Water of discord, water of unity
Basnet, Govinda Bahadur
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Although water rights and property relations have become issues of strategic importance in recent water policy debates, legislation, and rural development initiatives, there is still a gap of understanding about what water rights in practice are, how they are created and contested, and how these contestations modify social institutions. This ethnographic research, by integrating historical and comparative approaches, investigated how water rights are defined and contested in a cold, arid region of upper Mustang in Nepal. The struggle for water rights was found to take place at three levels: (1) to acquire and defend rights to access water; (2) to defend to take part in collective decision making, and defining water rights contents; and (3) to legitimize contesting claims. Social differentials, like classes created on the basis of inheritance of parental property, were the most decisive factors in defining an individual’s access to water and participation in the decision making process. The impartible primogeniture inheritance system, followed traditionally in the research villages, had created two classes of people, those inheriting the property, and those not inheriting the property. The struggle for water rights has abolished the distinction between such classes in some villages. The inter-village contestation for control of water sources was largely dictated by the political power a village held and the local understanding of hydrology. These inter-village struggles for water rights were found to be instrumental in developing cohesion within a village. The dynamics of struggle for water rights were found to trigger change in social institutions.