Water scarcity is one of the greatest threats our world faces today. It is estimated about 2.7 billion people across the world live in water scarcity at least one month of the year, meaning they lack sufficient water resources to meet their basic needs (WWF, 2019). This number is likely to increase in the coming decades as a growing population puts an increasing demand on water resources and climate change affects the distribution and availability of water.
I live in a small village in the Far Western Region of Nepal, the hottest and driest region in the country where water shortages are a constant risk, particularly during the dry season. Unfortunately, however, the effects of climate change are already being felt here with conditions getting hotter and drier while the monsoon becomes more unpredictable. Global Climate Models (GCMs) agree that temperatures are likely to continue to rise in the years to come while post-monsoon rainfall is likely to decrease in Far-Western Nepal (World Food Programme, 2013). These conditions will only exacerbate water scarcity in an already water insecure region.
As a meteorologist and development practitioner working on addressing climate change in developing countries, I’m very familiar with climate change impacts on water security. I’ve taken classes, written papers, conducted projects, and worked in professional settings related to this very topic. I know how climate change-induced water scarcity will impact agriculture and food security, how it can lead to migration and conflict and how it can jeopardize our health and well-being.
However, no education or job could prepare me for what it’s like to actually live a water insecure life.
In my village, water scarcity is very real and impacts our day-to-day lives. We are lucky to have a community tap in our village, only about a minute walk from my house, that supplies water for about 15 households. On a good day, this tap comes on for roughly two hours, although what time exactly, we never know. Sometimes it’s in the evening around 5 pm, sometimes it’s in the morning around 6 am and once, it even came on at 4 am.
Regardless of the time, however, when the water comes on, word spreads fast. People grab their jugs and head to the tap where they patiently wait in line,chatting with each other in the local language, Doteli, to pass the time. Typically, fetching water is the responsibility of women and spending time at the tap is a fun way to socialize. I am always in awe by how strong the women are, carrying 25 L of water on their heads, making multiple trips to the tap, just to provide their families with water for basic needs – cooking, cleaning, and drinking.
Typically, I would help my bahini collect water for our family of six. She carries a 25 L jug on her head and I carry a much smaller 15 L jug in my hand (the village gets a good laugh out of this). Together, we usually made 3-4 trips to the tap when the water came, which took us about 1.5-2 hours. Collecting water is a hard, time-consuming job and, even on a good day, it was difficult to get enough water to meet the basic needs of our family.
Although we manage with limited water each day, it’s not uncommon for the water to simply stop coming. Often, for days at a time leaving far-reaching impacts.
Let me tell you what happens when the water doesn’t come.
When the water doesn’t come, every aspect of sanitation and hygiene suffers. A LOT. In the bathroom, there’s no water to flush the latrine or wipe (there’s no toilet paper here, so you wipe with your left hand and a bit of water). There’s not enough water to wash our hands, which is really dangerous when people have been wiping in the bathroom and then touching other people, food, etc. Sometimes, I only brush my teeth once a once a day to save water and, of course, bathing is just simply out of the question. I have to hike an hour to town once a week just to bathe.
When the water doesn’t come, your physical health is in jeopardy. There have been days where I was seriously worried I wasn’t going to have enough water to drink. And when it’s 100+ F every single day during hot season (I’m not kidding), it’s incredibly important to stay hydrated. Additionally, because sanitation suffers, I got sick for the first time since arriving at site. I’m talking so sick I had to call the 24/7 Peace Corps medical phone because I was throwing up every drop of my precious water and was becoming very dehydrated (with very little water left to drink). I also had to cut back on my workout routine, which I desperately need to stay healthy considering the Nepali diet is 98% carbs. However, with limited water, I often can’t justify the extra physical activity (and therefore water consumption) and I definitely don’t want to sweat more knowing I probably won’t be able to bathe.
When the water doesn’t come, agriculture suffers. Obviously, it’s difficult to grow anything without water, which in turn makes my job as an Agriculture Volunteer very difficult – impossible, really. My primary responsibility when I arrived at site was to create a vegetable garden. However, this wasn’t possible without any water so my work had to be put on hold until the monsoon came.
When the water doesn’t come, your mental health is impacted. For me, personally, my mental health is impacted more than anything because of a culmination of all the above-mentioned impacts. Since I can’t bathe often, I cut workouts out of my daily routine, something that’s really important for my mental health and sanity here. I also limited all my physical activity and time outside to avoid sweating, meaning I spent most of my days in my room, lonely, questioning why I’m here, especially when I can’t do any of the agricultural work I came here to do. The stress and anxiety of not knowing if or when I will get water takes its toll and even when I go to the district capital to bathe, I’m filled with guilt because I know it’s a privilege the rest of my family and community don’t have.
Now, I’m pretty new to this whole living in water scarcity thing, and I often wonder if maybe all this is normal? Maybe I’m just overreacting because I’m not used to it? Maybe I’m just not tough enough to live in conditions like this? However, I knew it was actually a bad situation when I could sense the worry and frustration in my aamaa’s voice as she told me for the fourth day in a row, paani chhaina, there is no water. Ke garne? What to do? Yet, despite the worry in her voice, there’s always a bit of optimism. Bholi, bholi paani chaa. Tomorrow, tomorrow there will be water. Even though we both know the water probably won’t come tomorrow either.
However, there is some good news.
First of all, monsoon has FINALLY come, bringing life back to my community. Although it arrived about a week late, it has brought with it slow rainy days, cooler temperatures and lots of green (see the difference in the two pictures below!). Because the weather is much cooler now, it’s easier to go a week without bathing since I don’t sweat as much and I finally got a small garden set up. However, much to my surprise, the rain does not improve our overall water scarcity situation at all and we still go days without being able to collect water from the tap.
Second of all, and most importantly, I am officially in control of my personal water security now! After talking to my Peace Corps Program Specialist about the water scarcity challenges I was facing, we came up with a plan for me to collect and store my water independently. So a few days later, I headed to the bazaar to purchase a 100 L barrel and set it up in my garden. Now, instead of helping to collect water for the entire family, I collect water just for myself and store it in my barrel. My personal water security has improved significantly and I can use this water however I want. However, when the water doesn’t come for days at a time, I still have to ration my water carefully and things like bathing and laundry are still out of the question. But at least it’s an improvement and in this weird, crazy Peace Corps life, I’ll take any small victory I can get.
World Food Programme, 2013. Climate risk and food security in Nepal: Analysis of climate impacts on food security and livelihoods.
WWF, 2019. Water scarcity: overview.