Inclusive Irrigation is Transforming Nepal’s Rural Areas

Kimaya Sarki.
Kimaya Sarki.

By Jaya Sharma

Small farmers, even women and those belonging to the Dalit caste and ethnic minorities, are beginning to participate in the management of water users’ associations in parts of Nepal.

Small farmers have typically had very few opportunities for decision-making in Nepal. Those from the Dalit caste and ethnic minorities have even less. And female farmers perhaps the least.

That is changing in some parts of the country, though.

Kimaya Sarki, a 45-year-old woman from the traditionally untouchable Dalit community in Siraha District in eastern Nepal has only 1.5 hectares of land which is situated at the tail-end of a soon-to-be-built irrigation scheme.

For years, she had no hope for irrigating her land.

“We were never going to get enough water for the crops. My husband’s grandfather got very little, so did my father-in-law and now we are not getting much more either. I didn’t know who to talk to,” she said.

In Nepal, access to water from irrigation systems is based on membership of water users’ associations (WUAs), but you can only be a member if you possess the land ownership certificate. Typically, men are the ones who hold these. Although the new Nepal constitution addresses equal inheritance rights, the law has yet to catch up, so wives still lack equal tenancy rights to family land.

A woman can represent a man in their absence occasionally but has little authority to influence decisions in the male-dominated WUAs. Tenant farmers are even worse off since they have no representation in the WUAs and thus no say in any decisions related to water management.

Fortunately, change is afoot in part because of emigration, with many men going to foreign lands to work, leaving women to head the family and run the farm. But also spurred along with external encouragement.

Since January this year, Kimaya has been one of four female members of the executive committee of the water users’ association under the Khutti Madyan Irrigation Sub-Project, one of the subprojects operating under the Community Managed Irrigation Agriculture Sector Project – Additional Financing (CMIASP–AF) supported by ADB.

CMIASP-AF started in June 2014 as a follow-up to the Community Managed Irrigation Agriculture Sector Project and will rehabilitate and improve 155 farmer-managed irrigation systems in the eastern and central regions of Nepal, covering nearly 20,000 hectares of land with the aim of enhancing productivity and increasing food security.

Under the project, each irrigation scheme is establishing and implementing gender equity and social inclusion (GESI) action plan to enhance the participation of women and disadvantaged social groups in the WUAs and their associated livelihood enhancement activities. The GESI  action plan of the Khutti Madyan project required 33% representation of women on the water users’ association’s executive committee and for the ethnic/caste makeup of the committee to reflect that in the population it serves.It also accepted either the husband or the wife as an eligible member of the water users’ association to ensure representation from each and every household in the area. And to make sure the needs of everyone—regardless of where their farms are located along the canal irrigation system—WUAs are required to have proportional representation from head, middle, and tail end users. Lastly, the project encourages WUA membership to be at least half sharecroppers and leaseholders.

Now, Kimaya’s WUA is made up of 64% of those from the Thakuri community, 18% Mahatos, 9% Yadavs, and 9% Dalits, much more representative—although not exactly matching—the makeup of the community. Sharecroppers, who were previously excluded, can now join as temporary members so now have a say in decision-making too.

Kimaya no longer has to turn to someone else, hoping they will voice her concerns and says others in her community look up to her. Being a member of the WUA executive committee is “a big leap” toward social transformation, she said.

“I will be the voice for women, the Dalits and other small farmers in the management of water for irrigation,” she said.