The long-term, cumulative pressure of growing populations and tourist numbers in small towns across the Indian and Nepali Himalayas has pushed donors and governments to respond with large infrastructure construction, in the form of pumping stations, dams and hydropower projects that are designed to move vast amounts of water across greater distances to meet growing demand.
Hard infrastructures have been at the centre of donor and state-backed responses and interventions for the provision of water. The activities and investments of the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are commonplace and visible all over the Himalayas, particularly around the construction of dams and pumping schemes along the mountains’ major rivers. These interventions are not only high in capital investment and energy intensive, but also result in enormous changes to the landscapes and livelihoods around them.
These large-scale interventions frequently contrast with the historic practices and memories of resident communities across the towns in which we worked. For many, access to ‘pure’ spring water remains the most desirable for drinking and cooking, although there is some evidence that these spring sources are increasingly contaminated due to the effluents and pollutants of modern life. Recent state investments that have brought pipelines and taps directly into homes are rapidly changing the aspirations of families, as many families can see the convenience of piped water being available directly in their homes.
We found, however, that families will still visit and drink from natural springs alongside these formal connections. These arrangements are not surprising, considering the variability and unreliability of formal water connections – water is generally evaluated as turbid and of poor quality, particularly during the monsoon, and water is normally only available for a couple of hours every day. This uncertainty means that families still depend significantly on their local springs, and invest considerable time and labour into accessing these alternate sources.
Poorer households are less likely to be able to afford the upfront costs associated with formal connection charges, pipes and meters required for an official connection, so provision is not universal. Most poorer households still depend entirely on springs, and take their washing and children directly to springheads for cleaning. These open sources also serve the needs of those who wash clothes for a living – the ‘dhobis’ – although this is also a form of livelihood that is being threatened by the advent of modern alternatives, such as commercial laundries with large washing machines.
While ‘infrastructure’ usually refers to ‘hard’, physical forms of provisioning and channeling engineering, ‘softer’ forms of social and political infrastructure – such as communal water-sharing practices, community institutions for water management and functional, representative elections – are vital for working towards and maintaining long-term social and environmental sustainability. In Nepal, 2017 saw the first local government elections in almost two decades, with many elected representatives emerging from the informal water management institutions that had been created in towns and villages during the intervening period. A significant focus of our work has been to understand the ways in which “hard” infrastructural interventions interact with “softer”, bottom-up water management arrangements and institutions.
A very common sight throughout the Himalayas are the daily interactions that women and young people have with the endpoints of infrastructure, such as the local standpipe, spring spout or sunken well. Amongst the communities in which we have worked, in rural areas as well as within small towns, people always expressed their preference for ‘pure’ spring water to drink, to wash and cook with, because of customary practice as well as perceived taste. Water collection, while usually time consuming and undertaken by women, is also a time for families and children to come together, and for social interaction.