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Shrestha, A., D. Roth, and D. Joshi. 2018. Flows of change: dynamic water rights and water access in peri-urban Kathmandu.
Ecology and Society 23(2):42. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10085-230242
Research, part of a Special Feature on Transforming Conflicts over Natural Resources in the South for Social-Ecological
Flows of change: dynamic water rights and water access in peri-urban
Anushiya Shrestha 1, Dik Roth 1 and Deepa Joshi 2
ABSTRACT. Urbanization and the changing climate are increasingly influencing people’s access to land and water. Changes in use
of, and rights and access to, land and water are most acutely experienced in peri-urban areas. We analyze these changes in peri-urban
Kathmandu, Nepal. Increasing pressures on land and growing water needs of an expanding population in Kathmandu Valley are
creating new patterns of water use, water-related conflicts, and (in)securities. We use two case studies that are characteristic of these
changes, with a focus on the microlevel redefinitions of, and struggles about, rights, access, and notions of legitimate water use, and
what these mean for water security and water conflict in a socially and institutionally complex and dynamic environment. Our findings
show that these water-related changes cause contestations and conflicts between peri-urban water users. Amid increasing competition
for water, people are using new sources and technologies, searching for negotiated solutions based on local norms and rights, and
co-opting other water users through cooperation to create access opportunities and avoid conflicts. Our cases show self-restraint in
practices of claiming or accessing water, while avoidance of conflicts also derives from an awareness of unequal power relations
between user groups, past experiences of violence used against protesters, and lack of active intervention to regulate increasing
exploitation of peri-urban land and water resources.
Key Words: access; land and water use; peri-urban; property; urbanization; water-related conflicts; water rights; water security
The world is rapidly urbanizing, and this deeply transforms
places that are still rural or “peri-urban” (Leaf 2011, United
Nations 2015, Friedmann 2016). The latter term refers to “the
coming together and intermixing of the urban and the rural,
implying the potential for the emergence of wholly new forms
of social, economic, and environmental interaction that are no
longer accommodated by these received categories” (Leaf
2011:528). Although peri-urban changes have long received little
scientific and policy attention, the peri-urban lens is increasingly
used to explore processes of “becoming urban” (Leaf 2011).
Following several authors (e.g., Iaquinta and Drescher 2000,
Narain and Prakash 2016), we approach the peri-urban as (peri-)
urbanization processes rather than a spatially bounded type of
region. This better captures its fluid and emergent character as
a hybrid of “rural” and “urban,” as flows of people, resources,
ideals, identities, and institutions (Iaquinta and Drescher 2000,
Allen 2003). Even if we use “areas,” we think primarily of their
Major peri-urbanization issues are changes in land tenure, and
overexploitation and pollution of water (Simon 2008). Water
reallocations and changing flows between urban and peri-urban
areas, and within the latter, may lead to contestations and conflict
(Allen 2003, Butterworth et al. 2007). Another problem is how
these processes, and the places shaped under their influence, are
governed. Peri-urban dynamism is at loggerheads with generally
static governance structures, institutions, and jurisdictional
boundaries (Allen 2003, Simon 2008). Overlapping governance
institutions, legal frameworks, and competing claims of
authority are common, causing characteristically peri-urban
“fuzziness” and conflict-proneness (Butterworth 2007,
Arabindoo 2009). Yet the implications of peri-urban water
insecurity for the dynamics of conflict and cooperation have
hardly been explored (Narain and Prakash 2016).
We use this peri-urban focus to analyze conflicts around rights,
access, and control of a resource that is fluid by nature yet often
related to land or infrastructure in ways that “fix” it as property
and make it follow the logic of power rather than gravity: water.
Peri-urbanization around Kathmandu, capital of Nepal,
involves changes in availability, allocation, use, and control of
water and land for human livelihoods. With changing
populations, land conversion, increasing building activities, and
the emergence of more diversified livelihoods, pressures on these
resources are growing. Urban water needs, demand for products
from the peri-urban, and practices of waste disposal are deeply
influencing water security. These processes are further
compounded by the impacts of a changing climate on
precipitation, temperature, and water availability (Shrestha et al.
2014, Sada et al. 2016).
In line with the Special Issue theme and focus, we present an
indepth, context-specific description and analysis of water-
related changes in peri-urban communities to gain a more
empirically grounded understanding of their consequences for
water access and rights, security, and conflict. The article is
structured as follows: first, we clarify our conceptual-theoretical
and methodological choices. Next, we briefly introduce
Kathmandu Valley, its context of urbanization and policies, and
the study locations. We then present two case studies on changing
water flows and uses, and their implications for water security
and conflict. Each case represents a key dimension of water-
related changes: the first concerns developments around a canal
irrigation system (kulo) in Dadhikot; the second looks into
increasing groundwater exploitation in Jhaukhel. These are
1Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 2Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience
(CAWR), Coventry University
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
followed by a discussion of the findings and what they mean for
future water policies.
RESEARCH APPROACH, METHODS, AND CASE
Resource-related conflict: a property and access perspective
The study of resource conflict was long dominated by resource
determinism and assumptions of linear causalities between
scarcity and (violent) conflict (e.g., Homer-Dixon 1999). Also
problematic was its focus on large-scale violent conflict (war),
dichotomic understanding of conflict and cooperation (conflict
is “bad,” cooperation “good”), and simplification of the
multidimensional character of “resource conflicts.” Criticism
from political ecologists (e.g., Peluso and Watts 2001) has initiated
more nuanced approaches from a “multicausal, multilevel, and
multiactor perspective” (Bavinck et al. 2014, Frerks et al. 2014),
while noting the important mediating role of socio-political
processes. Scarcity and conflict are not “natural” but politically
and socially produced by situated actors (Frerks et al. 2014).
Although still focused on large-scale violent conflicts, the
arguments basically apply to other scales and manifestations of
conflict as well. We use the definition of conflict by Bavinck et al.
(2014:4) as “confrontations between groups or categories of
people,” whether violent or not.
In the study of “water conflicts” more specifically, attention
shifted from “water wars” (conspicuously absent) to local water
conflicts, which are abounding (Wolf 2007, Joy et al. 2008), and
from the conflict–cooperation dichotomy and the assumption of
their being mutually exclusive (Zeitoun et al. 2011). Further, a
critical perspective of water scarcity as socially and politically
produced rather than “natural,” and an understanding of how
scarcities are locally experienced and lived with are crucial in
understanding water conflicts (Mehta 2007). Likewise, rather
than assuming simple causalities and clear “drivers” of conflict,
our point of departure is that (the potential for) conflict is socially
produced through political choices, policies, and changing
practices of land and water use, management, and control.
When researching social-environmental relationships, two major
approaches are available: complex adaptive systems and social-
ecological resilience (e.g., Folke 2006), and social-constructivist
and political ecology approaches that foreground the
coconstituted character of “the natural” and “the social” in hydro-
social changes (Swyngedouw et al. 2002). The first-mentioned
“systemic” approaches have been criticized from social-scientific
(e.g., Brown 2014, Olsson et al. 2015, Boas and Rothe 2016) and
political ecology perspectives (e.g., Taylor 2015). Taking the latter
approaches as a starting point, we aim to understand peri-urban
water conflicts from an interdisciplinary perspective combined
with insights from political ecology (e.g., Swyngedouw et al. 2002,
Budds 2009), access theory, and legal-anthropological
approaches to property. The political ecology of water has
stimulated critical analysis of urbanization-related water flows,
their relational and spatial-scalar dimensions, and the
coconstitution of technical-hydrological and social processes. It
also stresses the political, conflict-sensitive, and power-laden
character of such changes. Therefore, we need to research how
they differentially affect water rights, access, and inclusion and
exclusion of different actors.
However, this requires indepth analysis of microlevel changes in
and struggles about water, how water users experience and deal
with them, and the implications for water conflicts and
cooperation. Access to water basically involves complex
interactions between power, authority, and control, creating a
conflict-prone “…‘grey zone’ between what people have rights to
and…access to” (Sikor and Lund 2009:2). Claims are expressed
mostly through a property discourse. Hence, we use the concept
of property as developed in legal anthropology: rights and
obligations with regard to valued goods (von Benda-Beckmann
et al. 2006). Adding to this, Ribot and Peluso (2003) have
theorized access as the ability to actually derive benefits from
resources. These allow us to analyze in detail the often fuzzy and
gradual changes in water access and rights, and their impacts on
peri-urban water security. We approach “water security” as
contextual, experiential, and relational, as a general frame for
asking questions like: Which changes influence whose access?
Who stands to gain; who is losing? Whose social networks,
authority, and power count? Such questions can be answered only
in the specific context in which water (in)security is experienced
(Zeitoun et al. 2013).
Research questions, methodology, and case selection
Thus, we try to answer the following questions: (1) What changes
are occurring in peri-urban water uses, rights, access, and water
security? (2) How are these experienced by various actors? (3)
What water-related conflicts are emerging and how are they
socially and institutionally dealt with? Two locations were selected
as cases, using two major criteria: (1) the type of conflicts must
be representative of peri-urban water issues in Kathmandu Valley
more generally, and (2) the type of conflicts must cover both
groundwater and surface water, each of which has specific hydro-
social, property, and access characteristics. Together, these sites
provide an indepth insight into the hydro-social changes around
surface and groundwater, and their implications for water security.
Dadhikot, the first location, highlights changes in rights and
access to surface water, while Jhaukhel, the second location,
illustrates problems of groundwater exploitation.
Field research was carried out by the first author in 2015 and
2016. The research was designed as an ethnographic case study
(LeCompte and Schensul 2010). Case studies are most
appropriate for developing concrete, practical, contextualized
knowledge (Yin 2003) pertaining to specific issues. Data were
gathered by “following the water”: tracing and mapping water
sources, following changing flows, and exploring how various
actors are differently linked to, relinked with, or delinked from
these sources and flows, and hence also (re-)aligning with other
actors. Data collection methods included study of policy
documents, informal conversations, open and semistructured
indepth interviews with actors and key informants, and focus
group discussions. Field observations on water-related activities
(irrigation maintenance, lifting and pumping water, meetings)
were crucial for understanding the on-the-ground peri-urban
water dynamics. In Dadhikot, 38 informal talks and interviews,
17 open and semistructured interviews, and three focus group
discussions were held with irrigators, male and female residents,
inmigrants, farmers’ group leaders, water suppliers, managers,
entrepreneurs, teachers, local politicians, and other relevant
informants. In Jhaukhel, 39 informal talks and interviews, 30 open
and semistructured interviews, and three focus group discussions
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
were held with similar persons, including activists, brick factory
owners, water vendors, and sand miners. In addition, informal
talks and interviews were held with 26 government officials for
KATHMANDU VALLEY, POLICY CONTEXT, AND CASE
Nepal is the least urbanized country of South Asia but has the
highest urbanization rate in the region. Kathmandu Valley is one
of the fastest growing South Asian urban agglomerations
(Muzzini and Aparicio 2013). Its population increased from 1.6
million to more than 2.5 million between 2001 and 2011 (CBS
2001, 2012). Kathmandu Valley lies in the upper Bagmati River
basin, which sustains most socioeconomic activities (Babel et al.
2014). The population of the valley, growing about 4.3% annually,
increased by more than 499% between 1955 and 2008 (Bhattarai
and Conway 2010). The valley’s built-up area increased from
2.94% in 1967 to 24.7% in 2011 (Thapa and Murayama 2009,
JICA 2012), which involved rapid changes in land and water uses
in areas that were predominantly rural and agricultural until
recently (Haack and Rafter 2006, Thapa and Murayama 2009).
Unplanned urbanization has significantly increased water
demand and uses, and reduced groundwater and surface water
quality (Pandey et al. 2012, Shrestha et al. 2015). The water
demand in Kathmandu Valley has reached 377 million litres per
day (MLD), while supply is 120 MLD (wet season) and 73 MLD
(dry season) (KUKL 2017). The possible impacts of climate
change receive growing attention. The National Adaptation
Programme of Action (NAPA) has ranked Kathmandu Valley
among the areas most vulnerable to climate change in Nepal
(MoE 2010), with possibly profound impacts on agriculture and
water availability (WECS 2011). Climate change in Nepal is
occurring faster than the global average (Shrestha et al. 2000,
Chaulagain 2006, Baidya et al. 2008), and is probably also
influencing agriculture and water in Kathmandu Valley. Further,
land fragmentation due to redistributive land reform, inheritance
practices, and selling is a major problem in the valley (Shrestha
2011, KVDA 2015).
The policy context
The 1992 Water Resources Act vests ownership of water in the
state, which formally owns, regulates, and controls all national
water resources (see Pradhan 2000). However, both in surface
irrigation systems and groundwater exploitation, such formal
rules often deviate from established practices, as we will show
based on our cases studies in Kathmandu Valley. The Water
Resources Act sets a priority order for water uses, with drinking
and domestic uses being the first priority, and irrigation being the
second priority. The government has set the national target of
universal access to drinking water and sanitation by 2017, and
encourages the use of surface and groundwater for improving
these services. The Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management
Board (KVWSMB), a government body formed in 2006, is
responsible for managing water supply and sanitation services in
Kathmandu Valley. While these services are limited largely to
urban centers, KVWSMB has the authority to regulate
groundwater use in the entire valley. It formulated the 2012
Groundwater Policy to monitor and regulate the increasing
groundwater exploitation. However, implementation has been
weak. Public and private groundwater use is increasing with
unplanned urban expansion, while the growing urban demand,
which is not satisfied by public water provision, creates among
authorities an attitude characterized by discretion and
nonintervention rather than strict enforcement. Kathmandu
Valley Development Authority (KVDA) has drafted the long-
term development strategy 2015 for Kathmandu Valley, which
aims at improving urban services and discouraging unplanned
urban expansion into agricultural areas, in line with the National
Land Use Policy of 2012 (KVDA 2015) and national programs
and policies for reducing the impacts of climate change. This
requires more coordination among land, water, urban, and
climate change policies and responsible organizations (NPC 2013,
Dadhikot Village Development Committee ([VDC] rural
administrative unit) is located 12 km east of Kathmandu (Fig. 1).
Covering 6.27 km2, Dadhikot is a rapidly evolving peri-urban
area. Annual population growth increased from 1.17% (1981–
1991) to 6.05% (2011). The population increased by more than
60% and the number of houses by 99% between 2001 and 2010
(CBS 2001, 2012). Agriculture is still a major livelihood for many
inhabitants, with paddy as the main monsoon crop. Wheat,
traditionally the main winter crop, is increasingly being replaced
by vegetables. Agriculture is traditionally based on surface
irrigation: Dadhikot has three so-called rajkulos (royal canals),
state-recognized “traditional” canal irrigation systems, fed by
Ghatte Kholo, a tributary of Hanumante River: Mahadev Khola
Rajkulo, Idole Rajkulo, and Chakhu Rajkulo (Fig. 2). We focus
on water-related changes in Chakhuphant, the area irrigated by
Chakhu Rajkulo. Water mills for grinding grains used to be
powered by the water of Ghatte Kholo. Before new technologies
replaced this system, the water was stored for use by the mills and
then made available for irrigation purposes.
After road improvements in the 1980s, farmers started growing
vegetables and Dadhikot became a major vegetable producing
area for Kathmandu Valley (Bhaktapur DDC 2002). With
ongoing land conversion, Dadhikot changed into a peri-urban
patchwork of agricultural fields, multistorey buildings, and more
diverse economic activities. Land transactions and building have
increased considerably since then. The built-up area increased by
more than 250% between 1992 and 2010, and is expected to grow
by about 110% between 2010 and 2030 (Sada et al. 2016).
Important causes are inmigration during the Maoist insurgency
(1996–2006), fragmentation through inheritance, legally
mandatory land division between tillers and landowners, and sales
for cash needs. Aside from outside farmers increasingly leasing in
land for commercial farming, Dadhikot landowners also rent out
agricultural land to brick factories that cater to the building boom
in Kathmandu Valley. These changes deeply affect water
availability and quality, especially with the conversion of arable
land into housing plots and the growing demand for domestic
water. Uttisghari, the largest drinking water supply system in
Dadhikot, was started in 1995 and is expanding its services.
Jhaukhel VDC, situated in the northeastern valley about 20 km
from Kathmandu, covers 5.41 km2 (Fig. 1). Between 2001 and
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
Fig. 1. Location of study sites in Kathmandu Valley.
2011, its population increased by 1.6% annually, while the built-
up area increased by 3.7% annually (CBS 2001, 2012) and by more
than 80% between 1992 and 2010. The built-up area is expected
to increase by more than 110% between 2010 and 2030 (Sada et
al. 2016). Although livelihoods are diversifying, about 60% of the
population is involved in agriculture (VDC Profile 2013).
Agriculture is primarily rain-fed; paddy and maize are the main
monsoon crops in the plains and on the slopes, respectively. In
winter, farmers cultivate wheat, potato, vegetables, and mustard.
Because Jhaukhel lacks perennial surface water sources,
groundwater has become the main agricultural water source.
Easier access to groundwater (pumping technology) has
stimulated farmers to cultivate vegetables for urban markets and
has attracted other economic activities. Brick kilns emerged in the
1990s; leasing out fields to brick factories has often replaced wheat
cultivation. Jhaukhel has also become a major source of water
for the adjoining Bhaktapur Municipality, where water demand
is far exceeding supply. Commercial urban water supply started
in the early 2000s and has continued expanding to other urban
centers, both within and outside Kathmandu Valley.
We present case studies of Dadhikot and Jhaukhel to explore
changes in these areas from a perspective that relates water rights
and access to water security and conflict. We discuss hydro-social
changes over several decades, from rural and agriculture-based
toward diversifying peri-urban areas with changing populations
and linkages with the urban world, and a growing diversity of
land and water uses. The cases focus on different (but related)
dimensions of these changes: (mainly) surface irrigation systems
and other surface sources in Dadhikot, and expanding
groundwater uses in Jhaukhel.
DADHIKOT: COMPETING FOR RIGHTS AND ACCESS
TO SURFACE WATER
Changing users, flows, and connections
Elderly farmers in Chakhuphant share memories of the glory of
Chakhu Rajkulo, one of three irrigation canals fed by Ghatte
Kholo (Fig. 2). This area is called Chakhu (safe granary) locally
because of its historically high paddy and wheat yields. However,
according to farmers, the canal is much narrower now than before.
Prior to 1990, the area was an agricultural belt where construction
of houses was prohibited. The canal was managed under
leadership of the local head of a village adjoining Dadhikot. The
irrigation system had a central place in local life and economy.
Guided by village functionaries, farmers with land in the
command area of the canal made a temporary intake and
voluntarily contributed cash and labor for maintenance. Until
1990, the canal was maintained twice a year, before monsoon and
winter crops. However, according to farmers, water competition
had already emerged from the 1970s, when electric mills started
replacing traditional water mills in Ghatte Kholo. Before this,
during the dry seasons, water mill operators stored water in ponds
on land rented from farmers. After use for operating the water
mills, this water was drained into the canal (Fig. 2), which provided
farmers with reliable year-round irrigation and equitable water
distribution between Chakhuphant and other areas. As this
system disappeared, water scarcity became felt.
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
Fig. 2. Three rajkulos fed by Ghatte Kholo, the water structures and canal sections that existed in
the past and that still exist in Chakhuphant.
A second canal, Idole Rajkulo (Fig. 2), originates at the middle
section of Ghatte Kholo and ultimately drains into Chakhu
Rajkulo. However, after replacement of the water mills, access to
irrigation water from Idole Rajkulo became difficult, particularly
for tail-end farmers who depended on water from this canal. The
tail-end fields contained many brick factories that had been
established in Dadhikot in the 1980s with formal permission.
Needing soil for brickmaking, they made deals with surrounding
farmers. Expecting that scraping the soil would make their
elevated terraces irrigable, farmers agreed to renting their fields
to the factories. Soil scraping continued until the early 2000s, but
not without consequences. Due to partial erosion of Idole
Rajkulo, farmers who depended on Chakhu Rajkulo were
affected in two ways: reduced water supply from Idole Rajkulo
(which had drained into Chakhu Rajkulo before), and growing
competition for scarce water as farmers of scraped fields started
accessing water from Chakhu Rajkulo, thus increasing water
In addition, inmigrants who were purchasing land and building
houses in the fields started extracting water from the stream and
canal for construction. Houses constructed along the canal also
encroached on it, reducing its capacity. Further, since 2010,
brickmakers, who leased in land from farmers in the command
area of the uppermost irrigation canal, have pumped water from
the stream, further adding to water scarcity. In the meantime,
commercial farming in Dadhikot and the upstream area where
Ghatte Kholo originates has also been drastically increasing.
Upstream construction of a permanent dam and expanding
commercial farming further reduced downstream water
availability. Commercial farmers include both so-called
“ancestral” (holding inherited land rights) landholders and new
(inmigrant) farmers, leasing in land from the ancestral or
inmigrant landowners. While ancestral farmers accessed canal
water, land leasers accessed water directly from the stream to avoid
conflicts with the former about their canal water use.
With increasing urbanization, the Uttisghari Drinking Water
system, Dadhikot’s largest system, started tapping a local spring
in 1995. Its sump well, made in 1999–2000 to shift from public to
private taps, contains seepage water tapped from Ghatte Kholo.
At present, it is supplying approximately 1500 private taps, with
750 new taps being added. There are six community-managed
drinking water schemes in Dadhikot, each tapping different
springs. The two registered schemes, Uttisghari and Syangtyang,
are also extracting groundwater through deep borewells. Similar
cases occur elsewhere in the Ghatte Kholo catchment.
Groundwater extraction by households and commercial farmers
has also increased. An unpublished household survey conducted
in 2012 showed that 27% of the households in Dadhikot extracted
groundwater. Field observations show that dugwells are common
among recently constructed houses. These water-related changes
impact water flow in the Ghatte Kholo, which feeds water into
the irrigation canals.
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
Growing competition, avoiding conflicts, exploring new sources
An elderly farmer has been leading canal management from the
1990s. Under his leadership, approximately 50 farmers who
cultivate in Chakhuphant participate every late November in
ploughing, weeding, and making a temporary water intake into
Chakhu Rajkulo, using sacks filled with soil managed by the
leader from the brick factory or owners of houses under
construction. According to the farmer leader, “irrigating fields
could be completed in a single day when the mills were still
operating. To prepare for paddy transplanting we would jointly
clean the canal and irrigate. I had taken the lead to make the intake
for the Idole canal. Maybe thanks to that, people still look to me
for canal-related activities” (farmer, Chakhuphant, 27-11-2016).
However, organizing participation in canal maintenance is not
always that easy. While paddy is the main monsoon crop in
Chakhuphant, in winter the ancestral farmers—particularly
those with land in the lower reach—cultivate commercial
vegetables. These ancestral farmers also rent in land from other
ancestral landowners in winter to cultivate commercial vegetables,
while ancestral farmers in the upper reach have continued
cultivating wheat. Unlike wheat farming, vegetable farming needs
regular irrigation. This need of irrigating the commercial
vegetable winter crop could explain the fact that the ancestral
farmers in the lower reach continued canal maintenance for the
winter season, while those cultivating wheat in the upper reach
refrained from participating in maintenance.
There was also growing competition with the nearby brick factory,
which accessed water from the stream in which Chakhuphant
farmers had made their temporary intake. While the factory
owners had earlier rented land to store stream water, gradually
they bought much of this land along the stream bank. Having
land ownership, the factory fixed a large pump and pipes to
transfer stream water to the factory. Importantly, the factory
continued accessing water without claiming water rights to avoid
conflicts with prior rightholders whose access became
increasingly difficult with erosion of the Idole canal section due
to soil scraping. Inmigrants also increasingly accessed water from
the stream and the canal, both for house construction and, later,
for domestic water. Competition for stream water has been
steadily growing with the increasing use of electric pumps. An
ancestral farmer: “As they lift using pumps, only little water enters
the canal. It seems that, once water is in the canal, the inmigrants
consider we have the right to water. So they lift water from the
stream and argue: ‘Can’t we even lift stream water?’” (farmer,
Chakhuphant, 24-02-2016). Thus, while ancestral farmers base
their water rights on customary claims of canal water, inmigrants
access water by pumping from the stream, or from dugwells based
on their land ownership. Furthermore, awareness of people’s
water needs and the fact that all are in the same boat struggling
to access water play a role in avoiding water conflicts.
Despite their management efforts, access to canal water has been
declining for rightholding farmers. A farmer: “We have been
struggling for twenty-five years. But water does not come for a
prolonged period, only until early January. After that, water does
not reach the canal. In the past there was enough to irrigate all
fields. Nowadays, people are pumping water everywhere, so we
have to use water from Hanumante River” (farmer, Chakhuphant,
14-11-2015). This started in the 1970s as the quantity of water in
Ghatte Kholo decreased. With urbanization, water quality in
Hanumante River degraded due to a lack of sewerage treatment
(Sada 2010). However, by the late 1990s, farmers in Chakhuphant
were irrigating largely from this river, using the new technology
of fuel pumps. Hanumante, which used to be dry in April and
May, now carries water year-round. Although this is largely
wastewater, Hanumante has become the main irrigation water
source for Chakhuphant farmers, both for paddy and vegetables.
Farmers have their own diesel pumps and pipes, or rent them from
others. Irrigating land, therefore, increasingly requires resources:
money, diesel, a pump, and several meters of pipes, but especially
social networks to arrange these.
Irrigating from Hanumante is not, however, a panacea. Although
farmers do not see great difference in their paddy yields, they
shared that irrigating from the river damages leafy vegetables.
Some landowning farmers have shifted to groundwater extraction
through dugwells, but most farmers chose to irrigate from
Hanumante less frequently or in the early morning or evening
because otherwise it “kills” most of the green vegetable saplings.
Tenant farmers, whose access to land is controlled by owners, have
no right to make changes in land or water use. For them,
Hanumante remains the only alternative source but is increasingly
also polluted by sewage from inmigrant settlements, which is
causing another conflict with the Chakhuphant farmers. Similar
conflicts arose after seepage of water from the irrigation canal
into the sewer line that was laid out by inmigrants reduced water
flow in the canal from which the farmers with ancestral rights
Changing irrigation turns, tensions about maintenance
By 2000, use of the irrigation canal had already been limited to
winter crops. However, the farmers’ group from Chakhuphant
commonly participated in annual canal maintenance. All
ancestral farmers had a right to canal water. A basic rule for
distribution was, who comes first irrigates first with half of the
share; latecomers divide the other half. Nonetheless, farmers were
flexible in sharing irrigation turns according to needs and
availability. A farmer: “We discuss and cooperate [in the group].
If there is good flow, we share among three or four users; otherwise
single users will take turns. We try to avoid quarrels in the group.”
However, with growing competition for water and conflicts about
participation in canal cleaning, things have changed. According
to the farmer leader, simple turn-by-turn irrigation, starting from
the head reach and then into the lower reach is no longer accepted:
“Now we give an irrigation turn first to those who maintain the
canal. Is it correct to give water first to those who do not work
but whose fields are in the head reach?” (farmer leader,
This suggests that increased water competition made access for
prior rightholders difficult and disturbed the location-based
irrigation turns. As participation declined, the farmers’ group
started collecting cash contributions from irrigators who do not
contribute labor. Only those riparian ancestral farmers who
contribute cash or labor have the right to use water. However,
there are free riders: “The canal is as public as the king. There
isn’t anyone who does not irrigate from it.” Further, contributing
to maintenance does not ensure access to water. Farmers in the
lower reach of Chakhuphant blame those in the upper reach of
Chakhu Rajkulo for “shamelessly” using canal water, without
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
contributing labor, to irrigate “land that is not even theirs.” Land
in this upper reach belongs to ancestral farmers who have
refrained from participating in canal cleaning since the 1990s.
Many of them cultivate rice in the monsoon season, and—afraid
of leaving the land unused—in the winter season, they invite
farmers from the adjoining village to cultivate wheat on their land,
without demanding a cash or crop share. These farmers divert
half the water share from Chakhu Rajkulo into “their” (branch)
canal and irrigate “the land that is not even theirs.” They base this
practice on the ancestral farmers’ rights, without, however,
participating in canal cleaning. To avoid confrontation, these
farmers irrigate a few weeks after those from Chakhuphant.
Farmers from the lower reach critically commented: “The struggle
is ours while they just take the water.”
Increasing competition for canal water has reduced farmers’
flexibility in sharing water. Farmers with fields far from the canal
do not contribute to maintenance, as physical access to canal
water is uncertain. Hence, they also avoid using water from the
canal, even when it is available, to avoid “bitter words” from their
fellow farmers who do contribute labor. Farmers whose adjoining
fields have been converted into houses often cannot use canal
water either, even when available. Lacking drainage, canal water
waterlogs their fields and damages crops. Thus, without having
conflicts, these farmers do not participate in management, and
irrigate from Hanumante.
Thus, the area irrigated from Hanumante has increased, while
availability of canal water has declined. The canal depends on
stream flow, and the stream depends on rainwater. The latter,
according to farmers, has considerably decreased while the
number of diversions has been increasing, thus reducing the flow
reaching the canal intake. Notwithstanding this trend of growing
canal water scarcity, according to farmers, the number of conflicts
has decreased compared to the past, when the canal was guarded
at night. This can be explained by the fact that Hanumante River
became an alternative water source.
JHAUKHEL: INCREASING GROUNDWATER
Growing importance of groundwater
With only seasonal streams providing water after the monsoon,
stone spouts, wells, community shallow wells (kuwa), and ponds
were the main water sources in Jhaukhel. Managing daily water
needs was difficult, particularly in the dry season. Wells were used
but quickly ran dry; private dugwells emerged during the 1980s.
In the 1990s, the emergence of brick kilns brought more changes
in land and water use and access. Brick factories mostly rented
land in winter, and returned it for monsoon cropping. On rented
land, the factories started scraping soil and extracting
groundwater via borewells for brickmaking. This new technology
also stimulated local residents to extract groundwater for
domestic and other uses. A commercial farmer: “There was no
irrigation. We used to conserve water overflowing from wells and
reused water after washing and bathing for irrigation. People
could cultivate paddy but irrigating was difficult, so all started
making borewells” (farmer, Jhaukhel, 31-12-2015).
A piped drinking water supply system started functioning in 1993
and extended its service to households through a metered tap
connection by 1994. With increasing settlement, water demands
rose while supply turned irregular. Over the years, community-
managed drinking water systems emerged and expanded in
various hamlets. Shrestha et al. (2013) found 11 such systems in
Jhaukhel, while this study shows a further (unregistered) increase.
Settlement increased from the mid-1990s, and agricultural fields
and sand-mined land were converted into residential plots. In the
early 2000s, Jhaukhel had changed from a rain-dependent
agricultural village into one with diverse land and water uses based
on groundwater. Commercial urban water supply from Jhaukhel
started in 2001, after which the number of water bottling factories
rapidly increased; Jhaukhel now harbors 14 such factories.
Additionally, unregistered water vendors started selling “raw
water” to tankers and tractors that cater to urban water needs. A
vendor: “I had a dugwell for drinking water and other needs, and
made a living from farming. When we saw others selling water,
we thought we should also try this. We drilled our first borewell
and started selling water six years ago” (water vendor, Jhaukhel,
Claiming and negotiating rights and access to land and water
Until land sales for residential use started, land in Jhaukhel was
owned largely by people from nearby Bhaktapur. This land
ownership influenced land and water use in Jhaukhel. A brick
factory owner: “We started renting about 40 ropanies (1 ropani =
508.74 m2) of land. Landowners were mostly friends from
Bhaktapur. This year we use 300 ropanies, of which we own less
than 15%, all other land is rented” (factory owner, Jhaukhel,
26-04-2016). Farmers who lack irrigation water often willingly
rent out their land, and see it improve: “We used to plant maize
on the slope, but rented the land to brick factories two decades
back. Since fifteen years we have been planting paddy” (farmer,
Jhaukhel, 17-12-2015). The rent is often higher than the net
income from cultivation. Brick factories also have to prepare the
rented land for farmers to cultivate paddy. In case of delayed
monsoon rain, they also provide irrigation water. Thus, while
factories gain access to land through renting, landowners can
continue benefiting from their land. However, they do not always
have a choice. A man renting out his land: “Brick factory owners
ask landowners. If they refuse, they are not compelled but their
land will become a useless elevated plot with low paddy yields.
That compels farmers to rent out land to the factories, which again
influences adjoining land” (landowner, Jhaukhel, 15-02-2015).
This shows that land ownership does not always guarantee the
owner’s benefit from it, while brick factories, which do not own
land, gain access and even determine what surrounding farmers
can do with their land.
Access to land is also crucial for gaining access to water. Although
ownership of water is formally vested in the state, in practice,
access to land is widely accepted as giving a right to water.
Landowners have a right to groundwater use based on their land
right. An old farmer who purchases water for his household needs:
“Some buy half a ropani of land and make a borewell. In some
areas with borewells, people contract out the land for profit at a
specific rate per month” (farmer, Jhaukhel, 01-04-2016). While
purchasing land provides unlimited rights (to use, sell, or rent out
land and water), renting land provides land control and water
rights for a specified period. As this shows, changes in the right
to land also changes the right to (ground)water.
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
Water rights are also claimed on the basis of government
registration. A bottling factory owner: “We do not operate
without permission, we have registered our industry and have a
permit. As a rule water cannot be sold without certificate. We
renew it annually and pay the government tax. Moreover, we do
not consume all water but also provide it to the locals. We give it
for free to those who cannot afford purchasing it” (factory owner,
Jhaukhel,18-03-2016). The Groundwater Policy of 2012 (and
related guidelines, 2014) aims to restrict use of shallow
groundwater (within 98 ft [30 m]) to domestic uses. A permit from
KVWSMB is required for the use of deep aquifers. Water factories
in Jhaukhel are registered by the Department of Cottage and
Small Industries. This practice has been continued, using the
argument that the water factories started operating before
KVWSMB was established. The Kathmandu Valley Water
Supply Management Board admitted in an interview that,
contradicting the groundwater policy, shallow aquifers are
commercially used. Nonetheless, KVWSMB limits its
interventions because commercial water suppliers are important
in filling the increasing gaps between urban water demand and
supplies. Thus, commercial water users gain legal access to water
through overlapping and weak government registration. They
also supply water to local people, mainly as a strategy to avoid
resistance and secure continued access. Unregistered water
vendors, from which the municipality collects road tax, are
commonly said to be illegal. However, with or without an
extraction permit, the common perception is that the right to
groundwater comes with the right to land, either by permanent
or temporary land control.
Those without a well are weakest in accessing water: They depend
on commercial users and those who own a well. A woman with
unirrigated land next to her neighbor’s irrigated land: “The brick
factory owner installed the borewell on my neighbor’s land, from
which my neighbor irrigates. When we need to irrigate, they give
us a little water, but everything depends on how we behave
[towards them]” (female farmer, Jhaukhel, 21-1-2016).
Dependency on commercial users for water compels others,
including landowners, to maintain good social relations with the
former. Similar problems can be seen in access to water for
domestic uses, the burden of which falls mainly upon women. A
Jhaukhel woman: “We had drilled a borewell for household use
early 1990s, but it dried after ten years. We had a new borewell
drilled but it also quickly dried. Since then we are fetching water
from water factories. Even if these factory people hesitate and
shout at us, we do not have other options. It is mostly women who
do this job. If we do not succeed at one factory we try another.
Sometimes we return empty-handed or with water that turns
yellow in a day, they are reluctant to give filtered water. It is very
difficult to get water. What shall we do if it dries up in the future?
It will be difficult even to get drinking water” (Jhaukhel, women
fetching water from a factory, 26-04-2016).
Protest, power, and the avoidance of conflicts
With declining traditional water sources and the groundwater
table, making deeper wells is common practice. A well user: “We
used to get water from a stone spout near our house. After that
source had dried, I installed a hand pump. People all around also
started making borewells as water sources were drying. Water
could be accessed everywhere at around 40–50 feet. Until the
late-1990s well water was good, but then it started declining.
Around 2005, when the bigger factories had come and the well
dried, I made a new well, 100 feet deep. For about eight years the
water level was very good, but now there is no water even at 100
feet. People go to 130–140 feet now. The deeper we go, the worse
the water quality, with a high iron content” (well user, Jhaukhel,
15-02-2016). Such developments make people more critical of
commercial water exploitation. In 2009, residents demonstrated
at the VDC office, demanding a stop to water sales. A woman
fetching water from a “raw water” seller: “As water sources dried,
people demonstrated at the VDC. We demanded that water selling
should not be permitted. Then the VDC said that, except for
registered factories, water sales will not be allowed, but later they
did not follow that. This created animosity between vendors and
protesters. The water sellers said that we are jealous of them. From
then they hesitated even more to give us water. Those who raise
their voices are considered enemies” (water user, Jhaukhel,
Although groundwater depletion and deterioration of water
quality have increased, open opposition has remained rare. This
can be related to an earlier event: Jhaukhel residents had
encountered violent conflict in 2002, when a campaign against
the brick factories, organized by a group of environmentally
proactive local residents to sensitize villagers not to lease out their
lands, turned violent. Leaving some injured, this conflict made
residents avoid open conflicts until today. Other issues play a role
as well: protests often create antagonisms with friends and
relatives involved in these businesses. Hence, people seldom report
or oppose such practices: “Even if we are suffering, we do not
raise our voices. To reciprocate, water vendors allow neighbors to
take water for free. They say ‘take as much water as you need, why
bother if your water source has dried.’ That is how they operate”
(farmer, Jhaukhel, 17-12-2015).
Women often bear the burden of fetching water from the few
functional water sources, taps, or vendors. A woman whose wells
had dried: “Mostly people fetch water in the water factories, often
by quarrelling. We say: ‘You have water for sale but do not give
us some for drinking?’ Sometimes we return empty-handed,
sometimes we fill our buckets. What else can we do? When water
is extracted in such intensive competition, it will definitely run
dry in the future” (woman, Jhaukhel, 26-04-2016). This shows the
daily struggles for water: although local residents have a right to
domestic water, actually accessing it is difficult and requires
courage. With loss of access, farmers also lost potential livelihood
options in agriculture. Some wells installed for irrigation came to
be used exclusively for drinking water, as traditional sources dried
up. A woman leading a farmers’ group: “For water, it is not
appropriate to exclude those not belonging to the group. We
acquired and have the right to use these wells for irrigation, but
they [drinking water users] do not let us do so” (group discussion,
We have investigated changing water uses and water security in
two communities in Kathmandu Valley—Dadhikot and
Jhaukhel, explored how these changes are experienced by various
actors, and looked into the role of conflict and cooperation in
dealing with them. The cases show that peri-urbanization brings
advantages and opportunities for some (commercial farming,
water vending, brickmaking), often at the expense of others
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
(ancestral farmers, groundwater-dependent Jhaukhel citizens).
The cases abound with examples of growing water insecurity.
However, the overall picture of benefits and disadvantages is
rather fuzzy: a brick factory, for instance, may provide benefits
to surrounding farmers but also cause long-term damages
(pollution, disturbance of groundwater, canal erosion). One thing
is clear: with increasing peri-urban water insecurity, the incidence
of contestations and conflicts may also increase. Changing ways
of accessing water, based on claims (e.g., traditional residents’
rights as inhabitants, water factories with government
registration) or otherwise (unregistered water vendors, brick
factories) are further driving changes in peri-urban land and water
uses and thus increasing water insecurity and conflicts. Fuzzy as
these processes may be, women tend to bear much of the burden.
They are often responsible for managing domestic water needs.
In Jhaukhel, for instance, access to groundwater has become
difficult for households that depend on shallow wells or spouts,
which has added to the workload of women. Aside from this,
these hydro-social changes are too complex to clearly distinguish
winners from losers and culprits from victims.
However, some key issues in negotiating, claiming, and denying
water rights and water use can be discerned, around which water-
related conflicts easily develop. First, the relative positions of
water inlet structures of canals and locations of farmers’ land in
command areas and along canals (head, middle, or tail-end
positions; close to the canal or at greater distance) are increasingly
important determinants of access to surface water. Second, the
origin of farmers (ancestral or inmigrant) is often used
normatively in relation to statements about water rights, water
use practices, and problems of water insecurity. Third, issues of
(non)participation in canal maintenance, often related to local
notions of good behavior and justice, seem to be the only non-
negotiable. People should participate, pay, or otherwise abstain
from taking water to avoid moral indignation and exclusion.
Fourth, issues of different sources and uses of water (e.g.,
irrigation of commercial crops and canal water use; commercial
groundwater use and its environmental consequences) are
sensitive and may lead to conflicts. Often these issues are framed
and perceived as interconnected, such as participation in canal
maintenance and farmers’ origin, or seasonal cropping practices
in relation to location and participation in maintenance. In this
complex hydro-social landscape, negotiations about water rights
and access for rightholders are increasingly difficult, both for
surface water and groundwater.
Continuity and change in water rights and access
How are these water security issues related to changing water
rights and access? Growing water competition in Chakhuphant
(Dadhikot) is distorting customary water rights and allocation in
surface irrigation canals. Ancestral farmers, the prior
rightholders, are gradually loosing access to water and are no
longer able to materialize their rights (see Roth et al. 2005). This
compels them to use polluted stream water to avoid conflicts about
scarce canal water. Irrigation turns are becoming less flexible as
rights-related responsibilities are less adhered to. On the other
hand, the case shows that customary notions of water rights as
inseparable “bundles” of rights, and obligations are, to some
extent, still respected by ancestral farmers and even inmigrants,
and continue to structure irrigation practices. In Jhaukhel,
groundwater emerged as a new water source, initially based on
shallow aquifers but gradually moving into deep aquifers as well.
Historically, the right to use groundwater has been strongly
associated with land rights, either through ownership or other
arrangements. Although this strongly established notion of
legitimacy of groundwater use is increasingly circumscribed by
restrictive policies and regulations, in Kathmandu Valley, these
are not strictly enforced. Commercial water vendors have become
powerful actors, crucial for filling the gaps between urban water
demand and public provision, and hence benefit from the
discretionary powers of responsible agencies.
The relatively recently introduced pumping technology is deeply
influencing surface and groundwater uses. Where rights-based
forms of access are weakening or disappearing, pumping
technology creates new options for accessing water on an ad-hoc
and highly individualized basis. Pumping from surface canals and
streams has become a new solution to water scarcities. Although
these practices create new contestations about their legitimacy
(pumping canal water impinges on the canal water rights of
ancestral farmers; pumping from a stream feeding irrigation
canals has an impact on water availability for downstream canals),
they also contribute to the temporary alleviation of scarcity; an
example is pumping water from the heavily polluted Hanumante
River. In groundwater, pumping technology brought a temporary
relief from the water insecurity caused by seasonal drying up of
shallow wells, spouts, and springs. However, this relief was short-
lived, as increasing exploitation for urban demands (e.g., water
vending) worsened groundwater problems, and even excluded
rightholders from their access to water. Large-scale groundwater
exploitation has now become a major conflict-sensitive issue in
Because groundwater use requires material and other resources
commanded primarily by well-to-do people like water
entrepreneurs, it may have an exclusionary effect on poor groups.
Peri-urban rightholders, for instance, often become dependent on
nonrightholders for access to water. After drying up of their water
sources, Jhaukhel residents depend on water vendors, despite the
fact that the former have water rights and the latter’s practices are
illegal. This shows that water access is not always rights-based,
nor do rights always ensure access (see Ribot and Peluso 2003).
Notwithstanding the existence of a governmental permit system
for commercial exploitation of deep aquifers and a prohibition
of commercial exploitation of shallow ones, transgressions of
both are tolerated because of the urgency of urban water
provision. Restrictions on groundwater exploitation are further
complicated by the fact that groundwater exploitation is still
widely regarded as legitimate for those who control the land, even
though overexploitation may lead to loss of public access to water
spouts and other sources like shallow wells.
Avoiding conflicts, co-opting farmers and households, suppressing
Water use in this “grey zone” between rights and access (Sikor
and Lund 2009) to peri-urban water is conflict-sensitive. Where
government authorities do not actively intervene to regulate
commercial exploitation like water vending and brickmaking, and
seem to tolerate or even support these activities, tensions may run
high. When the local government did not forbid water selling in
Jhaukhel, tensions increased considerably, and when citizens
protested against the pollution caused by brick factories, violence
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
broke out. In view of the key importance of water, however, there
are remarkably few conflicts that actually escalate into physical
violence. Our cases show several mechanisms that, together,
provide an explanation for this: flexibility and awareness of local
norms and rights; co-option through cooperation and mutual
benefits; and conflict avoidance, power relations, and dependence.
Flexibility and awareness of local norms and rights
Realization that water access problems are experienced by many
creates a degree of tolerance toward other people’s water accessing
behavior. As in Jhaukhel, where a well constructed for irrigation
came to be fully used for drinking water, this attitude may be
further strengthened by shared norms about the inappropriateness
of denying people access to drinking water. Several other
examples of awareness of local norms and rules emerge from the
case studies. First, inmigrants leasing land in Dadhikot show
awareness of local water accessing norms by taking water from a
stream, regarded as public property, rather than from an irrigation
canal, to which water rights are attached. The same goes for brick
factories in Chakhuphant that pump stream water rather than
use canal water. Further, rightholding farmers whose access to
irrigation water has become uncertain, and who hence no longer
join maintenance, also abstain from using canal water to avoid
conflicts about free-riding. Third, although farmers in upper
Chakhu Rajkulo, invited in the winter season to cultivate wheat,
are using irrigation water without participating in maintenance,
they at least postpone irrigation to avoid confrontations.
Co-option through cooperation and the creation of mutual
Entrepreneurs in both areas are dependent on local people in
many ways. They can do business (water vending, brickmaking)
only if the local population at least tolerates—but even better,
actively supports—their activities, allows them access to land and
water, and is willing to cooperate in other ways (e.g., by providing
labor opportunities). Hence, they have a clear interest in
increasing the legitimacy of their operations by providing support
and seeking forms of cooperation that make their presence look
like a win-win situation. Both cases show how brick factory
owners make deals with surrounding farmers. In Jhaukhel, the
factories rent land and scrape and level it for another cropping
season, and provide irrigation water. In the short term, farmers
benefit from such services, but the long-term consequences may
be less beneficial: canal erosion, more water scarcity, and
competition in Dadhikot; pollution, lowering of the groundwater
level, and no option for landowners but to accept cooperation
with the factories in Jhaukhel. Similarly, commercial water
vendors provide limited access to their water for surrounding
households, provided that they “behave.” Labor opportunities
further strengthen the networks of local support by creating
loyalties to the enterprise among laborers and their relatives. Such
deals, which create mutual benefits, make people increasingly
dependent on and supportive of the activities of commercial
enterprises, thus silencing critical voices.
Conflict avoidance, power relations, and dependence
Fear of conflicts may make people explore alternative water
sources. Aided by pumping technology, irrigating from
Hanumante River in Dadhikot became such a solution for farmers
who did not want to compete for scarce canal water and can
mobilize the resources needed for pumping. Even though forced
by growing scarcity and competition, these farmers have a degree
of choice. Others are less fortunate because of their dependence
on water providers. Thus, for households in Jhaukhel that depend
on commercial water vendors or brick factories for their water,
maintaining good social relationships with the provider is crucial.
In such situations, criticism of commercial entrepreneurs may
endanger the continuity of their access. Since the violence in
Jhaukhel, there is widespread fear of protesting or campaigning
against brick factories and water entrepreneurs, powerful groups
whose interests even find support in government circles. Likewise,
fear of disturbing social networks of relatives and neighborhoods
explains people’s restraint in openly contesting and opposing
commercial extraction practices.
Even though the first of these mechanisms may be based on power
relations that maintain a property status quo in society, it is
important in preventing conflicts from developing by behavioral
choices of water users. The second one, on the other hand, co-
opts water users into the agendas of commercial exploiters, which
may postpone or dampen conflicts but will probably not solve
them. The third one is ultimately based on fear of social conflicts,
the exertion of power and threat of violence, and might well raise
tensions in the long run.
Implications for dealing with water conflicts
Our analysis shows the importance of indepth research on
changing water security, conflict, and cooperation in specific
socio-environmental contexts. While it is clear that in a situation
of growing scarcity and water insecurity, the potential for conflicts
also increases, these changes cannot be understood from a linear
causal scarcity–conflict perspective, as suggested in earlier work
(e.g., Homer-Dixon 1999). Water scarcity and insecurity are
socially produced in the multiple changes taking place around
both surface water flows and groundwater (see e.g., Mehta 2007,
Zeitoun et al. 2013). The same goes for water-related conflicts and
the various ways in which such conflicts are expressed, managed,
dampened, avoided, or suppressed, including through forms of
cooperation. Understanding these processes, mechanisms, and
dependencies concerning water scarcity and (in)security is
imperative in understanding peri-urban dynamics of conflicts and
Our focus on property and access proves to be indispensable for
really understanding the sociality of the changing water flows
that we analyzed. Placing a hyphen between “the hydro” and “the
social” explains nothing in itself, but is given deeper meaning by
looking into the changing practices of claiming and accessing
water in a setting characterized by institutional complexity,
multiple competing authorities, and shifting powers. The
changing ways of claiming and accessing water and land crucially
involve conflicts, contestations, and negotiations. While formerly
relatively clear water rights associated with surface irrigation
canals are weakening, access to water is increasingly shaped by
access to technology, social networks, power, and capital. Peri-
urbanization has distorted traditional water use practices and
introduced new ones but has also created new divisions and
disparities between various water users. It provides opportunities
for some but has specifically increased water access problems for
the poor, who are often dependent on those with access to land
and water. With ongoing urbanization in the context of a
changing climate, the local water conflict potential will probably
Ecology and Society 23(2): 42
In view of this, developing more conflict-sensitive ways of
governing peri-urban resources should be a priority of scientists
and policy-makers. Understanding the complex institutional and
regulatory landscape through which water is currently governed
is highly relevant in estimating future options for peri-urban water
governance. Currently, urbanization is a largely unplanned and
uncontrolled process. When changes in water rights, access, and
security are concerned, state agencies are mainly muddling
through processes that they cannot—or least do not—fully
control (e.g., Dadhikot: canal irrigation; Jhaukhel: commercial
groundwater exploitation). As can be seen in surface irrigation
canals (Dadhikot) and the local norms of groundwater use
(Jhaukhel), water is also governed through nonstate institutions.
In this peri-urban context of multiple, partly ineffective,
governance arrangements, the danger of conflict is very real.
Urbanization is likely to worsen peri-urban water competition
and conflicts, despite ongoing efforts to augment urban water
supply (Domènech et al. 2013). For lack of basic water supply
services, many peri-urban residents depend on those who are
exploiting peri-urban resources commercially, even if such
exploitation increases water insecurities. This growing gap
between those who are able to create, maintain, and expand access
to water for commercial purposes and those who are missing or
losing that access, lays bare the basically political character of
water distribution and allocation in a context of growing scarcity
caused by uncontrolled changes in peri-urban land and water uses.
Clear long-term priorities will have to be set and acted upon by
governing bodies that are responsible for regulating land and
water uses and providing water services. Peri-urban areas need
specific attention because of the extremely rapid socio-
environmental changes taking place there and the multiple state-
based and other regulatory institutions and arrangements that
play a role in water provision. In addition to the improvement of
basic water services by political priority-setting in a context of
growing scarcities, a much neglected yet crucial contribution to
water security is to ensure that water users, service providers, and
those affecting water sources (sand miners, polluting industries)
contribute to water conservation (e.g., rainwater harvesting and
recharge, wastewater treatment), both in quality and quality.
These could help address growing concerns about peri-urban
water insecurity and water conflicts.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
Research for this paper was part of the project ‘Climate Policy,
Conflicts and Cooperation in Peri-Urban South Asia. Towards
Resilient and Water Secure Communities,’ in the framework of the
program ‘Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate
Change,’ (CCMCC) funded by NWO (Netherlands Organisation
for Scientific Research) and DFID (UK Department For
International Development). We thank Dibesh Shrestha for
preparing the maps, and all our informants for giving their time and
sharing their experiences, without which we would not have been
able to bring forward the complex peri-urban water dynamics.
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