Groundwater is water that is found underground, in cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rocks. The top of the area where water fills these spaces is called the water table. Heavy rains or melting snow may cause the water table to rise, or an extended period of dry weather may cause the water table to fall. Groundwater supplies are replenished, or recharged, by rain and snow melt. In some areas of the world, and even in Nepal, people face serious water shortages because groundwater is used faster than it is naturally replenished. In other areas, groundwater is being polluted by human activities. Like any renewable resource, groundwater could be consumed indefinitely as long as the rate of withdrawal does not exceed the rate of replacement. Over pumping of an aquifer occurs when groundwater is withdrawn faster than nature can replace or recharge it.
Therefore, groundwater depletion is a growing problem, not just in Nepal but worldwide. Many parts of the globe face serious fresh water shortages, which have resulted from groundwater depletion and water quality problems. Many communities obtain their drinking water aquifers. Water suppliers drill wells through soil and rock into aquifers to reach the ground and supply the public with drinking water. Many homes also have their own private wells drilled on their property to tap this supply.
High rainfall totals generally give rise to abundant water supplies, at least seasonally, and surface water and groundwater are both important sources for domestic, industrial and agricultural use. Groundwater is abundant in the aquifers of the Terai and the Kathmandu Valley. About 50% of the water used in the city of Kathmandu is derived from groundwater. There is an overall lack of water-quality data for Nepal and hence assessment of the main quality problems is difficult. Many of the documented problems are related to pollution of both surface waters and shallow ground waters from domestic, agricultural and industrial wastes. Much of the Nepalese population uses surface water for potable supply which is most vulnerable to pollution. Hence only 34% of the populations are thought to have access to safe drinking water.
Historically, rights and ownership issues concerning ground water have never been viewed seriously. However, no such regulatory framework concerning the rights of ground water by its users as well as the stakeholders exists. It is not even considered as a similar activity like mining, that many other countries consider. Thus, there is ambiguity in defining the ground water resource and the rights over it in Nepal. Similarly, overlapping authority of different institutions working on ground water shows institutional problems for regulating ground water. Ground water Management Committee is formed by an order but hardly could regulate ground water as Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited, Drinking Water Supply Authority and Department of Irrigation are using ground water in their own ways without coordination.
Confusion at the conceptual level also lends itself to field levels as we see the case of ground water in Nepal. It is neither in the private domain, nor entirely in the public domain. As far as its extraction and use in agriculture, industry, or domestic sectors is concerned, both the private and public sectors are involved. However, extraction of water for selling to other users is not possible by the private sector, which would have resulted in its being an extractable commodity because all sub-soil products are, by law, under the government’s jurisdiction. But in reality there is a lot of violation on use of ground water uses. Such activities are in operation in a huge scale especially in Kathmandu Valley and water table level has been decreasing day by day. Experts say this might create natural disasters and could convert our land into desert if water extraction is continued in unmanaged way.
National Water Plan 2005 provides importance to ground water uses together with National Water Resource Strategy 2002 but less priority is given to it in the regulatory framework. There is no special act to regulate ground water in Nepal except an order which created the Committee for Underground Water in 1975. This Committee is chaired by the Secretary of Ministry of Irrigation. The mandate provided to this Committee is to survey, study, innovate, supervise and monitor ground water. Together it could develop information system and develop plans and utilization strategy on ground water. This order only provides a board formation mandate to work in this sector. But this order is not sufficient to regulate ownership and other ground water issues.
Conflict on ground water in our neighboring country India could be a good example to point out here. Activists say an ongoing drought has threatened groundwater supplies across India, and many villagers in rural areas are blaming Coca-Cola for aggravating the problem. Coca-Cola operates 52 water-intensive bottling plants in India. In the southern Indian village of Plachimada in Kerala state, for example, persistent droughts have dried up groundwater and local wells, forcing many residents to rely on water supplies tanker in daily by the government.
Competition over ground water resources between mechanically powered Deep Tube wells (DTW) and manual hand pumps for drinking water supply are forcing communities and authorities to think about instituting regulations over the use of ground water. However, as conflicts are increasing, people and communities are beginning to develop local level controls and self-management of this critical open access resource. Unlike the other major open access resource--surface water of rivers--whose use faces some regulations in terms of diversion or lessening of flow, as well as fishing rights, the ground water resource is still very much in a laissez faire state. It is also not a common resource for communities to regulate its use, as its extraction is dependent upon technologies without which it is not available unlike forests and pastures, which are there for people to use.
Water resource management is increasingly assuming a critical role for the growing population of Nepal due to burgeoning demand and increasing conflict between alternative uses. Water is both a public and private good and therefore the allocation system must take into account the needs of all users, particularly the poor. It is also an economic and a scarce commodity and therefore its use should be determined by opportunity cost pricing. However, that should not ignore such basic needs as access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene practices. As water is a common resource and has wide ranging uses, its development and management should involve all users and beneficiaries. Consequently the planners and managers of water resources operate with a segmented approach and is target oriented. Efforts are usually disjointed and supply driven and are usually detrimental to national interests, ignoring such important principles as equity and sustainability in water harvesting, water balance, conjunctive use of water, and efficient utilization of an unitary economic resource.
Finally, ground water is a common resource, neither under complete state authority nor in the private domain. It is now increasingly being used for productive purposes (mainly irrigation). It is also facing intense demand from other conjunctive uses such as drinking water, domestic use, and fisheries. Narrow sectoral development approaches exacerbate the conflicts arising out of conjunctive use of this resource, while the absence of a comprehensive water policy only furthers the sub-sectoral orientation to water use policies. Therefore, time has come to prepare a proper policy on ground water uses together to regulate competitive extraction of ground water, ownership issues with bringing a special law in Nepal.
Dr. Ravi Sharma Aryal is Joint Secretary at Water & Energy Commission of Government of Nepal. Author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org