Changing lives around the Mahakali

By Minket LepchaonJul. 27, 2022in Environment and Ecology

Women living along the transboundary river have found their own leaders who empower them to demand their basic rights

Running their homes while their menfolk migrate in search of work, women living along the Mahakali River that marks Nepal’s western border with India are especially vulnerable to water-related disasters – erosion, landslides, flash floods and polluted water.

This has worsened due to climate change, and has come on top of centuries of discrimination due to patriarchy. The average woman who runs the house and the farm has no title to either. Only some of them are educated.

But their lives are gestating into stories of empowerment, awareness of basic rights and aspirations to learn more. Much of this has come through the Women’s Empowerment Centres (WEC) dotting villages along the Mahakali basin. The WECs have been catalysed by a group of NGOs led by the TROSA (Transboundary Rivers of South Asia) project of Oxfam and its local regional partners – Sankalpa in Darchula, RUDES (Rural Development and Environment Management Society) in Baitadi, RUWDUC (Rural Women’s Development and Unity Centre) in Dadeldhura and NEEDS (National Environment and Equity Development Society) in Kanchanpur.

Supported by the NGOs, the WECs have started to expand their horizons and have initiated transboundary water dialogues with villages across the river in Uttarakhand, India. Women’s role in governance, water management and conservation has been one of the main objectives of Oxfam with the belief that empowering these women can eventually change their lives in a positive way as they are the ones impacted the most by transboundary water management issues.

Here are some of the women leading the change.

Chandra Samantha

Secretary of the Pragatisheel WEC in Darchula, Chandra Samantha lives just across the river from India. The district in India is also called Dharchula, the extra “h” being the only difference. “The relationship between India and Nepal is very close. We wanted make this relationship even stronger. Nepali women are married in India and Indian women are married in Nepal.” Women from India attended the WEC meetings, and together they decided that repairing the spring – on the Nepal side – was top priority, since that is where women from both countries get the water for drinking, cooking, washing and all household chores. The women from India and Nepal came together to repair the spring. “We carried stones and cement and women from the India side helped us paint the spring,” Samantha recalls. “As we share the same water, we want the relationship to grow stronger.”

Ajaya Dixit, the doyen of water experts in South Asia, wrote recently, “A preliminary analysis of 693 springs over ten districts of the Far West [of Nepal] showed 187 had their average discharge decline by 60% between 2013-2016.” What the women of Darchula and Dharchula have done together is to keep their lifeline intact.

Chandra Samantha sits by this spring in a village of Nepal’s Darchula district repaired by the women of India and Nepal working together

Leela Sawanth

The secretary of the Sagarmatha WEC in Darchula, Leela Sawanth, lives near a primary school in her village. A small river had to be crossed to reach it, and children would find it tough on rainy days – there were many absentees. The WEC decided that the river had to be bridged. The men were sceptical. “This discouragement pushed us to show courage and prove them wrong. We consciously did not ask them help. After building the bridge we as women proved them wrong and showed them our capability. I gathered all the women together and we learned something besides cutting grass and cooking,” says Sawanth.

Leela Sawanth stands on the bridge that the WEC has built

Nanda Daga

Nanda Daga is a grandmother who has lost her parents and siblings to floods in the Mahakali. She was hesitant to join the WEC. “I had never attended meetings in my lifetime as I was a woman of the older generation and was often chided if I was around meetings. During my menstrual cycles I used to live in a cowshed and have given birth to five children there.” But when she did join, it was her persuasion that led the WEC to build a drinking water tap for the primary school in the village. Now she says, “I want to encourage my daughter and daughter in law to learn more as I have lived my lifetime picking grass.  We did not know then that we had so much potential. Our group gave me the courage. I feel we can do it if we are together. We joke around but not during the work.

Nanda Daga stands at the tap that provides clean drinking water to the local school

Jayanti Dhami

With her husband working in Lebanon, Jayanti Dhami –– a bride from India –– has not only brought up two children by herself, but has also earned enough from her farm to buy a pair of earrings. It happened because she joined the WEC and learnt how to irrigate her terraced fields. “I was very shy and I used to feel scared when I would see people. I would not speak but when I got the support from my women folks, I got the courage to initiate the irrigation system which would divert the water to our fields.”

Jayanti Dhami earned enough from her farm to buy this pair of gold earrings

The women leaders of Baitadi

Tara Karki

Secretary of Navjyoti Women Empowerment group representing Chandranagar Municipality from Baitadi, Western Nepal, Tara Karki knows what the absence of basic healthcare means. She gave birth to two children in the woods near her village and to one near the threshold of her home. If villagers needed urgent healthcare, they would have to cross the Mahakali on rafts made of tubes of old truck tyres, and go to India. The other option was to walk for five hours.

A birthing centre was opened in her village six years ago, but was not functioning properly. So the first job of the WEC in her village was to arrange for a nurse who would be available much of the time. “With the strength that I have gathered from my village sisters, we go to the municipality and have the confidence to speak with the officers and demand what we need,” Karki says. Women who did not know how to sign can now do so. They have learnt to save their money. If they meet a stranger, they are not silent any more.

Karki’s husband used to discourage her. “But he saw we were doing something worthwhile and the number of women participating was increasing every year, he stopped.”

Tara Karki leads the WEC members on their way back from a meeting

Dhana Joshi

Dhana Joshi was brought up with the belief that water is sacred, that medicinal plants grow around the source of the Mahakali, and that the river brings all the medicines’ properties along with the water. So when her children kept falling sick after drinking the water she fetched from the river, she did not know why. It was at a WEC meeting that she learnt about the problems caused by open defecation upstream. Then she got a water quality testing kit at the WEC. Now she knows about TDS (total dissolved solids) and pH balance. She also knows to boil the drinking water, and persuades all her neighbours to do the same.

WEC members checking the TDS and pH balance of the Mahakali water with tools provided by the Citizens’ Science Project initiated by TROSA

Bishna Karki

She is the one who gets the flood alert on her mobile phone when the Mahakali waters rise upstream. Secretary of the Pragatisheel WEC in Baitadi, it is Bishna Karki’s job –– done voluntarily –– to warn her neighbours and villages downstream.

It takes the flood waters about 90 minutes to travel from the district upstream. Before Bishna volunteered, police officials in that district would alert their civilian counterparts, who would inform Nepal’s home ministry in Kathmandu, who would inform the district officials downstream. The process would often take longer than 90 minutes.

The WEC members in Bishna’s village contacted WEC members upstream, and have created a community-to-community alert system, to which they have now added women living on the other side of the river in India, yet another example of transboundary cooperation.

Bishna Karki poses in front of the Pragatisheel Women’s Empowerment Centre

The women leaders of Dadeldhura

Gauri Hamal

A member of the Bahadure WEC in Dadeldhura, Gauri Hamal learnt white water rafting when she joined the TROSA project. “It is a matter of pride that I was the first woman to raft on the Mahakali,” she says. “I taught the women of Bahadure WEC lots of things. Later on many women came on board to try rafting, initially they were very scared. But they loved it. The raft could connect the people from both side of India and Nepal especially during the Parshudham Mandir festival.”

The rafting was more than fun. It was the way for women from India could attend the religious festival last year. And the WEC saw to it that nobody threw any garbage into the river during the festival. The members made cane dustbins to place all around the fairground. They contacted municipality officials to ensure garbage removal.

Gauri Hamal leads the Mahakali rafters at the Parshuram Dham religious festival. The rafts were used to transport pilgrims from India. (Right) Hamal strikes a taekwondo pose

The women leaders of Kanchanpur

Januki Pun Magar and Ratna Devi Bharti

By joining the WEC, Januki and Ratna learnt a new way to make money –– pebble art. They always knew about making a living by breaking stones in the riverbed. But an artist from Tanakpur in India, showed them that they could arrange the pebbles in an artistic way, frame the result, and sell it. Ratna says, “We’d love to create more of this art but we do not have the means. We will create more if we get an opportunity.”

The making of pebble art and (right) one of the products

Purna Devi Kasera

A member of the Kalika WEC, Purna Devi Kasera can see Nepal’s well-known Shuklaphanta National Park across the Mahakali from her village. She is leading the women to conserve the fish in the river. “We felt that if there are fish then the water remains clean but if we start killing fish for economic reasons, there is a very high chance of our water getting polluted. When bombs were exploded [to kill fish], our water got polluted, the embankments were destroyed and possibility of flood was huge. There are also different kinds of fish which we see a lot of during the rainy season. If the fish is not poisoned, I feel that the very breathing of fish is like filtering of the water.”

To keep illegal fishers away, the WEC members patrol the riverbank at night, and now know how to warn the mayor and the local police chief even at midnight.

Purna Devi Kasera on the bank of the Mahakali, with the Shuklaphanta National Park across the river

This work was supported by The Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden. Views expressed are solely those of the author

The Mahakali River flowing between Baitadi in Nepal and Pithoragarh in India

First Published by The Third Pole on 12 February 2020

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