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World Water Day: Rainwater harvesting in Nepal ends water woes

Jayanti uses her water jar.
Jayanti uses her water jar.
March 22, 2012

A year ago the 250 residents of Damgade community in Agara, Makwanpur District in Nepal, dreaded the dry months from February to May, when an extreme shortage of water forced them to trek long distances to collect a few liters. The hilly landscape, which delights tourists, posed an additional hardship in the daily struggle to secure enough water to meet the most basic of household needs.

The only water source nearby was a spring of dubious quality that — during the monsoon at least —fed a communal tank, but it was so over-exploited that unless a villager got up at 3 a.m. to stand in line, she would leave empty-handed. Jantari Maya Ghalan ruefully recalls the many times she left bitterly disappointed.

Obviously, with water so scarce, personal hygiene and health suffered, but so did esteem. There wasn’t even enough water for children to wash their hands before eating or after using the bathroom. Chameli Ghalan, 31, dreaded having to entertain visitors because she was embarrassed to ask her neighbors for water to offer them. She admitted her ambivalence: “I used to wish my guests would bring water with them." It seemed to villagers that ever having enough water was a distant dream.

Using what the skies have to offer

That all changed when Plan Nepal and its local non-governmental partner Rural Awareness Development Organization introduced the possibility of constructing household-level rainwater harvesting jars. Despite the fact that Plan had been working in Damgade since 2007, building schools and toilets and conducting training, residents were skeptical. There were no water sources in the hills to use in a gravity-based drinking water system and they had never considered exploiting Nepal’s abundant monsoon rains.

However, since Plan had established a reputation for effective development initiatives, the idea was given a hearing and slowly, through orientation and training, the people of Damgade were won over. They formed a committee of users to supervise construction and mobilized local cash and labor. The chair, Buddhi Man Ghalan, explained the struggle: "It was challenging for us to manage, but with the cooperation of families, we met our target of 39 jars.” He also commended Plan Nepal for its financial assistance, which he judged necessary for such an impoverished community.

Each jar has a 6,500-litre capacity. Rainwater that falls on the roof of a house flows into a gutter and then into the jar, where it is stored. What’s called a “first flush” system ensures that the first few minutes of rain, which is contaminated by accumulated dirt and refuse, is washed away, leaving only the purest of water.

A myriad of changes

Today, Damgade is transformed: the landscape is dotted not only with mammoth whitewashed water jars but also with the superstructures of latrines. With a reliable source of water for flushing, people were motivated to build toilets and give up defecating in the fields. They’ve also begun to conduct clean-up campaigns. Sanitation and health have improved accordingly.

Damgade residents also feel a great deal of pride. Every owner of rainwater harvesting jar can now meet his or her family’s needs as well as offer guests water to wash up, to drink, and to use in their new toilets. Like most of the village’s children, 10-year-old Kalpana and 13-year-old Maina Kumari are both keen to share the benefits of their water jars, the former declaring proudly, “After I use the toilet, I can now use water from our jar to wash my hands” and the latter, “It was always hard to take a bath in a public place, but now we bathe at home. It’s much easier and more comfortable!"

While adjusting to the new taste will take time, the villagers were nonetheless pleased to find rainwater potable. Fifty-nine-year-old Khadga Bahadur Ghalan observed, “Though a little flat, the water is very clean and good to drink.” He added appreciatively how much easier using rainwater had made their lives.

The villagers’ appreciation is obvious in the great care they take with their water. They padlock their faucets for security reasons and use it very judiciously. They clean their jars and keep their surroundings spotless.

The larger community, too, has benefited. Plan’s development coordinator Nirmal Mainali commented, "Our work [in Damgade] … raised awareness about how Plan helps to meet the needs of a community. Thus, we are now invited to all the development planning meetings of the local government.” Such partnerships have helped see jars multiply in use not just in Damgade but right across Makwanpur District — 900 so far this year.

Broad smiles signal great content

The grins of villagers tell it all: the jars are a source of pleasure. Children like fourth-grader Kalpana Waiba, who says she’s “more than happy” with her family’s jar, are healthier; and women like 52-year-old Jantari Maya Ghalan, who built the first jar ever and says it “saves time and hardship,” are subjected to much less drudgery.

With the skies now their source of water, the people of Damgade can now take it easy, even enjoy the hilly scenery, even before Nepal’s pre-monsoon rainstorms begin in May.

Learn more about Plan's work in water and sanitation.


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