Binisera Lamichhane Mangar cradles her 2-year-old granddaughter and, with her free hand, turns on a gleaming faucet as the entire village of Gadhi looks on. The pipe gurgles as the crowd hold their breath. Clear, cool water bubbles out, and everyone rejoices.
At the age of 72, Binisera, one of the oldest residents, has just made village history, by turning on the faucet to the first piped water system in Gadhi, a cluster of 200 households that perches high up on top of a 2,500-metre high mountain in the Surkhet District of midwestern Nepal.
Gadhi is undergoing a cultural revival, returning to life after a 35-year water crisis. Hills once dry, are now blanketed in fields of emerald green. Today the village is the largest exporter of dairy products in the district.
At the heart of this transformation are the women of Gadhi.
“Almost every household now has at least one or two buffaloes, and it’s a good source of income,” says Man Kumari Rosa as she prepares fodder for her own buffalo behind her house. She says she earns 200 rupees (US$2) a day from selling buffalo milk.
Sita Acharya, Rosa’s neighbour across the street, says that access to clean water has brought substantial improvement for her family’s health and hygiene. “It’s so much easier for us to wash clothes,” she says. “We even have water to flush our toilets.”
In the 1970s, centuries-old water sources trickled to a stop in Gadhi, once a mountain fortress and centre of trade for an ancient kingdom. When the water disappeared, farmers and traders migrated to greener lowlands further south. Only those who could not afford to leave, like the poor, widows and the elderly, remained behind. Without water, the village of Gadhi, once renowned for its verdant green terraces, became a ghost town.
For 35 years, the women and girls of Gadhi bore the bulk of the burden of the water crisis. In traditional rural Nepali families, women and girls are responsible for all household chores —including fetching water and cooking. For them, the arrival of piped water is sparking a cultural transformation.
“The best parts of my life were spent struggling to get water. I gave up my land because I don’t want my daughters and granddaughters to suffer the way I did,” Binisera Lamichhane Mangar says, jutting her chin toward her 2-year-old granddaughter.
She is one of the few surviving elders who remember the days when women had to walk three to four hours every day to fetch water. To help future generations, Binisera Lamicchane Mangar donated her own land for the installation of the tanks and pumping system.
In 2012, water was finally brought up to the very top of Gadhi village, through a UNDP initiative supporting climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. A drinking-water system had been inaugurated by then-King Birendra in the 1980s, but the system only reached the lower-lying parts of Gadhi village, leaving families in the upper village without water.
“The water project has naturally meant more to women than to men,” says Sunita Lamichhane Magar, a local social activist. Women have more free time now and there is visible progress regarding gender equality in Gadhi.
“Now that the burden on women has been reduced, they have started taking more active part in decision-making in the village. They are more inclined to send their daughters to school, participate in users’ group meetings and start lucrative micro-enterprises,” Magar says.
Village resident Yesoda Chalise says access to safe drinking water from the comfort of their home has changed the family’s lives in many ways.
“Only those who have suffered a water crisis can know what it means to have it piped right into your kitchen: this has saved me a great deal of time and effort, which I can now invest in other more productive activities like income generation and my child’s education,” she says.
The villagers installed a 10-kilometre gravity-propelled water pipe along with three huge storage tanks to bring water to the highest and most remote reaches of Gadhi village. They also installed a drinking water system, rainwater harvesting system, tunnel farming and off-farm vegetation to breathe life back into Gadhi’s steppe farmlands.
The water restoration project took an investment of 2 million rupees (approximately $19,500) from the Integrated Climate Risk Management Programme (ICRMP), a UNDP-implemented project funded by the Government of Sweden currently working in six countries, namely Armenia, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal and Uganda.
Today, Gadhi is regaining much of its lost glory. Once more, people are flocking to its slopes, and each of the 200 or so households in the village now has a steady supply of clean piped mountain water from the locally-managed water distribution system.