vegetables alone in a single season which they invested in the rebuilding of their homes. Three of the seven spring sources conserved were still intact providing drinking water to the village households. And the Farmers’ Schools established by the project additionally served to provide a huge moral support to the local people given the close bonds they nurtured over the years by being a part of these schools.
The smiles on the faces of Tak Kumari and Bholanath are a perfect testament to the resilience of this hilly community. “The earthquake broke our homes but not our spirit,” exclaims Tak Kumari. “We will for sure rebuild what is gone, for after all life still has so much more to offer.”
Story by: Simrika Sharma