Water Justice vs. Western Development in Nepal

A woman sitting on steps washing dishes in a temple pool.

It was a cold morning on an early March day in Nepal. Having traveled the dusty streets of Kathmandu the previous day, I had little choice but to take a shower. I turned on the tap in a washroom of my host family’s house, which was located at the south side of the city. I braced myself for the rush of cold water, as hot water is a luxury in Kathmandu. After some squeaking sounds, water came flowing out from the tap. It was icy cold, like I expected it would be, but it also looked yellowish in color. I suppressed my disgust and proceeded with my business.

It was only later in the afternoon that my host mother asked me, “Why are you using dirty water to wash clothes and clean yourself?” I was taken aback by the question. Was there an alternative they had forgotten to tell me about? In my effort to appear easy-going, I answered, “Oh, it was fine for me!” But then I asked, “So what can you do about the water?”

It would have been useful for me to ask the question earlier. They did have a separate storage of clean water. My host mother explained to me that their tap water is not always suitable for daily use and consumption. They were paying for a private water tanker, which would navigate the narrow alleys in the neighborhood every week to fill up the family’s water tank. “It costs 7000 rupees (70 dollars) per month!” she told me. At that time, their daughter was working as a project officer in an NGO and earning 30,000 rupees (300 dollars) per month. Clean water was expensive, but they could afford it.

A large, multi-colored water truck parks on the street in front of a home.

A private water tanker roams the city of Kathmandu. Photograph by Sunil Thapa, August 2018.

During the two years I spent in urban Nepal working with UNESCO, I learned to be extremely frugal with water use. I quickly realized how impractical it was to have an indoor, flushing toilet, which requires anywhere from one and a half to five gallons of water per flush. From showering to using the restroom, I was careful to reduce the water I sent down the drain in my host family’s home.

Moreover, I later came to understand that the tap water supply is unreliable in most parts of the city. For many households, tap water comes for a few hours every few weeks, sometimes in the middle of the night. For some people, it never comes, though they continue to pay their monthly water bill. Many people living in the urban centers of Nepal have to rely on the private water tankers for their daily water supply and pay according to the amount they use. When looking for rental houses, one of the first questions potential tenants ask is: “Paani ko samarsya cha?” Is there any water problem?

Tap water comes for a few hours every few weeks, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Those who are well-off dig their own wells, enabling them to be more carefree with their consumption. Those who can afford neither their own well nor the water tanker are obliged to travel daily to water spouts to collect and carry water. When one roams around the palace squares in Patan and Kathmandu, one can notice many traditional water spouts that are gradually drying out, especially in the dry season.

The terrible pollution of the Bagmati River, which cuts through the city, is a daily visual warning of the scarcity of clean and safe water in Kathmandu. When one walks past the Bagmati River in the dry season, the bad smell makes it difficult to breathe, as if one is walking above a huge sewage tunnel. There has been a citizens’ campaign for years to clean up the river by picking garbage, but that alone cannot solve waste problems caused by inadequate city sanitation systems.

Photograph of men and women bathing in front of a temple using water spouts.

People make use of the water spouts near the Patan Darbar Square in Kathmandu. Photograph by Sunil Thapa, August 2018.

Yet in some rich neighborhoods and luxurious hotels, water flows freely. There are even water fountains in the gardens! Depending on where you live, the water plight of the city could go completely unnoticed. This is especially true in touristic and expatriate areas. Long and short-term visitors often maintain their consumption practices from back home. Such luxury is only afforded by dug wells or a steady supply of water from the private tankers. However, as a result of continuous groundwater extraction, water levels in the Pepsicola district in Kathmandu fell eight meters (26 feet) from 2008 to 2013. This decline has contributed to the drying out of public water springs, which the less advantaged who can’t afford wells or private tanker service are heavily dependent on. Following the worldwide environmental justice and water justice movements, development efforts must ask an ethical question: Does a person deserve a swimming pool in an arid area just because he or she can afford it?

Does a person deserve a swimming pool in an arid area just because he or she can afford it?

Although the Himalayan glacial system has long made water the most plentiful natural resource in Nepal, climate change has already impacted the amount and location of water that is available for drinking, agriculture, and sanitation. In Nepal, as in many other places around the world, climate change is affecting not only the available resources but also how they are distributed among people. More than mere resource scarcity, however, the water issue in Kathmandu is a problem of unequal access to a critical resource for survival. While tourists enjoy long showers and swimming pools in 5-star hotels, people queue for hours to fill up their water vessels in water springs around the city. How has such a situation come into being, and how is it normalized by both the extravagant users and those who suffer?

The water story of Kathmandu reflects a bigger development narrative—where the ideal of development is about consumption and economic activities, often regardless of environmental contexts and consequences. To be “developed” too often means to live above environmental constraints and to be oblivious of them. Many people living in the urban and suburban areas of industrialized cities do not ration their water use according to the season. In fact, many people do not even consider changing their lifestyles at all when moving between cities of different ecological zones. Within the Western development model, too often the goal is to implement Western-style consumption habits and infrastructure, regardless of local contexts, resources, and environments.

In contrast, people whose lives are strongly dependent on their environment, such as farmers doing rain-fed agriculture, are often viewed as people in poverty. In the official discourse on climate change adaptation strategy, poverty is regarded as a synonym for vulnerability to environmental changes—changes which poor people lack the means to cope with. Addressing environmental vulnerability means tackling poverty, which fits easily into the usual rhetoric of economic development and agricultural intensification.

A crowd of people next to a temple reservoir with a fence around it.

Godavari Kunda, a sacred water temple in the Godavari district of Kathmandu, Nepal. Photograph by Pearly Wong, September 2015.

But is it true that becoming richer will reduce people’s vulnerability to environmental changes? It is probably reasonable to assume that people with higher incomes are able to command resources despite environmental constraints, and if a place becomes unsuitable to live, they could afford to move. But more often than not, such privilege comes at the expense of others’ deprivation. In places like Kathmandu, the more that privileged groups extract groundwater unsustainably, the more others suffer the consequences.

Following the example of other major cities of the world, from Beijing to Los Angeles, the Nepali government is about to complete the Melamchi water project, which will divert water from a nearby district to Kathmandu. The government has promised residents of the city that this project is their last resort for the water crisis. Experts say that the project will decrease the demand-supply gap but will not completely cover it. In the coming years, the population and water demand will increase by a large extent, particularly if current economic activities and lifestyles continue. This means that even when assuming proper infrastructure development and governance, the water problem will likely remain, not to mention that such large-scale water diversion is likely to affect existing users where the water is diverted from.

Development does not need to be about emulating the lifestyle of industrialized societies.

Development does not need to be about emulating the consumption and material lifestyle of industrialized societies. There is no single path towards development in this diverse world. In fact, the Western development model is itself plagued with problems which threaten the entirety of humanity. As the yearly tracking of Earth Overshoot Day reminds us, we are currently using natural resources at a rate faster than the earth is able to replenish itself. In 2018, we reached Earth Overshoot Day—the date by which all of humanity has used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year—by August 1. Would access to critical resources improve if more of us were encouraged to adopt Western models of inequitable consumption? It isn’t likely.

The cultural power of certain material lifestyles, conveniences, and luxuries cannot be ignored, however, if sustainable development efforts that respect local communities are to succeed. For instance, those of us who use flushing toilets everyday should not be so surprised by the fact that others might want access to them. There have been many inspired projects that have aimed to address sanitation and water problems with toilets that use little to no water and even turn waste into fertilizer. Yet the people I spoke to in Kathmandu view a flushing toilet more favorably than a water-efficient one, even when they find the former difficult to maintain and expensive.

When development is understood as an expansion of the consumer lifestyle, people move away from traditions which use local resources and adaptations based on local ecological contexts. This movement contradicts our understanding of sustainability as resource-use efficiency, localized production, and the reduction of carbon footprints. Development projects must take into account local history, knowledge, and experiences, as well as local ecosystems and sustainability. And because natural resources like water are owned by all, they should be managed in a democratic manner, based on local social and environmental circumstances.

Without questioning the fundamental meaning of development, I seriously doubt that the water crises in cities around the world, not just in Kathmandu, can be truly addressed. As the effects of climate change create new problems and exacerbate existing ones, development strategies cannot continue to perpetuate a failing system of excessive consumption and the myth that people can be separated from the environments they live within.

Featured image: A woman washes her utensil for prayer in the flooded water spouts in Patan during the monsoon. Photograph by Pearly Wong, September 2015.

Pearly Wong is a Joint-Ph.D. student with the Department of Anthropology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has six years of professional experience in the field of International Development and has worked in Nepal, Cameroon, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Her research interest is on environmental justice and development, experienced through locally relevant identities, such as castes and gender, among rural communities in Nepal. Website. Contact.

7 Responses

  1. sunil thapa says:

    Dear Pearly,

    Excellent coverage and well captured of the water crisis and development scenario of Kathmandu Valley. I hope this article will act as a catalyst to think all the Nepalese and planners for the efficient use of water and development as per local context.

    Thank you for covering it in such a remarkable way.