Opportunities for co-developing groundwater governance in Barahathawa, Nepal

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By Bryan Bruns, Manohara Khadka, Sumitra KC, and Amrita Rauniyar

In the Terai region of southern Nepal, groundwater is a crucial source of water for agricultural and domestic use. Irrigation with groundwater has grown over decades, with changes in technologies for drilling, pumps, and energy, and there appears to be great potential to further increase irrigated crop production and farmer incomes.

While Nepal has a long history of local and government institutional arrangements for surface irrigation, springs, and dug wells, there is much less experience with institutional arrangements for governing intensive groundwater extraction with mechanical pumps and boreholes. The lack of effective institutions to govern groundwater affects who benefits and whether the benefits can be sustained.

Female farmers listen to a presentation
Introducing the groundwater game to female farmers in Barahathawa. Photo by Bryan Bruns.

The groundwater governance game

The crop-choice groundwater game is an intervention tool to strengthen awareness of groundwater as a shared resource and stimulate collective action for its governance. In September 2023, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and local partners supported exploratory exercises using the groundwater game in Barahathawa Municipality, Sarlahi District, Madhesh province and in a national workshop in Kathmandu. This work took place under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains.

In the game, local farmers, female and male, choose between two crops. If everyone plants the more profitable and water-intensive crop the water table declines; once it gets too low, the game is over. Participants start by making individual choices without communication. The rules then change to allow communication, as a basis for possible cooperation. The game and subsequent community debriefing help participants learn about the risks from uncoordinated individual groundwater use and the potential to cooperate to govern a shared resource.

Expanded piloting

Participants at the municipal and national levels agreed that the game could be useful for further development, and pilot activities could combine the game with other tools as discussed below. IWMI Nepal and local partners have capabilities to convene stakeholders and facilitate discussions. Multistakeholder dialogues at municipal, provincial, and national levels could help overcome current gaps in communication and lack of coordination in governance of groundwater, surface water, energy, and the environment.

Participants listen to a presentation at a workshop
National workshop in Kathmandu. Photo by Bryan Bruns.

Groundwater tools

Participatory mapping

International experience shows that stakeholders can help map wells, irrigated areas, and groundwater recharge and discharge areas, and record water levels. Combining local knowledge about groundwater processes with hydrogeological expertise can help those involved at community, municipal, and higher levels to identify and analyze problems. The municipality is keen to acquire information on groundwater usage, which could help expand irrigation services sustainably.


Mapping can help understand how aquifers feed springs, wetlands, ponds, flood plains, and rivers. Groundwater-dependent ecosystems support plants and animals that provide nutrition, medicine, and useful materials, and sustain biodiversity. Maps can help demonstrate the impacts of intensified groundwater use and suggest how to protect or restore aquifer storage and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

Balancing water demand and supply

Crop–water budgeting asks farmers which crops they plan to grow. Estimated water needs are then compared with the water likely to be available. This exercise can stimulate consideration of alternative cropping patterns and irrigation practices that increase water productivity and farmer income.

Institutions for sharing water

Learning more about how farmers give or sell water to neighbors and invest together in wells, pumps, and pipes can help researchers and government officials identify ways to make groundwater irrigation more inclusive and efficient.

Facilitating pump electrification

During field visits, farmers explained that obtaining an electric connection was complicated and time consuming. This suggests a need to explore ways to simplify access to electricity for groundwater pumping, including options for solar energy and financing.

Conjunctive management

Local leaders emphasized the potential for developing surface water from rivers, rather than only focusing on groundwater. Conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater can facilitate recharge of groundwater stocks, enhance storage, and increase reserves for use during the dry season and droughts. The nearby Bagmati Irrigation System (37,000 ha of surface water irrigation currently) would provide an interesting place to explore conjunctive management.

Groundwater recharge

Options for increasing recharge include conjunctive management of irrigation systems, enhancing recharge from roofs, roads, and other impermeable surfaces, and rainwater harvesting. Deep aquifers are fed by recharge from the Churai Hills in the north of Sarlahi District, where deforestation is increasing soil erosion, stormwater runoff, and groundwater recharge (including leakage from surface water irrigation schemes like Bagmati). Provincial and local governments could help coordinate watershed conservation to protect forest ecosystems and enhance groundwater recharge.

Open well shared by farmers
Farmers share an open well (to the left), which is located within the Bagmati Irrigation System and draws on groundwater replenished by surface canals. Photo by Bryan Bruns.

Arsenic mitigation

Some wells in the Terai have arsenic at levels that can cause sickness and death. However, data for Barahathawa appears to be lacking. Future activities should help make more information available, including options to remove arsenic with filters or switch to safer sources.

Test results show arsenic levels in groundwater for sites west of the Bagmati River. Data are lacking for Barahathawa. Red shows levels above standards for Nepal (>50ug/L), orange above international standards (>10ug/L), and green under 10ug/L. Source: gapsmaps.org

Nexus governance for water–energy–food–ecosystems

Growing more crops and increasing income with groundwater pumped using electricity from hydropower and solar energy is a crucial opportunity for the Terai. Groundwater games can be combined with participatory mapping and monitoring, crop-water budgeting, and multistakeholder processes to improve groundwater governance. This could expand equitable access to water, increase food production, raise energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance groundwater storage, and assure more secure access to water for humans and ecosystems.

Further reading

Bryan Bruns is an Independent Researcher and a consultant for NEXUS Gains; Manohara Khadka is Country Representative, IWMI Nepal, Sumitra KC is a National Researcher, IWMI Nepal, and Amrita Rauniyar is a Research Consultant at IWMI.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors: www.cgiar.org/funders


Header image: Recording crop choices and changes in water levels during a groundwater game. Photo by Bryan Bruns.

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