The problem is attributed to traditional practices still being followed

Resource: Despite having a Water Act and regulations in place to ensure equal water distribution, some rural villages still have to bear with unequal distribution due to customary water rights.

As per the Water Act, allocation of water should be done based on the principle that water is a resource owned by the state and every citizen has an equal right to such resources.

It also stated that no one has the right to sell or claim ownership. While customary practices of water allocation is allowed provided if it is found fair and equitable and does not result in denial of water to any individual or community, including downstream and upstream needs, the Act strongly prohibits unfair customary practices.

To help enforce the Act, the National Environment Commission (NEC) came up with water regulations in 2014 to address issues such as selling of water and water disputes. It also discourages households or a community from holding ownership rights over a water source.

However local leaders said despite having strong rules it is difficult to break customary rights, which was mostly in favor of traditional landlords.

In Rubesa gewog, Samdrupgang chiwog, around 45 households had been purchasing water from villagers located higher up the valley. Each household has been paying Nu 3,000-4,000 each paddy season.

Elders of Phangyul, where water is scarce said if there is good rain and adequate water flowing through existing irrigation channels, the landlords were the first to use it. Only after they had finished with it, was the water shared with those residing in the lower parts.

This, according to elders, is a traditional right practiced in many rural villages across Wangdue, Punakha and Paro. Local leaders said although it is unfair, no one dares to complain about it, thus making it difficult to come to a fair decision. Such rights were mostly in favour of landlords because they were said to have contributed more labourers while constructing irrigation channels in the old days.

In Rinchengang village, Thedtsho gewog, a woman had sold one water source to three different individuals and such cases exist in many other places. The water selling practice has lead to many water disputes, with some even fighting court cases.

Local leaders said except for new rural water schemes and newly constructed irrigation channels, the old irrigation channels were still following traditional rights.

Official sources said both the Act and regulation gives authority to the local government and dzongkhag to resolve all water disputes, and unless it is a major issue the NEC does not intervene.

Water-related disputes during paddy plantation are widespread across the country even today.  While some are at the community level, some are between communities in different areas sharing borders.

Meanwhile, some local leaders said they are planning to review all customary water usage to help ensure equal distribution and eliminate unfair practices.

Dawa Gyelmo | Wangdue