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The Weight of Water in Nepal’s Foothills

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Durlunga is a small indigenous village located on top of one of Nepal’s lower foothills. Here, like in many places across Nepal, many of the men have migrated abroad or to other parts of Nepal to earn money. The women who remain behind are thus responsible for the agricultural work in addition to the household chores. Using water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and farming, their lives and daily routine are intrinsically linked with the fate of this vital resource. But what happens when there is too much or too little water? Anumaya, shares her story of unpredictable rains, and adjusting to the growing weight of water.

 
 
 

In Nawalparasi, one of Nepal’s southern districts, the river widens, the climate becomes hot and humid, and the mid-hills turn to lush green foothills, covered in with tall trees, colourful flowers and flourishing fields. The expedition’s next stop is Durlunga: a small indigenous village, located on top of a lower foothill, a few hours walk from the nearest town. We are guided by Jindagi, one of the project coordinators for the Himalayan Community Development Forum (HICODEF) a local NGO who works with the UK based Glacier Trust (TGT) to build the capacity of farmers in Durlunga to adapt to climate change.

Along the way, we are mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the landscape that opens before us, which presents  a stark contrast with the dry, bare Himalayan peaks. Here, the river takes life, curving around the hills and surrounded by myriads of chanting birds and colourful butterflies. Verdant green rice paddies touched by afternoon light terrace the slopes, creating a sense of structure among this vast, enchanted nature.

 
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But the beauty of the landscape is deceiving – the trail snakes along steep, rocky slopes, contoured by deep precipices. At times, boulders, conspicuous because of their lack of moss and positioned in the middle of the trail, remind us that all isn’t just peace and serenity. Along the way, we are passed by many women who are returning from the field. Most of them climb up barefoot with heavy bags on their backs held by tight straps around their foreheads, carrying rice, potatoes, beans or other vegetables. Yet, despite the weight of their loads, the rhythm of their steps is faultless.


 
 

 

After a four-hour walk, we finally reach Durlunga. The village is nestled on top of a hill, surrounded by dozens of other hills expanding as far as the eye can see. The river is now far below us, and it is impossible to see a trace of its flows. In a sense, Durlunga, with its 40 odd households, feels like a tropical haven - the beauty, peace and quiet seem to only be interrupted by the joyful sounds of children playing, climbing trees and chasing goats.

As we wander across the village and its surroundings, we take note of the number of women working the fields. Like many places across Nepal, it is common for the men to migrate abroad to earn money  - 95% of Nepalese receiving foreign labour permits are men. Women thus often remain behind to take care of agricultural work, in addition to the household chores. Remarkably, over a third of Nepal’s GDP comes from remittances - the highest rate in the world - up from a mere 2% in 2000.

 
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Anumaya (picture above in front of her house) is one of the women we meet in Durlunga. Her house is located at the edge of the village where she lives alone most of the year; her husband passed away and her children live with a relative in a distant village where they can attend school. Timid at first, she quickly opens up about her life, her hardships and her hopes.

Like most other women in the village she depends on farming for her daily subsistence - growing rice, beans, ginger, peppers, gourd and other vegetables. Without proper irrigation, the land around her house is too dry most of the year to grow any crops, so she grows them along the river further downhill. It takes her three hours to access it, but that’s the price nearly all farmers have to pay here. Water punctuates Anumaya’s routine throughout the day: she wakes up before dawn and cleans the house and porch, after which she goes on to cut grass and feed and clean the animals. She then goes home to prepare food, cleans the dishes and goes back into the field to take care of the crops until dusk.

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Hearing about her daily routine keeps us wondering: if water is so critical for life here, why was the village built so far away from the river?
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Anumaya tells us about another reality here - the destructive nature of water. Water is essential for life, but it also presents a risk and threatens lives. The land located close to the river is regularly affected by landslides, especially during the monsoon season, which lasts roughly from June to August.

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Almost every week during the heavy rains, she needs to rebuild the canals that have been left damaged by crumbling land. There used to be a road linking Durlunga to the closest town, but the road was rendered unusable by a landslide in 2015, and again in 2016. There is now no other way to access hospitals, schools, or markets than by walking along the steep slopes we previously struggled on. The location of the village is therefore safer than further down, but it comes with a price.

Like many other places across Nepal, the risk of landslides has been worsening in recent years, due to increasingly intense rains. Indeed, evidence suggests that the impacts of climate change in Nepal are not limited just to the melting of iconic glaciers, but that monsoon patterns that are also projected to change. The Asian monsoon is predicted to intensify, leading to more intense and erratic rains, thus potentially increasing the risks of landslides.

Sometimes it rains continuously, and sometimes it won’t rain; sometimes the dry season lasts for a long time, and sometimes there is rain during the dry season.

Indeed, in Durlunga, Anumaya reports that she’s observed the weather change. The unpredictable rains also have an impact on farmers’ ability to grow their crops. “If it rains too much, the crops get rotten, and if it doesn’t rain for too long, the land becomes barren.”  Unfortunately, as many of the men migrate to other countries for work, the burden of coping with and adapting to climate change falls largely on women.

Like many other places isolated in the mid-hills, there is little to no government support for climate change adaptation. But luckily, since 2016 two NGOs, the Glacier Trust and the HICODEF have been working alongside the population in Durlunga to build pipes for potable water as well as irrigation systems, and to help farmers adjust to changes in precipitation.

 
 
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Anumaya is not yet benefitting from the irrigation system, but lauds that it is a good development for the village. Farmers have also been growing new plant varieties, with support from TGT and HICODEF. Anumaya, for instance, explains she is now planting a new variety of rice that bears grains and ripens more quickly. But will those changes be sufficient for communities faced with the worsening and unpredictable impacts of climate change?

 
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Even if they are able to cope with and adapt to those changes, it will likely come at a price – requiring farmers, and women in particular, to work harder and longer hours, to walk further to fetch and carry water, and, for some, to invest more money in equipment and infrastructure. And what about farmers in other remote villages across Nepal who aren’t benefiting from external support? Despite contributing little to climate change, small-scale subsistence farmers, such as Anumaya, across the developing world are unjustly standing at the frontlines of experiencing the impacts climate change.

We thank her for her time, and as we pack our equipment a gust of wind takes over. The skies have darkened and soon thick, heavy, monsoon-like drops of water start pouring from above. It is early October, and the rainy season should have stopped at least a month ago.

For five hours we remain confined inside, watching the earth tremble, concerned about walking back from Durlunga along the steep slopes due to the risk of landslides. But being concerned is a luxury. For Durlunga’s farmers, going up and down the hills everyday under the scorching heat or the beating rain is not a matter of choice. As soon as the rains calm down, we pack our bags and slide down the muddy hillside – leaving Durlunga’s resilient farmers behind us and carrying with us the responsibility of telling their important story to the world. A story of unpredictable climate change and of unfair impacts. Of the pressing weight of water.

 
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Thanks for reading

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This story was a collaborative work from the H2O team, including Sushma Bhatta, Alice Chautard, Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone, Ross Harrison and Nicholas O’Brien.

A special thanks to the teams at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and at ICIMOD for their crucial guidance and wisdom, in particular to Dr. Tom Thornton (now Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast), Dr. Anjal Prakash (now Associate Professor and Associate Dean at TERI-School of Advanced Studies, India) and Dr. Pranita Bhushan Udas. Our immense gratitude goes to the teams at the Glacier Trust and HICODEF, in particular to Morgan Philips, Richard Allen, Surbir Sthapit, and Jindagi GC, who have been instrumental in helping us shape this story as well as in supporting us with logistics in Durlunga. Thanks to BubbleBee Industries and DPA sounds for sponsoring equipment. To Narayan Bhandari Srijan for the subtitle translation. Last but not least, thanks to Anumaya and other farmers in Durlunga for being willing to share their stories with us.

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