Madison Wrobley is a cultural anthropologist and 2019 and 2020 Fulbright National Geographic storytelling fellow through which she’s spent quite a lot of time in Kathmandu studying water scarcity in the capital alongside that manifold consequences that are brought about because of this crisis.
Migrant Communities in Kathmandu:
Kathmandu is one of the fastest growing cities in South Asia, and the built up land cover of the city has increased 300% over the last 30 years. This huge increase is due to a wave of migration from rural areas. People are migrating from rural villages first to district centers, and from there to Kathmandu in search of health care, clean water, education and work. But this phenomenon of migrating in search of something better is not contained within Nepal’s borders. Many people in Kathmandu are looking abroad, to America and Australia for school, and to Malaysia and the Gulf for work.
Water Access and Social Tension:
With so many migrants coming into Kathmandu, resources are stretched thin, and many people struggle with access to water. Many newly arrived migrants rent apartments, and are therefore reliant on their landlords for water access. The landlords themselves decide how to allocate water among their tenants, and how they will charge, taking into account government water sources, and electricity needed to pump water out of wells. But landlords are also often struggling to find enough water for themselves and their families, so they feel that they have no choice but to reduce the amount they distribute to tenants, or to charge them more. Because of this, resentment is common between tenants and landlords. A second source of social tension around water is between private companies and residents of Kathmandu. Government water supplies are not sufficient to sustain most families, so people rely on jars of water they buy from private companies, and on household wells. The problem is that private companies and household wells are all extracting from the same water table, which is rapidly falling. Household wells are running dry, especially in the areas surrounding the extraction sites of private water companies, which is causing rising animosity between the companies and the residents. These struggles map onto socioeconomic classes, and are all a symptom of greater institutional problems that perpetuate social inequality, and cause social tension.
One thing that Nepal needs is a large-scale solution, such as could be brought about by large companies like Melamchi, the largest fresh-water supplier in Kathmandu. Large scale projects will bring more water into the city through big dams and transfer projects, but these come with their own social and environmental problems, and cannot be the sole solution. The city also needs initiatives addressing the whole supply chain to promote water saving and efficiency, and water recycling. Madison worked with a local NGO called Small Earth Nepal to promote sustainable lifestyles on a local level through research, awareness, and capacity building. A true solution to the water scarcity problem must incorporate both the top down approach brought by Melamchi, and a bottom up approach supported by local NGOs like this one, who truly understand the context of individual communities.
Differing approaches to water scarcity in Kathmandu and the Nubra Valley:
The Nubra Valley is a remote mountainous region that can only be reached on foot or by helicopter, so the water issues, and the approaches to water management differ significantly from that of the major city. The social landscape is very different between the two. Whereas Kathmandu has a sense of barriers between classes, and migrants feel that they can’t communicate with their landlords, in Nubra people feel more connected to their neighbors, and there are more collaborative approaches to water management. This village-like atmosphere along with the reduced number of people drawing from the same water source means that water scarcity is less of a problem, and doesn’t cause as many social problems in Nubra as it does in Kathmandu. The high mountainous region actually struggles with flooding much more than water scarcity.