Founded as a hill resort by Nepal’s Rana dynasty a century ago, the town of Tansen is now known as the place with the most expensive water in the country
On a summer afternoon in Tansen, one of the oldest townships in western Nepal, 69 year-old Dayaram Devkota waits for his turn to pay the dues for his water supply. Before going to the counter he walks towards the notice board; on display is an important announcement.
“They have hiked the price of water,” says the man who moved to Tansen a decade ago.
“The price of water has gone up, but the ‘committee’ has not supplied enough water to meet our daily needs,” he says referring to the user’s committee responsible for supplying drinking water to homes in the town, where drinking water is the most expensive in Nepal.
The ‘committees’ have become common across Nepal after a change in government policy a decade ago that mandates the state-run water utility, the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (DWSS), withdraw from the business of managing water supply systems. According to the Federation of Water and Sanitation Users Nepal (FEDWASUN) an organisation of user committees across the country, more than 40,000 water user committees are believed to be in existence throughout the country. Only 15,000 are believed to be in active operation.
A change of policies that did not work
It all started in early 2000 when, under pressure from various donor agencies, the government changed its water supply policy to focus the department’s work on building infrastructure and phase out its involvement in operation and maintenance of drinking water projects. Following the UN’s observance of the International Drinking Water Decade (1981-90) donor agencies believed that drinking water projects could only be sustainable if the local people were involved in the management and had a feeling of ownership over the project. The committees became the go-to bodies as municipalities had been running without mayors for more than a decade.
The Urban Water and Sanitation Policy 2009 says that after a drinking water project is completed, it needs to be handed over to the municipality. However, if the municipality fails to do so, a local user committee is elected by the consumers to take over the duty, under the supervision of DWSS. “That is exactly what has happened in Tansen,” says Keshav Lal Shakya, the head of DWSS’s Palpa division office.
Why did it fail? The reasons are manifold.
The historic town of Tansen has always been a dry place. The Rana rulers – the powerful dynasty of prime ministers that reduced the kings to titular monarchs while ruling in their names – from Kathmandu were attracted to the area due to the lush green forest that stands on the Srinagar hill. It was believed that the fresh air circulating through the pine forest could cure tuberculosis. The Ranas brought Newar families from Kathmandu to sustain the town. They worked as merchants and bureaucrats running the lifeline of the city.
For people who are better off than the couple, there’s the option of calling in the water tankers, who charge exorbitantly for water they bring from low lying areas, up to NPR 600 (USD 5.79) for a thousand litres of water – more than ten times the tariff. “The 10,000 litres of water is just enough to cook and drink, but that too is not guaranteed. During the dry months, we don’t even get 10,000 litres. We have no option but to call in the tankers,” said the 69-year-old Dayaram Devkota.
The committee, however, maintains that the problems are short-lived as it is working with the DWSS to develop a new drinking water project that would make it possible to lift 300,000 litres of water from the Kaligandaki river in the near future. The committee is now collecting NPR 1,000 (USD 9.65) each from its members to pay for the mandatory 1% stake it needs to buy in the NPR 300 million (USD 2.9 million) project.
A new mayor, a new future?
As Tansen gets its new mayor, there are people who are raising their voice against the committee, demanding that the government take-over the projects from the committee. Activist Chiranjivi Sharma Dhungana, who is among the staunchest of the critics of the committee, says the government’s whole drinking water policy is faulty. “Have you not seen Melamchi in Kathmandu? It will take years before the Kaligandaki project becomes ready. Nepal’s Constitution says that access to water is a fundamental right, and the government should provide water to the people at any cost.”
But it’s not going to be easy for the new mayor to assume control of the projects as the law clearly says that the committees will take charge of the project. The solution to the situation can be found if the new mayor plays the role of a watchdog and makes the committee accountable to the people, says Rajendra Aryal, president of FEDWASUN. All sides need to assess the situation and take steps to make water more accessible to the people, he says.
Meanwhile, Devkota and his fellow townfolk will continue to pay the most expensive water bill in Nepal, and then shell out more money to pay for the water tanker after getting home.
This story was first published on thethirdpole.net
Published on July 7th, Friday, 2017 10:32 AM