मे 03, 2016
Water shortages in mountainous South Sikkim are placing a heavy burden on local children and causing families to become fragmented
Ahley Gaon village in South Sikkim, north-east India, was named after a pond, or “ahal”, that sits between hillocks on top of the village. The ahal is a sacred place for villagers, and so is not used as a water source, despite the fact that the village faces acute water shortages for most of the year. Villagers have observed that the water levels have fallen dramatically in the last decade, which they blame on the low rainfall and changing weather patterns.
South Sikkim has historically been a dry region. Local legend has it that all the places that the river Rangit passes through have been cursed to be dry and always short of water; the river flows through the drought-prone west and south districts of Sikkim state.
There is one dhara, a natural stream that provides water to the village of about seventy families, mostly Hindus. The stream is near the bottom of the hill and carrying water from it up to the village is a daily routine for people.
The village is about seven kilometres downstream from Namchi and Ravang towns and so by the time the water reaches the village there is hardly any left. The water flow becomes almost a trickle during the dry winter season.
Government water tanks unused
The state government has tried to provide sustainable solutions by constructing rainwater harvesting tanks in the village. However, the tanks lie useless and unmaintained.
Rain is plentiful during the monsoon and the ahal as well as the dhara flow with abundant water. However, the villagers are not keen to use the water harvesting tanks. According to a woman who was given the government contract of building the water harvesting tanks, people use up the water in the tanks during the rainy season; but they do not store water for use in the coming dry months.
This is because the harvested water stored in underground tanks is sometimes muddy. When it comes to drinking water, the Hindu villagers follow matters of purity very strictly.
A simple solution like building the tanks a little above the ground level, fitted with taps which ensures flowing water would encourage people to appreciate these facilities much more. Building water pipes from the tanks to reach kitchens and providing modern electrical water purifiers could also help encourage villagers to use the water.
Lack of water brings hardship for children
It is the children of the village who are responsible for fetching water every day. Some children as young as five, who are too young to work in the fields or for domestic chores, have the daily duty of fetching water from the dhara before and after school.
During the dry season most family members wake up as early as four in the morning to make a line of gagris (traditional metal water pitchers) and plastic jerry cans to take to the dhara. Children make at least three trips up and down the hill every day (3 kilometres each way), carrying about ten litres of water at a time. This affects their studies. Doing well in school is not as important as fulfilling their responsibility of stocking water for their families. Children sometimes have to walk about seven kilometres to school and so are often tired and uninterested once they arrive.
Lack of water also makes it difficult to wash. For most children, bathing is a luxury and they attend school with just the cheeks of their faces washed. This does not matter in the village school because everybody turns up for class in the same way. The older children who attend the classes in the nearby towns, however, feel embarrassed when their classmates from the town bathe and wear clean uniforms.
Adults sometimes take a taxi during the dry season to the banks of the river Rangit, about twenty kilometres away to collect water and wash piles of dirty clothes. They quip that “petrol becomes cheaper than water when it comes to the need for water and sanitation.”
Water shortages fuel urban migration
The lack of sanitation and free flowing water and the arduous task of fetching water is pushing villagers into the semi-urban towns of Sikkim. An increasing number of young people are moving to the nearest town to go to school, living with relatives or in rented accommodation. Some of them, barely teenagers, manage their own lives and without adult care and supervision, open themselves up to dangers in the changing towns of Sikkim.
Parents do not want their children to take up farming and push their children to move to urban areas, where they unprepared for the cultural and psychological transition needed in the process.