On a summer afternoon in Tansen, one of the oldest townships in western Nepal, 69-year-old Dayaram Devkota waits for his turn to pay the dues for his water supply. Before going to the counter, he walks towards the notice board. On display is an important announcement.

“They have hiked the price of water,” said the man who moved to Tansen a decade ago. “The price of water has gone up, but the ‘committee’ has not supplied enough water to meet our daily needs. The man is referring to the user’s committee responsible for supplying drinking water to homes in the town, where drinking water is the most expensive in Nepal.

The “committees” have become common across Nepal after a change in government policy a decade ago that mandates the state-run water utility, the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, withdraw from the business of managing water supply systems. According to the Federation of Water and Sanitation Users Nepal , an organisation of user committees across the country, more than 40,000 water user committees are believed to be in existence throughout the country. Only 15,000 are believed to be in active operation.

A change of policies that did not work

It all started in early 2000 when, under pressure from various donor agencies, the government changed its water supply policy to focus the department’s work on building infrastructure and phase out its involvement in operation and maintenance of drinking water projects. Following the UN’s observance of the International Drinking Water Decade (1981-’90) donor agencies believed that drinking water projects could only be sustainable if the local people were involved in the management and had a feeling of ownership over the project. The committees became the go-to bodies as municipalities had been running without mayors for more than a decade.

The Urban Water and Sanitation Policy 2009 says that after a drinking water project is completed, it needs to be handed over to the municipality. However, if the municipality fails to do so, a local user committee is elected by the consumers to take over the duty, under the supervision of Department of Water Supply and Sewerage. “That is exactly what has happened in Tansen,” said Keshav Lal Shakya, the head of Department of Water Supply and Sewerage’s Palpa division office.

Why did it fail? The reasons are manifold.

The historic town of Tansen has always been a dry place. The Rana rulers – the powerful dynasty of prime ministers that reduced the kings to titular monarchs while ruling in their names – from Kathmandu were attracted to the area due to the lush green forest that stands on the Srinagar hill. It was believed that the fresh air circulating through the pine forest could cure tuberculosis. The Ranas brought Newar families from Kathmandu to sustain the town. They worked as merchants and bureaucrats running the lifeline of the city.

The wind from the pines in Tansen is believed to have cured many people of tuberculosis. Photo credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi

Before the families could be invited there, the Rana ruler in Pampa – the region that Tansen is located – Pratap Shumsher, had to get water flowing to the town. That was when he decided to establish a drinking water project based on the gravity flow model. According to records, the system made use of long cast-iron pipes and a 200-metre-long manmade tunnel to get water to the town from a source away from it. The project, designed by British engineers, is believed to have supplied over 150,000 litres of water every day to around 12,000-15,000 people during its heyday. The system now supplies only around 50,000 litres of water a day.

Tansen continued to attract migrants from surrounding areas due to its pleasant weather. According to census data, the town’s population increased from 20,000 in 2001 to 30,000 in 2011. More than 10 hotels have come up in the area. “Tansen has such wonderful weather throughout the year that people do not want to leave the town even when the most essential thing for life, water, is in short supply,” said Damodar Nepal, the chief editor of Karuwa, one of the leading dailies of Tansen. “No matter how hot it maybe in summer, we have never had to use a fan and that explains it all,” he added.

From the early 1970s, a string of projects were developed to meet the needs of the town, almost all of which rely on multiple-stage electric pumps to lift water from the source to the hill, explained Shakya. There are now four major drinking water projects in operation, including one built under Japanese assistance, which have the capacity to pump 1.9 million litres of water to the city every day.

Keshav lal Shakya, head of the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage’s Pampa division office says committees need to do better at managing resources. Photo credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi

“But even during the rainy season, we get only around 80% of the installed capacity,” the officer said. Demand has exceeded supply by over a 100%.

Around NPR 1 million ($9,650) worth of electricity is consumed every month by the motors powering the lifeline of the town.

The rise of the user committees

Tansen’s drinking water was proving to be a burden for the government as it became one of the few projects the department, and then the municipality ran for a long period of time. It wanted to hand over the entire project to the community as the municipality gave up on it, but the people were reluctant to take over. So to sweeten the deal, the government agreed to provide grants that would decrease every year, until zero in the sixth year, to the community to run the project.

“A user committee was setup to manage and maintain the water supply in the town. But the irony is that it was deeply politicised,” said Damodar Nepal of Karuwa. “No formal elections were held. As the Nepali Congress has traditionally been strong in the town, it was offered the post of president, and other posts went to other political parties.”

Following the formal handing-over of the projects, there was a short-lived jubilation among the people of the town such as Kamala Rajak and her husband Ram Lal, who received permit to get a tap for their house following a long wait. According to committee chairman Chakorman Singh, a total of 1,200 taps were added to the 1,760 existing ones. The government had prescribed that the committee hike the water tariff to NPR 258 ($2.49) from the under NPR 50 ($0.48).

This is for 10,000 litres of water per month, per tap. Legally one house can have only one tap. Riding a wave of support that they did not wish to challenge, the committee did not hike the tariff.

“The committee chose to incur losses as local politicians did not want to risk becoming unpopular,” said Damodar Nepal. They went on receiving subsidies from the government and supplying water below the cost price.

The unstoppable rise of water prices

Ultimately, the committee had no option to hike the tariff to over NPR 500 ($ 4.83) for 10,000 litres of water – making it the most expensive drinking water in the country. Even water from Kathmandu’s multi-billion rupee Melamchi drinking water is expected to cost the consumer around NPR 400 ($3.86) for 10,000 litres.

Despite the hike in tariffs, the committee is finding it difficult to manage its resources. Chairman Singh accepts that 20%-25% of water pipes leak. This is in line with water infrastructure throughout South Asia, which is plagued by low maintenance.

Ramlal Rajak, a dhobi (washerman), says he needs lot of water for his work. Photo credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi

“There’s no fixed schedule for tap water. We don’t know when we’ll get water,” said the Rajaks, who run a laundry service. “As there’s a water shortage here, we need to walk long distances to wash our clients’ clothes.”

For people who are better off than the couple, there’s the option of calling in the water tankers, who charge exorbitantly for water they bring from low lying areas, up to NPR 600 ($5.79) for a thousand litres of water – more than 10 times the tariff. “The 10,000 litres of water is just enough to cook and drink, but that too is not guaranteed. During the dry months, we don’t even get 10,000 litres. We have no option but to call in the tankers,” said the 69-year-old Dayaram Devkota.

The committee, however, maintains that the problems are short-lived as it is working with the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage to develop a new drinking water project that would make it possible to lift 300,000 litres of water from the Kaligandaki river in the near future. The committee is now collecting NPR 1,000 ($9.65) each from its members to pay for the mandatory 1% stake it needs to buy in the NPR 300 million ($2.9 million) project.

A newly built water tank on top of the Srinagar Hill in Palpa, western Nepal. Photo credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi

A new mayor, a new future?

As Tansen prepares to elect its new mayor, there are people who are raising their voice against the committee, demanding that the government take over the projects from the committee. Activist Chiranjivi Sharma Dhungana, who is among the staunchest of the critics of the committee, said the government’s whole drinking water policy is faulty. “Have you not seen Melamchi in Kathmandu?,” Dhungana asked. “It will take years before the Kaligandaki project becomes ready. Nepal’s Constitution says that access to water is a fundamental right, and the government should provide water to the people at any cost.”

But it’s not going to be easy for the new mayor to assume control of the projects as the law clearly says that the committees will take charge of the project. The solution to the situation can be found if the new mayor plays the role of a watchdog and makes the committee accountable to the people, said Rajendra Aryal, president of Federation of Water and Sanitation Users Nepal. All sides need to assess the situation and take steps to make water more accessible to the people, he said.

Meanwhile, Devkota and his fellow townfolk will continue to pay the most expensive water bill in Nepal, and then shell out more money to pay for the water tanker after getting home.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.