Notes from the field: everyday lives in the flood plains

In her last field visit to the Terai in the Far West of Nepal, Senior Research Officer Gitta Shrestha visited the village of Kuti in Kailali. Below she shares her observations from the field.

The early morning sun rises in Kuti.

The ambience is quiet. Birds are chirping. Chickens, cows, oxen, goats and sheep are making their own sounds. Pigs are enjoying themselves in filthy sheds. One can hear off in the distance the sounds of deep shallow tube wells, soft laughter, and villagers talking. The fields are decorated with mounds of recently harvested paddies; some fields have already been ploughed for winter crop. I can smell the plains. It is the end of October. The sun is not fierce like it is in April. The sun’s touch does not feel harsh. I do not want to rush. I want to experience the stillness for some time.

A farmer operates a bullock cart in his fields.

In that stillness, I see women working from the early morning till dawn. Men wake up early, get ready with bullock carts and start to plough even before sunrise. Women light fires, collect water, wash dishes, prepare food, clean the house, water the vegetable farms, clean animal sheds, and take care of hens, chickens, goats and pigs. Young children wake up and prepare for school. Grown-up daughters help their mothers with household work. Unmarried sons have no early morning chore calling them to wake.

Farmers help each other with this season’s harvest.

In the river ghat a big round orange ball is rising in the sky. I want to freeze the time so I can savour nature’s beauty. Even though the sun is yet to rise fully, people’s movements have started. Kids have made a fire and are playing around it; a man fills small containers, waters his nearby vegetable patch and returns to collect more water; the fishermen spread their nets in the river; riders on bicycles and bikes, children in school dress, and women with children held on their backs are ready to board the little boat. The boat is a collective effort of the villagers with the help of the community forest user groups. The village used to not be a municipality and some income from the boat would go back to the locals. Now under new political arrangements, the person who wins the tender, pays tax to the municipality. I see two captains of the boat – one, a grown-up man, holds the thick thread tied to both sides of the river and the other, a 12-year-old boy, operates the paddle. Children, men, women, the young and the old reach the other side of the river and continue their journey by foot, bicycle or motorbike. The man who navigates the boat informs me that the owner of the boat system will soon stop the boat service and will put in a wooden bridge that allows villagers to walk to either side. During monsoon season, the bridge to cross the river is dismantled. Some months after monsoon season and when the flow of the river has decreased, the bridge is annually rebuilt.

A boat carries passengers across the Kandra River this November.

Villagers cross the Kandra River by wooden bridge this past April.

Back at the farms, the bullocks have started their work. Men are ploughing the fields. Some are using tractors. Machines like tractors and engines for irrigation are on high demand because they cut down on the work time that is required. Farmers using the tractors and those with resources and means finish first. Others wait day and night to plough and irrigate the farms. Most migrant men come back home solely for the purpose of ploughing and irrigating fields. Women do not plough or operate the machines for irrigation. I meet some women irrigators who share stories of hardships. Being different from others – taking on a traditionally male role as a woman – shows courage.

A farmer ploughs fields with a tractor.

I am in the flood plains, in a village in between two giant rivers – the Kandara and Mohana. These giants are well-known for wreaking havoc during monsoon. This year it broke the dam on the Kandara side. The good news is that there were no human casualties, although in some parts, the flood water crossed the threshold of the mud houses.

Depicted from the side of the Indian border, the Mohana river flows between India and Nepal.

The paths and the fields are full of sand that was brought in by the recent floods. Farmers share a loss of good quantity of paddy due to the flood. They tell me, ‘things are not like in the old days’. In the old days, the forest was thick and not far; rivers were far, narrow and very deep. Now rivers have come closer and have widened. Like them, everyone has a story to tell.

Sand is carried into fields by monsoon floods.

The women recalls moments of fear and anxiety during floods when most of the men are away working as wage labours in India and women stay back to take care of the house, farm, animals and the old and the young. Women in the village tell me that it is important for men to migrate and for women to stay back and take care of the belongings. Every year the flood reminds them of the consequences they bore during the two big historical floods.

Women recall incidences of when a dozen people died together, most of them women who were not skilled like the men in swimming when the boat overturned on their way to daily wage labour jobs across the river. They recall how a young woman who had climbed a tree holding two children hoping to rescue them had died. During this period, families had nothing to eat and survived on maize rice for days. While men recount economic and agricultural loss, women are emotionally expressive: “Our heart beats faster as monsoon approaches. We fear where to take our children. There is always a danger of crocodiles. Last time, the flood injured two people and took out two goats. Now it’s time for us to drown again”. Even given the seriousness of the issue, the women laugh hard at the idea of having to “drown again”.

Women share stories of flood. (Picture credit: Floriane Clement)

Every year the flood destroys houses and crops and even kills livestock and sometimes dear ones. Still, these women remain resilient in the face of what they call ‘fate’ and calmly wait, experience, pass the disaster and restart again. They know the flood will come at them again, but they never run. Instead, they wait for the time to drown again.

Women gather for a women’s savings group meeting.

As I start my journey back, I reflect on the experiences farmers and their families shared with me. I close my eyes and again I can see young girls happily fishing in a small pool of water, smiling young boys paddling boats, women together walking across borders for daily wage jobs, women sharing happy moments in women’s savings group meetings, men spreading their fishing hooks and fishing nets in deep water, a group of men and women harvesting and threshing the paddies, school kids in slippers crossing rivers, and young men silently preparing to leave their community again. The words of women farmers continue to echo in my head: “the time for us to drown again in the flood is approaching soon”.

Young girls fish in a local pool.

A bullock cart and school children cross paths.

Villagers have different uses for the Kandara River.

Photo credit belongs to Gitta Shrestha unless otherwise noted.

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