A 'clean' path to empowerment

Jun 30, 2017

The Ghandruk Pure Water Factory, set up partly with the support of the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre has made a crucial contribution to keeping the neighborhood and trekking route clean, as well as empowering local women by providing them employment and the opportunity to manage a business

The picturesque village of Ghandruk boasts stone houses with slanting roofs of slate. A stone-paved trail leads to the courtyards, where you might see the Gurung men, dressed in traditional kachhad, a white wrap. The prettiest of the stone houses have corn, still in their husks, and flower vases, hanging from the eves of the roofs. In spring and autumn season, when the skies are clear, you might be treated to spectacular views of some of the world’s tallest snow-capped mountains.

Lured by inexpensive services, coupled with its rustic beauty, every year, tens of thousands of tourists trek through Ghandruk, a small, culturally-rich village in Kaski district. In fact, Ghandruk, which lies at an altitude of 2,050 meters, is the first stopover for trekkers heading to popular destination of the Annapurna Base Camp.

The trails, however, were often littered with plastic bags and other trash. Moreover, trekkers and locals would toss out small water bottles along the path, posing a challenge to local efforts to maintain cleanliness in the village. To counter this, Jagan Subba Gurung, an official with the Annapurna Area Conservation Project (ACAP), the first protected area in Nepal that allows locals to live within its boundaries, had suggested to the members of the local Ama Samuha (Mothers’ Group) to supply drinking water in the area. The ACAP had already applied the model in the tourist hub of Ghorepani in the neighboring Myagdi district to great success.

The Mothers’ Group had already made strides in maintaining a clean neighborhood. Every year, for instance, their members would launch a campaign to wipe out plantations of cannabis. They had also banned gambling and drinking, although they allowed a window between 6 pm and 9 pm for these activities, according to Udi Subha Gurung, the group’s chairperson.

“We thought if we could filter water, fill it in jars and sell it to the hotels, we would be able to generate income as well as maintain cleanliness,” says Kamala Gurung, 38-year-old secretary of the group. So three years ago, she, Udi Subha and 12 other women set up the Ghandruk Pure Drinking Water Industry.

The idea was to utilize the electricity supplied by the Bhurgyu Khola Micro Hydropower, which had gone online three years ago. The Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) had also provided a subsidy of Rs. 300,000 to the group.

A one-story building had been built by the Village Development Committee near a popular hotel. The group funded the construction of the upper story, and then purchased other equipment, such as a cleaning machine, filtration system, jars and furniture.

Although they had found an innovative solution for the trash problem plaguing the community in Ghandruk, the group faced other challenges. Majority of hotel owners were reluctant to embrace the idea. “They complained that they didn’t want to pay for water that they could just get from their taps. But we ran a door-to-door campaign and persuaded the owners to cooperate,” recalls Udi Subha Gurung. The hotel owners eventually realized that by purchasing the water, they would be contributing to the trekking industry.

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Today, the two-room office of the enterprise hums with the soft sound of the filtering machine. At a small doorway sits Indra Gurung, a 26-year-old mother of three. She opens the counter at around 8:30 in the morning and works until 5 pm. Gurung, who lives not far from her workspace, earns Rs. 5,000 a month.

Gurung wasn’t very forthcoming about her life, but her colleague, Kamala, said that the group employed her because she had been struggling to pay her bills after her husband abandoned her three years ago. She now supplements her income by producing and selling homemade alcohol.

At the store, though, she manages accounts, cleans the jars and runs the counter. Two years ago, she had received training on business management with AEPC’s support.

The factory charges Rs. 200 for a 20-liter jar of filtered water. Around 30 hotels have been listed as their customers. “The maximum a hotel buys in one day is three to five jars of water,” Gurung says. Their business peaks during the trekking seasons of spring and autumn, but the outlet remains open throughout the year.  

Kamala Gurung says the group has already started to make a profit after paying back the loan. “This is a key source of income for us. We have even supported repairing of trails and construction of schools from our profits,” she says.

In Ghandruk, one of the early adopters of micro hydropower, it wasn’t difficult to push for a community-run project. Foreign trekkers who passed through the village had made donations for locals’ basic needs such as drinking water. Indeed, Jan Laan of Nepal Pariwar Holland, whose photograph with members of the Mothers’ Group graces the wall outside, is such a donor. The Dutch philanthropist donated Rs. 125,000, according to Gurung. The slogan on the frame reads: “Save the Environment in Annapurna Region.”

The source of the water lies a kilometer uphill and is supplied through pipes, which were already in place. The water from the spring is collected in a water tank built outside the building. Then it is stored in a 200-liter tank inside the office. It takes two hours for the water to filter. The group pays Rs. 750 a month for electricity. For the repairing and management of the water supply, each ward raises Rs. 6,000.

At the outset, the Ghandruk Pure Water Factory looks to be a small venture, but its contribution is crucial in two areas: the efforts to make the trekking route and the neighborhood clean, and empower women by providing them employment and the opportunity to manage a business.

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihoods.

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