The priceless bounty

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Tue, 09, 18

Water scarcity in the villages of Gilgit-Baltistan affects women the most as they have to fetch water located far away from where they live. This week You! highlights an initiative that is helping resolve the issue of water crisis in the region...

Water scarcity in the villages of Gilgit-Baltistan affects women the most as they have to fetch water located far away from where they live. This week You! highlights an initiative that is helping resolve the issue of water crisis in the region...

In recent years Pakistan has suffered from severe water shortages, flooding and declining water quality. The worsening water crisis need to be resolved if the country wants to achieve stability and develop. Using water more efficiently is necessary and for that we need a comprehensive plan. Furthermore, far deeper changes are required such as cultural and social paradigm shifts that will help the country towards progress.

While several mountainous regions in Pakistan have great touristy value, there is little awareness about the lives the locals live and the challenges they face due to the lack of water supply. For instance, regions like Gilgit-Baltistan have problems related to mountain resources such as ecosystem services (water supply and forest products). Also, over time these high mountainous areas have become highly vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change. The people who rely on agriculture and livestock for sustenance are affected adversely by any change in the snow cover pattern, timing of runoff in glaciers and snow fed rivers. Due to high altitude and extremely cold weather in winters, only single cropping is possible. This restricts opportunities for crop diversification or alternative means for income generation for the locals. Mostly, these people have to depend on water bodies located far away from where they live even for drinking purposes. These limitations affect women the most as they have to fetch water or access distant water bodies for different purposes. Besides, the rising temperatures have exposed pasture lands to heat resulting in burning of grass meant for livestock's consumption at many places.

One major reason for these problems to occur in Gilgit-Baltistan is that these areas are highly inaccessible due to the long distances involved, and the tough terrain that makes travel difficult. Even those who reach here for adventure tourism, site-seeing or work, get access only to areas along or close to the main roads and cannot reach the communities living at a distance or height from there. Road infrastructure and communication links are often missing there.

So, there is no disagreement over the fact that a lot needs to be done in this region to improve the quality of life with the basic resource such as water. No doubt it is an uphill task keeping in view the magnitude of work involved, the challenges that exist and the number of localities and community in need of such uplift.

Keeping this in mind, this week You! takes a look at an initiative - 'New World Programme' - which is being induced to resolve the issue of water in the villages of the mountainous regions; such as Gilgit-Baltistan...

Initiative for water development

The good thing is that a few interventions made by the development sector in collaboration with a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative, have transformed the lives of targeted communities in Gilgit-Baltistan. Such model interventions can be studied to get an idea about the problems related to water supply for agriculture and daily use, and the solutions that have worked for them.

Village Gole Tassu in district Skardu, with a population of around 2800, is one such area where people are getting water for drinking, washing and agriculture purposes, close to their houses; something they never thought possible. Earlier, they would have to travel several kilometres to get water flowing in open channels, consuming which would make them fall victim to diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases. Today, they get lab tested spring water through taps which is fit for human consumption and free of impurities.

Overcoming the struggles

While there is some development seen to curb issues related to water supply and quality water provision, women, who have to do simple daily chores that involve usage of water, are likely to suffer more. They would travel long distances to wash clothes which would consume a lot of their time and keep them away from their houses. The same water was later directed to the fields for irrigation purposes. As this water had soap mixed in it, the crops irrigated with it would get destroyed. But today they have water storage tanks in their village and they have ample time at their disposal to focus on their families and household chores.

Bushra Batool, a middle-aged woman who lives with her husband and daughter in Gole, shares, "It was my daily routine to fetch water from a point about three kilometres away from my house. It also took me five to six hours to carry clothes to a point, wash these there and return home. Going through all this ordeal would leave little energy to focus on the family and my health. Besides, I would often have severe pain in the neck for carrying water cans on my head over long distances. Now, my worries are over to a great extent that I feel relieved and empowered."

Here comes the question as to how did this change come into the lives of these people left deprived for so long. The answer comes from Aisha Khan, CEO of the Mountain & Glacier Protection Organisation (MGPO), a non-for profit organisation established in 2001. It carries out environmental protection work in the high mountain ranges of the country as well integrated rural development programmes. "Our organisation selected this village for the project because we aim to help disadvantaged communities through empowerment and provision of basic needs and services. The funding came under 'New World Programme' which is a partnership between the Coca-Cola Foundation (CCF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in alliance with the Global Water Challenge, impacting positively 1.5 million people across 19 countries," explains Khan.

The solution that worked here was provision of drinking water supply through underground Dadex pipes laid all the way from the village to the nearest spring. The villagers played a great role in the success of the project and carried the pipes to the required heights. The women also worked side by side and carried the pipes as far as they could. The situation today is that around 360 households now have access to safe water for domestic use. Water points locations were decided in consultation with the community based on their needs. These water points are within walking distance of 5-10 metres from houses. The total project cost was Rs. 11.62 million which had a community share as well. Construction of a catchment chamber and a storage tank was also a part of the project which is replenishing 39.7 million litres of water per annum to the community.

Ghulam Abbas, who is the finance secretary of the community organisation at Gole, tells the scribe, "The availability of quality water has boosted agriculture in the village where potatoes, tomatoes, onions, apricots and walnuts are grown in good quantities. This had resulted in economic empowerment of the locals as well."

Speaking on behalf of CCF, Natasha Haroon explains the process of finalising the grants under the 'New World Programme'. "The CCF deposits its financial contribution to the programme account and the grantees are selected after a thorough screening process under the supervision of UNDP. The UNDP also monitors and evaluates the project during its different stages."

Siksa village located 150 in the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan is another beneficiary of the 'New World Programme'. Here 15,200 running feet (RFT) long piped irrigation water supply scheme has been introduced to help irrigate 355 hectare land. Besides, 17 water points have been constructed for provision of safe drinking water. An interesting finding is that the rate of out-migration from the village has reduced by 30 per cent and women have free time to engage in entrepreneurial activities to supplement their household income. They are now growing different vegetables and selling them in the market. The estimated volume of water replenished through this project in Siska is 5.5 billion litres per annum.

Amazingly, Siksa village has managed to sustain an 80 per cent literacy rate and an enrolment rate of almost 95 per cent. These indicators are likely to improve now as children, especially girls, will save time they spent on reaching out for water at distant places. Samina Batool who is a matric student says that earlier she had to stay awake at night in order to reach the water field on their turn but she is free of such worries now.

For a brighter future

The latest is that MGPO is shortly launching an ambitious irrigation project in Tholdi village of Khaplu district in Skardu valley at a cost of Rs 16.35 million. The project is aimed at helping people to ensure food security in the wake of ever increasing challenges being posed by climate change. It will involve construction of a total of 10,000 RFT transmissions line of which 7000 RFT will be delivered through underground piped irrigation to irrigate 253 hectare and 3000 RFT through open paved channels.

The 20 per cent share of the community in the project cost will give it a sense of ownership and create motivation for asset protection. The community will also contribute one per cent cost of the project annual towards a repair and maintenance fund. The contribution will not be a financial burden on the community as the additional income from agricultural productivity will create savings. As a major portion of the project will be delivered through an underground pipe, it will not be exposed to damage and require minimal repair and maintenance.