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Political ecologist Eszter Kovacs and photo-journalist Toby Smith report on today’s local government elections in Dhulikhel, Nepal.

3 political parties are represented on one single dwelling in Dhulikhel Bazaar.

Nepal has not held local government elections for twenty years, and local democracy is claimed to be long overdue. Yet throughout this period contested and under-reported elections have been taking place within communities for the direct control and management of natural resources – particularly of water.

Communal spring in Dhulikhel.

In this same time, water’s importance as a resource across the Himalayas has grown. Local communities have had to overcome greater scarcity that has arisen through a combination of pressures from urbanisation, heightened demand and variable resource availability from a changing climate. The ability to control and improve people’s lives through better water supply has meant that water has also become a potent political resource.

Past water elections yielded many of the candidates that stood for Nepal’s first formal government elections since 1997. Candidates are in large number tried and tested leaders, well known to their voters as they cut their political teeth in drinking water management.

An ambitious infrastructure plan aims to divert water from the source of the River Roshi to Dhulikhel.

Ashok Byanju stood today as the likely Mayor-incumbent for Dhulikhel. Byanju heads the Steering Committee for the largest investment into Dhulikhel’s water supply system through the Kavre Valley Integrated Drinking Water Supply Project. His history with water is extensive, as Byanju was also a co-founder of the German-funded and nationally-lauded Dhulikhel Drinking Water Supply Project from the late 1980s. The promise and the exposure gained from these projects has led to Byanju becoming a well-recognised face, giving him a significant advantage over his six other mayoral hopefuls.

A young girl drinks from a potable water tap in Dhulikhel Bazaar.

The ability to improve the water lots of Dhulikhel’s population, which is rapidly increasing as the town experiences unprecedented urbanisation rates, has been evaluated through local elections for drinking water user committee members every three years since 1990. If leaders are unable to provide, they are booted out.

A tap fed by a sporadic spring runs dry.

The former committee President, Raj Kumar Shrestha Takhachhe, lost the campaign for his re-election in late 2016 by 69 votes. During the last eight months of his tenure, new households were prevented from obtaining a water connection over fears of water supply limits. Water supply has been unable to adequately keep up with the expansion of Dhulikhel’s borders. In consequence, the town’s supply system reinforces a core-periphery hierarchy, wherein peripheral, newer wards are not served.

Many buildings in Dhulikhel lie in ruins following the 2015 earthquake.

The new alternate candidate for President of the drinking water committee, Rameshwor Shrestha Ghinanju, campaigned to provide water to everybody. Ward 7, a historically deprived area locally well-known for its political protests and water blockades, ensured in particular that Rameshwor would get a chance to make true his promise through voting en masse for the new candidate. And indeed: since becoming President, Rameshwor has made steady progress, initiating the drilling of a series of deep borewells during this past month.

These dynamics of electoral enthusiasm (with participation at around 75%) run counter to the general assumption that there has been place-based political stagnation and a lack of initiative for addressing local issues through democratic processes in modern Nepal.

Indeed, many water supply challenges have been met: over the years Dhulikhel has realised better coverage, water quality and supply hours. Current campaign promises include beautification projects that target several fetid, algal-bloom communal pools throughout the town, which gradually came into being as new construction blocked water seepage routes and prevented recharge.

A public pond devoted to the Lord Shiva has turned stagnant. 

At a larger scale and longer term, the impacts of climate change and a greater number of high-consumption stakeholders (including higher household water demands) threaten Dhulikhel’s development prospects. These issues are essentially universal across the Himalayas, as development pressures and populations meet finite and decreasing water availability.

“The tail of a dog never straightens even if you keep it in a tube for twelve years” –  Nepali Proverb

Through history water has played a powerful role in determining where and how life is possible. The ability to control water supply and access in Dhulikhel in the early 1980s indelibly marked the town and set it on its current course. Dhulikhel’s last “official” mayor from two decades ago, Bel Prasad Shrestha, brought toilets indoors and donor money to “fix” and augment Dhulikhel’s water system.

Bel Prasad casts his vote at a town ward polling station.

Bel Prasad secured adequate water supplies such that Kathmandu University and later Dhulikhel’s hospital could be established. Bel Prasad identified the necessity and power of water, and the development it could bring. In recognition of the improvements his projects brought to everyday lives in Dhulikhel, Bel Prasad was asked to run for mayor in 1992, and was twice re-elected.

A young woman launders clothes in a communal spring.

This recent history of Dhulikhel’s water governance demonstrates how successful management hinges on the vision and commitment of particular individuals working within accountable, representative community groups. The effects of local government elections and the introduction of national-level political priorities on these already-existing community efforts are as yet unknown. Today, Dhulikhel’s young and old grasped the opportunity to have their voices and choices heard on a new stage, through known local leaders.

Nepali children play beside a temple pond.