In May and June 2017, Nepal held its first local government elections since 1997, an outcome of far-reaching political changes that were galvanised by the disastrous 2015 earthquake. Our ESPA research started in Nepal in early 2014. In this period, we have observed and documented first-hand a series of under-reported and examined, yet highly contested ‘political’ elections that have been taking place for years even in the absence of a formal Municipal Council or government. These elections have been taking place within communities for the direct control and management of natural resources – and particularly of water.
Over the past two decades, water’s importance as a resource across the Himalayas has grown. Local communities have had to overcome increased scarcity and consumption, as water is in greater demand as a result of a combination of pressures from urbanisation, variable resource availability from a changing climate, and rapidly evolving norms and needs for water. In consequence, the ability to control and improve people’s lives through ‘better’ water supply has meant that water has also become a potent political resource.
Earlier water elections for community drinking water institutions and management committees yielded many of the candidates that stood formally later for Nepal’s first government elections this year. Candidates are in large number tried and tested leaders, well known to their voters as they cut their political teeth in drinking water management.
Ashok Byanju is one example at Dhulikhel Municipality. Byanju heads the Steering Committee for the largest investment into Dhulikhel’s water supply system through the Kavre Valley Integrated Drinking Water Supply Project. His history with water is extensive, as Byanju was also a co-founder of the German-funded and nationally-lauded Dhulikhel Drinking Water Supply Project from the late 1980s. The promise and the exposure gained from these projects turned Byanju into a well-recognised face, giving him a significant advantage over his six other hopeful candidates for mayor.
The ability to improve the water lots of Dhulikhel’s population, which has rapidly increased as the town experiences unprecedented urbanisation rates, has been evaluated through local elections for drinking water user committee members every three years since 1990. Past experience demonstrates that if leaders were unable to provide, they were booted out.
The former drinking water committee President, Raj Kumar Shrestha Takhachhe, lost the campaign for his re-election in late 2016 by 69 votes. During the last eight months of his tenure, new households were prevented from obtaining a water connection over fears of water supply limits. Current water supply arrangements have been unable to adequately keep up with the expansion of Dhulikhel’s borders. In consequence, the town’s supply system reinforces a core-periphery hierarchy, wherein peripheral, newer wards are not served.
The new alternate candidate for President of the drinking water committee, Rameshwor Shrestha Ghinanju, campaigned to provide water to everybody. Ward 7, a historically deprived area locally known for its political protests and water blockades, ensured in particular that Rameshwor would get a chance to make true his promise through voting en masse for the new candidate. And indeed: since becoming President, Rameshwor has made steady progress, initiating the drilling of a series of deep borewells during this past month.
Dynamics of electoral enthusiasm (with participation at around 75%) run counter to the general assumption that there has been political stagnation and a lack of initiative for addressing local issues through democratic processes in modern Nepal.
Indeed, many water supply challenges have been met: over the years Dhulikhel keeps improving on its water supply through better coverage, water quality and supply hours. Current campaign promises include beautification projects that target several fetid, algal-bloom communal pools throughout the town, which gradually came into being as new construction blocked water seepage routes and prevented recharge.
At a larger scale and longer term, the impacts of climate change and a greater number of high-consumption stakeholders (including hotels and higher household water demands) threaten Dhulikhel’s development prospects. These issues are essentially universal across the Himalayas, as development pressures and populations meet finite and decreasing water availability.
“The tail of a dog never straightens even if you keep it in a tube for twelve years” – Nepali Proverb
Through history water has played a powerful role in determining where and how life is possible. The ability to control water supply and access in Dhulikhel in the early 1980s indelibly marked the town and set it on its current course. Dhulikhel’s last “official” mayor from two decades ago, Bel Prasad Shrestha, brought toilets indoors and donor money to “fix” and augment Dhulikhel’s water system
Bel Prasad secured adequate water supplies such that Kathmandu University and later Dhulikhel’s hospital could be established. Bel Prasad identified the necessity and power of water, and the development it could bring. In recognition of the improvements his projects brought to everyday lives in Dhulikhel, Bel Prasad was asked to run for mayor in 1992, and was twice re-elected.
Dhulikhel’s recent history in water governance demonstrates how successful management hinges on the vision and commitment of particular individuals working within accountable, representative community groups. The effects of local government elections and the introduction of national-level political priorities on these already-existing community efforts are as yet unknown. After the council elections this year, Ashok Byanju emerged victorious. In the bare half year since his election, Byanju has continued to collaborate with our local research partner, SIAS, in exploring how to build and adopt low-impact water saving strategies that will increase Dhulikhel’s resilience. The trade-offs between town development and sustainability have never been so stark nor urgent for Nepal, but strong local awareness and leadership in these issues provides strong foundations for collaboration and the future.