EXCERPT: FROM THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER

WORDS: JANIKA OZA

IMAGE: KATE WEINER

“The people downstream are sleeping on a bomb.” – Chakra Regmi, Mahendra Nagar Village.

The river is deep and unyielding. Originating high in the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet, it snakes its way down into the Mahabharata Mountain Range—the seismically active zone on which the dam is to be built—and cuts through the plains of Nepal into India. The immense change in altitude and wide rain-catchment area causes the river to carry one of the highest sediment loads in the world. Every monsoon, the water drags dark heavy silt downstream, leading to landslides and floods that the village residents have come to anticipate. The river is unstable; some have even said violent. Residents of the Koshi Basin place flowers in the river, pray as the petals are sucked away with the current. “The Koshi is our maharani (goddess),” they say. She is celebrated as both the giver and taker of life.

It seemed that every person I spoke to would say the same thing: flooding upstream, dryness downstream. Although the government has shared very little information about the project with the communities by the river, it appeared that almost everyone knew, perhaps from past experience, what to expect from damming up a river as powerful as the Koshi. Upstream, behind the dam reservoir, the water level will rise up above the riverbed and flood out the surrounding villages, sweeping away land, houses, animals, and people. Downstream, the river’s natural course will be diverted such that farmland can no longer rely on it as a source of irrigation, rendering the most fertile land in Nepal dry and unproductive. And then there’s the possibility of enormous destruction if the dam were to fail. “The flow of the river is a natural process,” Sir Mukhya had said to me as we chewed watermelon gum outside his home. “If they block its way, the river itself will create a new way. If the river finds a weak place or a place without compact soil, it may break the mountain or hill and cause an explosion. It will force its way through and make a new place for itself. Nobody knows where, but this explosion will be very dangerous, and it may be the biggest disaster to happen in Nepal.”

Flooding upstream, dryness downstream. The words replay in my mind as the small bus trembles down the road. I am travelling to Prakaspur, a village downstream of the dam site that is primarily inhabited by farmers. I push my head against the window and squint through the dust that hangs in the air. Acres of lush green land stretch beyond; thick heads of corn and pale rice shoots poke through the mud in the paddy fields. The land is flat in this plains region of Nepal, and apart from the dusty road and the occasional house hung with lines of drying laundry, all I see is green. This is the first time in days that I can’t see the river, yet its presence is everywhere, the land a testament to its life-giving power. A woman with a white cloth tied around her head chases a herd of goats with a stick. The water that sustains all of this will be transported elsewhere—and what of the farmers?

When the bus pulls up at the centre of town, I find myself in the middle of a produce market. Save for a thin walking path in the middle, the ground is covered in long strips of burlap, upon which are piled vegetables like I’ve never seen: zucchinis the length of my arm, mounds of green and red chilies whose smell is enough to make my eyes burn, deep purple onions and dark okra stems, tomatoes glowing like red suns, knobs of ginger encrusted in dirt and cucumbers covered in rice sacks to protect them from the heat. Women who shade themselves with umbrellas or scarves crouch beside the rows, sifting through the piles with adept fingers to select the ripest picks for their customers. Rabin, a resident of Prakaspur who I had met at the Saptakoshi People’s Rights Forum and who had agreed to show me around the village, pauses by a heap of long green leaves and picks up a handful, rubbing them between his fingers. He hands over several rupee notes to the saleswoman and tucks the bundle under his arm. “My wife will be happy;” he says, “her favourite.”

We wander through the village and buy a lumpy green vegetable called karela (bitter gourd) and two glass bottles of Fanta. Eventually we reach a gate fashioned from sticks of bamboo, and we slip through into the outdoor courtyard of the village school. The classrooms are built from clay pasted over bamboo and straw, with long rectangular windows cut into the walls and rows of benches lining the inside. A stack of bricks at least six feet high rests outside expectantly. Across the courtyard is that familiar emerald: the cornfields and rows of rich soil surrounded by trees. Near the edge of the farm, I notice the rusted indigo frame of a soccer net. Three middle-aged women emerge from the schoolhouse, two wearing traditional clothes and one wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag.

We settle onto benches facing each other and introduce ourselves shyly. They are Maya, Sangeeta, and Sushila, three farmers from the village. Maya, sitting on the right, speaks the most, followed by Sangeeta, wearing the flag. While Sushila remains quiet for most of our conversation, she pipes up to tell me how the floods from the Koshi Barrage and other projects blocked their roads and caused their village to suffer. “Twenty-five years ago a big flood came, and Wards 4 and 5 of Prakaspur were devoured by the Koshi River. After that, the main river diverged its course and many people were displaced, and like landless people they live outside. Every year people suffer from floods and erosion and they cannot survive. In the rainy season we always fear at night that the floods will come. We are always thinking about the river and suffering mentally. If the dam is built, it will be dangerous. We are mentally tortured by the worry of an earthquake or another disaster.”

I look over at the heads of corn that curl their leaves around the bamboo fence nearby. Maya follows my eyes. “We are farmers, most of us in this village, and downstream from the dam will become dry. Agriculture will suffer and our income will decrease, so we must build canals to get water. We are against building the high dam because—we aren’t sure about technical reasons, but we are scared. It will be dangerous. There are no benefits from the dam for Nepal, and even the surrounding Indian people will suffer. We will have problems with water if the dam is built, and many disadvantages.”

Sangeeta is nodding her head vigorously now, and she places a hand on Maya’s knee, as if to signal that she has something to share. She keeps her hand on the wrinkled cotton of Maya’s skirt while she speaks. “Women will be very affected. Most women are agricultural, house, and field workers, but men in rural areas are not,” she says. “When the river is not near and we must go to worship, it will be difficult. Corn will not grow and our income will suffer. It is a social and economic issue. The soil will not be moist and we won’t have water.”

There is something about the three women sitting here across from me, hands on each other’s knees, now and then glancing at one another, skin around their eyes creasing, that makes my next question snag in my throat.