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.
The committee chose to incur losses as local politicians did not want to risk becoming unpopular.
Damodar Nepal, chief editor, Karuwa
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.
Before the families could be invited there, the Rana ruler in Palpa – the region that Tansen is located – Pratap Shumsher, had to get water flowing to the town.
That was when he decided to establish a drinking water project based on the gravity flow model. According to records, the system made use of long cast-iron pipes and a 200-metre-long manmade tunnel to get water to the town from a source away from it.
The project, designed by British engineers, is believed to have supplied over 150,000 litres of water every day to around 12-15,000 people during its heyday. The system now supplies only around 50,000 litres of water a day.
Tansen continued to attract migrants from surrounding areas due to its pleasant weather. According to census data, the town’s population increased from 20,000 in 2001 to 30,000 in 2011.
More than 10 hotels have come up in the area. “Tansen has such wonderful weather throughout the year that people do not want to leave the town even when the most essential thing for life, water, is in short supply,” said Damodar Nepal, the chief editor of Karuwa, one of the leading dailies of Tansen. “No matter how hot it maybe in summer, we have never had to use a fan and that explains it all,” he added.
From the early 1970s, a string of projects were developed to meet the needs of the town, almost all of which rely on multiple-stage electric pumps to lift water from the source to the hill, explains Shakya.
There are now four major drinking water projects, including one built under Japanese assistance, in operation which have the capacity to pump 1.9 million litres of water to the city every day.
“But even during the rainy season, we get only around 80 per cent of the installed capacity,” the officer says. Demand has exceeded supply by over a 100 per cent.
Around NPR 1 million (USD 9,650) worth of electricity is consumed every month by the motors powering the lifeline of the town.
The rise of the user committees
Tansen’s drinking water was proving to be a burden for the government as it became one of the few projects the department, and then the municipality ran for a long period of time.
It wanted to hand over the entire project to the community as the municipality gave up on it, but the people were reluctant to take over. So to sweeten the deal, the government agreed to provide grants that would decrease every year, until zero in the sixth year, to the community to run the project.
“A user committee was setup to manage and maintain the water supply in the town. But the irony is that it was deeply politicised,” says Damodar Nepal of Karuwa.
“No formal elections were held. As the Nepali Congress has traditionally been strong in the town, it was offered the post of president, and other posts went to other political parties,” he adds.
Following the formal handing-over of the projects, there was a short-lived jubilation among the people of the town such as Kamala Rajak and her husband Ram Lal, who received permit to get a tap for their house following a long wait. According to committee chairman Chakorman Singh, a total of 1,200 taps were added to the 1,760 existing ones.
The government had prescribed that the committee hike the water tariff to NPR 258 (USD 2.49) from the under NPR 50 (USD 0.48). This is for 10,000 litres of water per month, per tap. Legally one house can have only one tap. Riding a wave of support that they did not wish to challenge, the committee did not hike the tariff.
“The committee chose to incur losses as local politicians did not want to risk becoming unpopular,” says Damodar Nepal. They went on receiving subsidies from the government and supplying water below the cost price.
The unstoppable rise of water prices
Ultimately, the committee had no option to hike the tariff to over NPR 500 (USD 4.83) for 10,000 litres of water—making it the most expensive drinking water in the country. Even water from Kathmandu’s multi-billion rupee Melamchi drinking water is expected to cost the consumer around NPR 400 (USD 3.86) for 10,000 litres.
Despite the hike in tariffs, the committee is finding it difficult to manage its resources. Chairman Singh accepts that 20 to 25 per cent of water pipes leak. This is in line with water infrastructure throughout South Asia, which is plagued by low maintenance.
This story was published with permission from The Third Pole. Read the full story.