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Publication Date : 18-02-2013
Construction of embankments along the Rapti in Chitwan in Nepal has breathed new life into an area long devastated by floods
A swift ride along the Rapti river, and its adjoining villages in the eastern side of Chitwan district in Nepal's central region, allows one to gauge how steadily this part of the district - long devastated by recurring floods - has emerged improved from its ugly past. Sights of expanding settlements, agriculture, industries and other ongoing developmental activities here make it difficult to imagine that the most of the area between Lothar to Sauraha was, at one time, completely smothered by water and silt.
Since most of the adjacent villages in the buffer zones lie around six metres below the Rapti, which flows down the Royal Chitwan National Park, even a few days of rain would have once been enough to cause immeasurable damage. There are many who witnessed such continual displacement of peoples in the face of floods, and the loss of life and property that always ensued, and they remember what it was like to live in constant fear of impending disaster.
“The floods turned the entire area into a desert,” says Krishna Lal Chaudhary, the former chairman of the Kumroj Village Development Committee (VDC), a village bordering Sauraha in the district, referring to the flood in 1994 to which he lost his own lands. “And sandy land is as good as having no land at all.” He recalls how local farmers were, overnight, robbed of their only means of living.
Kari Chaudhary, meanwhile, has his own memories of the 1994 deluge. “The waters swept away over 1,600 of our households,” says the former chairman of the Kathar VDC. “Farmland, crops, livestock, food stores, homes - they were all gone, just like that.” He describes how the local administration had rescued them via helicopter, eventually shifting the entire village to another location. “We didn’t have any of our belongings; we would’ve starved if not for the government’s relief packages.
Kari says it was exceedingly difficult for him and fellow villagers to rebuild their lives in the wake of such disaster. “At least I’ve been able to send my sons and daughters to school,” he says, proud. “There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that possible…now there’s a little bit of hope, at least.”
That hope was, however, a far cry for locals until the construction of a 21 kilometre embankment - which began in 2003 and is still ongoing -alongside the Rapti was taken up. With the assistance of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and the contribution of the Local Development Committee, as well as the efforts of locals themselves, the construction, renovation and reconstruction of dykes in the Rapti, Ladhari, Budi Rapti, Dhungre, Kayer and other rivers, was accomplished, to very positive results. According to representatives of the Lothar-Rapti Dyke Protection Committee (LRDPC), the embankments have benefited over 35,000 people from 6,700 households in nine VDCs.
What the dykes did, foremost, was restore to villagers a sense of security, giving them leave to reclaim their farmlands by clearing out the deposited sand and water. And that had led to a whole host of other developments in the area.
An encouraging upsurge was seen, for example, in agriculture. With the dykes facilitating irrigation to around 20,000 hectares of farmland, eastern Chitwan was soon able to reclaim its former position as one of the largest suppliers of vegetables in the district - “the breadbasket of Chitwan”. The area now produces thousands of tonnes of seasonal vegetables like cauliflower, potato, tomato, cabbage, and radish, among others. In fact, the vegetable market operated by local cooperatives in Bhandara VDC alone supplies around 25,000 to 30,000 kilos of produce to neighbouring towns.
Fish farming is another area that has recently witnessed a boost. According to the District Agriculture Office, there are around 350 fish farmers in Chitwan today, with around 800 commercial ponds. The area occupied by fish farms has grown from 152 hectares in the last year to 175 hectares this year.
Since the embankments were put in place, tourism and in-migration have also witnessed unprecedented growth. And thatched houses, for instance, which were common in the villages before, have slowly being replaced by concrete buildings. And the projects have also been a source of employment for locals; the LRDPC estimates that over 2000 villagers found work in the construction phase.
Village elders say that besides the obvious economic lift that the region has received thanks to the dykes, these projects have also fostered a sense of ownership amid villagers, as well as forging unity between people from various social and political backgrounds. They are also appreciative of the fact that local committees under the LRDPC have been empowered to take decisions in the project.
“It wouldn’t have worked without the collective effort of all sides,” says JP Bhetwal, the chairperson of LRDPC. “This is truly a project for the people, and by the people, to save the habitations, agriculture, industries and tourism of eastern Chitwan.”