KATHMANDU, Nepal (AlertNet) - On the fourth day of her menstrual cycle, Belkumari Paudiyal hikes for more than 20 minutes to the river below her village. She ties a petticoat round her chest and takes a cleansing bath, which signals that her life will resume as normal.
When Paudiyal, 37, is menstruating, custom demands that she be isolated from her family, and refrain from entering the kitchen, touching food or offering prayers.
“I prefer to walk down to the river as it provides some privacy to clean myself,” says Paudiyal, a resident of Paudiyalthok in Nepal’s picturesque Panchkhal Valley. “Otherwise there is the common tap which has no enclosed space. Trekking all the way to the river is the only solution.”
The traditionally fertile Panchkhal Valley in central Nepal, about 40 km (25 miles) east of the capital Kathmandu, has suffered an acute water shortage in recent years due to erratic rainfall, thought to be linked with climate change.
“(Rainfall) has become more erratic. Days are becoming hotter and nights warmer,” said Ajaya Dixit of the non-governmental Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal (ISET-N).
The main subsistence activities for the valley’s population are agriculture and animal husbandry. But a lack of reliable water sources is affecting many aspects of their lives, and women are bearing the brunt of changing weather patterns.
BACK SEAT FOR SANITATION
When water is in short supply, sanitation and hygiene tend to take a back seat. This is felt acutely by women who are subjected to chhaupadi pratha, a centuries-old custom of banishing Nepali women and girls from home for three nights while they are menstruating, as well as during and after childbirth, because they are considered impure.
Although outlawed by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2005, the practice persists in rural areas. Women in poor villages in much of western Nepal must spend three days and nights in unhygienic places like cow sheds, regardless of the weather.
“We use old clothes called ‘thangna’ as pads when we are menstruating,” says Putali Mizar of Milepani village in Kavre district. “We can wash and rewash them with a little water... But to take a bath, trekking to the river is the only solution.”
The impact of prolonged drought on sanitation for women is an issue that is only now beginning to be addressed. ISET-N is trying to cater to women’s practical and strategic needs.
“We are building separate tap stands with enclosures for women and specific toilets for girl students in the schools,” said Dixit of the institute.
SPRINGS DRYING UP
The strain on women is also increasing when it comes to their daily chores. Paudiyal, like others in the valley, must now walk down to the river to fetch water for household needs and her buffalo. Each day she carries an average of 18 litres (4 gallons) of water on a “dhoko” (a basket tied to a hood).
Sugar cane used to be an important crop in the valley, but many farmers now cultivate vegetables instead, which are less thirsty. But, despite the fertile soil, it’s becoming harder to grow even vegetables with water in decline.
Paddy is cultivated only once a year rather than twice as in the past, and locals report that some crops such as tomatoes have failed completely.
Rainfall has increased since the peak of the drought in 2009, but residents remain unsure about how best to plan their livelihoods. Farmers are struggling to cope with the shifts in local hydrological characteristics.
“Some natural springs are drying (up) and some changes in the landscape are happening. People are responding to various kinds of stresses, and adaptation to drier seasons has become more complex in an otherwise water-rich area,” said Dixit.
For Paudiyal, the choices are stark. “I think we will sell off our buffalo now. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain one without adequate water to bathe and feed the buffaloes,” she said.
Dixit said her organisation is trying to encourage local people to diversify their livelihoods, and is training women to work as masons.
Teresa Rehman is a journalist and media consultant based in northeast India.