In the Himalayas!

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Starting from today we ( a colleague and I ) get on a trip to Nepal to see the ways of working in the Himalayan country and see how we could contribute to better the situation of water and sanitation in the mountains. Coincidentally, I happen to visit few villages in Uttarakhand few days ago as a part of my policy internship with Tata Trust. The purpose of the visit was to understand the challenges in the Himalayan state in provisioning water and sanitation to its people, especially in the rural areas. The villages I visited are the areas where Himmotthan works. Himmottthan, a nonprofit organization working for the development of Himalayan states.The visit was facilitated by the WASH team (Vinod, Dr. Sunesh, Malvika and other field members) at Himmotthan. I learnt a lot, thanks to the team and their work. I thought it will be useful to reflect on the time in Uttarakhand as it shares some similarities to Nepal, especially due to their shared geography and hydro-geology and ecology.

Larger context (to my profession at present) : To be honest, I have experienced saturation in learning from work in the water and sanitation sector in India. The pace at which my lessons were happening has flattened out. Especially from the field side the lessons have begun to become repetitive. But the gap in service delivery still remains. The efforts from the field front are a stop-gap solution. The ways charities can have higher impact is to showcase best efforts in addressing the WASH service delivery gap to governments. By this means they could assist the governments in quality scale up of the context specific solutions from their partners in the field.

Visit to Uttarakhand: I visited Himmotthan’s WASH vertical and interacted with the team there and also visited few villages in the region to understand their work in provisioning WASH in remote villages of the state. The following are the set of challenges along with the uniformly present challenges for WASH across India:

  • 4 times more expensive than plains: The cost of providing WASH per person in the hills is at least 4 times that of what it takes to provision W ASH to people in the plains. This is because of the lack of road connectivity and difficulty geographical terrain which can never be addressed. Along with difficulty terrain it is also the frequent landslides and earth quakes, makes providing a permeant road infrastructure in the region near impossible. This means the transport of the raw materials for provisioning Water facilities and toilets has to be done using men and mules. This costs a lot.
  • Source of water: The source of water to provide drinking water access in the region is springs. These are form of ground water too. But the source is so fragile that, it dries up when the catchment is tampered with either due to anthropogenic effect or due to natural phenomenal like landslides or earthquakes. (As I write this post, there was a news only 12 hours ago about earthquake in Uttarakhand).
  • Lack of springs in the National Water Policy: Springs as a source of water, do not even have a mention in the National Water Policy of India. While springs are a form of ground water resource, there is very little acceptance at the policy and bureaucracy level about them being a ground water resource that needs regulation too.
  • Ground Water Regulation Unlike the case of rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies, ground water in India is yet to be regulated. And even if ground water gets regulated, springs is not accepted as a ground water source until now. At present in India grond water regulations are in the making. But the present form of regulation reads as follows (oversimplified!): Anyone who owns a piece of land, owns the water under it.
  • Springs -Forest-Land entwined complexity: In Uttarakhand around 85% of state is reserve forest. And of the total reserve forest, 75% of the forest is owned by the government. And many times the spring source of water that can be used to provide water in a village falls in the reserve forest. To get access to the reserve forest and augment, secure the source is a uphill task in itself. The forest departments in India have not been very famous for their cooperation with any of the other departments This is the case across the country.
  • Sustenance budgeting- This aspect of any development project has been for ever neglected in the discourses on performances of Charities and also government. Once a facility is installed, the village that has been provided access goes out of the list of needy ones, and it is assumed that it will remain to the case for ever. A very important issue in non-governmental programs implementing provisions of access to services is getting communities interested and committed to the maintenance of systems installed. IRC’s study on this specific aspect on ” what does it take (both budgetary requirements and community agency) to sustain WASH facilities in the  long term?”,   throws light on this specific issue. At present in the budget heads under WASH for state there is very little budgets to sustain infrastructure that are erected to provide access to WASH. And from the IRC study it is observed that, to ensure that the infrastructure put in place is functional, there is a minimum requirement of finances. Himmotthan with its long term engagement with few villages in their work area have been able to provide concreate numbers on budgetary allocation required to sustain WASH facilities in Uttarakhand and similar Himalayan conditions. This sustenance budget in fragile geographies like Himalayas become even more relevant and important to success of any project.

Springs are  complex geological entities. They are dynamic entities in themselves, that are intricately related to forest and land policies. And the springs happen to be the main source of water in the hills. To understand and maneuver through this complexity a systematic policy level intervention makes a lot of sense. To begin with this can happen by introducing a section on springs and source of water for the populations in the Himalayan region within the National Water Policy. Secondly facilitate means for non-profit organizations, governments and other stakeholders to engage, deliberate and dialogue on the above listed challenges and come to a common consensus. Thirdly, the most repeatedly raised issue of siloization and non-cooperation between government departments. This needs change.

Given this reflection, when I relook at the WASH sector, I think there still remains a lot of aspects about it which still needs attention, especially in the Himalayan region. And I am good to relook at WASH in this region and otherwise at the whole sector. But this time around with a keen eye to push for state adaptation of the solutions that are successfully implemented by Frank Water’s partners. Secondly to push a system’s or ecology approach to addressing the issues for WASH access too.

Thats that!

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