Water and food security

Fields of gold

Students and teachers of Thimphu’s schools came together in Changangkha to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. The celebrations included a wide array of well-thought-out presentations and entertaining performances highlighting the importance of water.

I was given the opportunity to talk to the students. So I told them a story, one that is relevant to this year’s World Water Day theme: “water and food security”. But one that is also relevant to the current rupee crisis.

Here’s a quick summary of my story:

Nob Gyeltshen is 77 years old. He hails from Dorithasa, a small village in the southern extreme of Haa, slightly above the Samtse border. Dorithasa is not connected by farm road. So it still takes at least two days to get there.

As a child, he, like all the other children in his village had two main responsibilities. One, he had to collect water for his household every morning. And two, he had to look after his family’s cattle during the day.

Every morning, little Nob Gyeltshen would get up at the crack of dawn, and rush to the water source, which was located about half an hour away. That water source was a small pool, a puddle in fact, and Nob Gyeltshen and his friends had to race there to arrive ahead of the cows. If a couple of thirsty cows beat them, there would be no water left, and the children would have to trek for another half an hour to the next water source.

Nob Gyeltshen could carry three bamboo flasks of water. Each flask measured about 3 feet long and was 6 inches wide. They weighed heavy on the little boy, but on most days, he would have to travel several times to the water source.

Water was, indeed, a scarce commodity in his village. And so was food. Nob Gyeltshen grew up eating pancakes made from buckwheat or millet. When he got lucky he would get to eat maize grits or enjoy roasted maize kernels. And when he got very lucky, he’d get to feast on rice. Rice was precious, because Dorithasa, and all its neighboring villages, did not have any paddy fields.

When Nob Gyeltshen turned 17, he joined the army. That’s how he left Dorithasa. And that’s how, at an early age, he got to visit Paro and Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdiphodrang. Wherever he went, the young soldier saw paddy fields. Every valley seemed to be endowed with endless fields of well-manicured terraces, capable of supplying any amount of rice that the people could have ever desired.

Wherever he went, Nob Gyeltshen collected paddy seeds. And he sent them to his home in Dorithasa. But none of them grew successfully, till he sent 10 dres of paddy from Bjena in Wangdiphodrang. Only 2 of the 10 dres made it to his village (the rest having been consumed by the couriers!) but that was enough. The paddy from Bjena took root, grew easily and yielded a surprisingly generous harvest.

When he heard the good news, Nob Gyeltshen sent his entire savings – about Nu 150 – to build paddy fields and to construct a simple irrigation channel to his village. Suddenly the entire village was growing paddy. And before long, they were producing more of it than what they could consume. When, several years later, Nob Gyeltshen returned to his village for the first time since joining the army, he saw that the entire Dorithasa community was growing more than enough rice for themselves, and that the extra rice was being bartered for other essential provisions.

He also saw that the little children did not have to travel long distances, very early in the mornings, to collect water. The irrigation channel provided an easy and constant supply of drinking water.