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Improving water use practices for livelihood improvements

Traditional water use practices are not adequate to meet the current water demand in Nepal’s Koshi basin. To address the increasing water demand, good practices in water management that have proven to work well and produced good results were documented for replication on a larger scale.

Each household constructed a plastic pond and harvested rain water. Photo: Keshab Panday

Each household constructed a plastic pond and harvested rain water. Photo: Keshab Panday

Water demand is increasing in the Koshi basin in Nepal owing to the rising competition for water from different sectors and also as a result of population growth and climate change.

The Koshi River basin, shared between China, India, and Nepal, is one of the important trans-boundary river basins in the region providing a basis for livelihoods to almost 40 million people, most of whom depend on subsistence agriculture. The demographic changes taking place in the Koshi basin impacts the way people manage water resources and respond to the effects of climate change.

To address the increasing water demand and change in labour availability, local governments, non-government organizations, development practitioners and larger society are paying greater focus on making good use of water. Their efforts focus most on promoting water use good practices: those practices that have been proven to work well and produce good results in water scare areas and are recommended for replication on a larger scale. Good practices in water use help in enhancing the adaptive capacity of women and other marginalized groups who have to bear the brunt of droughts and floods. A study was therefore conducted to document the good practices in water management.

A total of 28 key informants from government organizations (GOs), international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), UN organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based organizations (CBOs) were consulted during the study. In addition to this, a few field visits were also made to understand diverse issues on different water use practices.

Water Use Practices

Water use in irrigation

In many places in Nepal, water is used in multiple ways for optimal agricultural production. Two kinds of best practices – pond irrigation and non-conventional irrigation technologies – have been promoted in the Koshi basin and are largely owned, used, and maintained by individuals and group of farmers. These practices are mostly used where there is less discharge from water sources, or the topography is unsuitable for a conventional gravity flow canal irrigation system. Commonly, pond irrigation and non-conventional irrigation technologies are used to aid in the cultivation of high-value crops like vegetables, and also help in addressing the issues of social equity by making it possible to provide irrigation facilities to people living in areas where irrigation by conventional means is not feasible.

In the areas where the water for canal irrigation is not enough, pond irrigation has proved to be a good potential alternative. In this system, water derived from canals, pipes, or rainwater harvesting is collected in a dug-out pond. These ponds are generally either concrete-lined or plastic-lined. The collected water is then carried to the field through a Polythene pipe, and irrigates crops using sprinklers and drip irrigation. In some cases, a group of households share a pond, while in other cases, a household has its own pond. The system does not require cooperation of a large number of households to build and operate. With this type of pond irrigation, water is used more efficiently than in traditional irrigation systems. An advantage of pond irrigation is that it is a decentralized system that enables individuals and communities to manage their own water for their own purposes.

Integrated water use

In the context of increasing water scarcity, integrated water use is an effective adaptation measure. A good practice documented under integrated water use is multiple water use services (MUS).

MUS adopts the approach of taking into account the domestic and productive needs of the users drawing water from multiple sources. Micro irrigation technologies like drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation systems are integrated with the drinking water supply system.

The MUS system promotes efficient water uses, and thus, is a potential means of water management in areas of reduced water availability. As most of the untapped water sources for drinking water supply and irrigation facilities are far away and the discharge from existing water sources is decreasing, the MUS is a valuable adaptation measure in response to climate change. The technology associated with the MUS is also manageable at the community level.

Water user association manages the community irrigation systems
Water user association manages the community irrigation systems

Rainwater harvesting leads to livelihood improvement

One promising practice followed for livelihood improvement has been fresh vegetable production through rainwater harvesting. In some areas, water from the roofs and nearby areas is channeled to the pond and is used to produce highvalue crops.

In Mithinkot village of Kabhrepalanchok district in Nepal, farmers started growing fresh vegetables by constructing irrigation ponds. The area around Mithinkot is dry. So each household has constructed a plastic pond to harvest rain water. They irrigate the crops with both a drip and pipe system. Water is used efficiently, and the vegetable seed production has helped in improving livelihoods in the village through increased incomes from selling the vegetable seeds. After two years, they established a vegetable seed production cooperative to promote vegetable seed production. Initially, they started producing seeds of different kinds of vegetables. Four years later, the farmers produced seeds from 30 tunnels that produce about 30 kilograms of hybrid tomato seeds. The practice of plastic pond construction is a strategy that can be used during the rainy season.

Solar multiple use water system in Nepal

The people of Lausikhola village of Dhital village development committee (VDC) have established a new water supply system. The water user committee oversees the overall management of the system. A set of solar panels power water lifting from a spring lying below the village. The water is collected in the already existing reservoir tank. In addition, a separate, plastic-lined pond has been constructed below the tank to collect any spill-over water. Collected spill-over water is used for irrigating vegetable gardens of nearby houses. Nine tap stands have been erected to distribute water. On an average, five households share a tap stand. With the increased water availability, farmers have started producing vegetables for market.

On an average, each household now cultivates vegetables in a ropani of land. They irrigate vegetables with the water from tap stands. The scheme has helped to reduce the time and physical effort that women and children spend in collecting water; has improved the process of cleaning drinking water, and has improved the financial status of households, particularly women.

A solar water system in Lausikhola village
A solar water system in Lausikhola village

Water conservation

In Nepal, farmers traditionally constructed and maintained ponds on community lands. Besides providing supplemental irrigation during critical times of the year, these ponds also contributed in recharging water. However, over the years, these ponds were not maintained, and started disappearing due to negligence. Although irrigation ponds have become popular in water-scarce areas in recent years, they are either plastic-lined or concrete-lined and thus do not contribute in recharging the local hydrological system.

People in several places have started reviving the old practice of water-conserving ponds with the objective of recharging water into the local hydrological system.

Farmers of Jaisithok, Kabhrepalanchok District have started reconstructing such community ponds. The water recharging ponds help in improving the water discharge from the water sources below the ponds. Similarly, it also ensured timely plantation of paddy. These recharging ponds have been constructed or revived in other areas as well. Besides recharging local hydrology, they also contribute in minimizing the soil losses caused by run off.

Governance for good water use practices

The sustainability of community irrigation systems depends largely on the effectiveness of Water Users Associations (WUAs). Most irrigation systems in Nepal have been constructed and managed by farmers themselves.

The traditional practice of forming a committee and assigning operation and maintenance responsibilities has recently evolved into more a more formalized system of WUA (Bhattarai et al. 2012). WUAs are registered with the Irrigation Offices at the district level.

The nature and function of WUAs varies from place to place. In some areas, they function more as a construction committee and are dissolved or become non-functional after the completion of a given task. In other cases, they become long-enduring institutions and provide leadership in the management of irrigation systems. In such cases, they become important community institutions, around which community norms revolve. Over the years, these WUAs have become more inclusive, with formal provision requiring the participation of women and disadvantaged groups in executive committees. An effective WUA has become pre-requisite for a well-functioning irrigation system.


This analysis of good water use practices has revealed that while the practices contributed to improving different aspects of water use, all the practices have contributed to the overall well being of the community and to environmental conservation. They have also contributed directly to improving livelihoods and community empowerment. Since most of these practices have relied on or emphasized the strengthening of local institutions, the sustainability of these practices is more feasible. Many of these practices have evolved in water scarce areas, and as such, focus on using water more efficiently. Given the reducing availability of water, efficient water use is particularly important.


Bhattarai, D. et al. (eds.), Water User Associations of Nepal: Compilation of Nine Case Studies, 2012, International Network on Participatory Irrigation Management, Kathmandu.

Min Bahadur Gurung, Govinda Basnet, Shahriar Wahid and Golam Rasul

P.O. Box 3226, Kathmandu, Nepal