Who owns the Water?

“Lungpa Bhu Med La Bhu, Ta Med La Teu, Chu Med La Chu” 

 

- Piti Da-Chang Monlam

“May the ones deprived of a son be blessed with one, the ones deprived of horse be blessed with a mare and the ones deprived of the water be blessed with this resource”

 

– Spitian prayer verse during Da-Chang festival.

In Spiti we define wealth and prosperity in terms of water -“Chu Sang-na, Yul Sang” the expression aptly translates as  “abundant water results in prosperous villages”. Being a cold desert in high Himalaya, It is difficult to think of a resource more essential to the well being of people and their economies than water, yet managing water resources is a complex and challenging task and sometimes unfortunately results in many conflicts: between villages, households and within families. Sgrungs – Spitian oral stories are full of such narratives and show entangled relations between people and their water bodies. This one concerns two neighboring villages - a tale is known to many. 

Every year, before agricultural season when the Spiti Valley gets engaged for the upcoming farming season; uncovering the tools, sharpening sickles, putting ashes to their fields and waiting for the glacial water-melt to fill their water canals, the villagers of Rangrik and Sumling, two neighbouring villages, have additional conundrum to resolve – that of the fate of “Shang-ma” – the precious mountain top water source. The dilemma of deciding who the water belongs to, which village gets to use water, channel it to irrigate their field and ultimately who are the custodians of this glacial melt water source. When disagreement arises, quite often a story is narrated that is believed to have happened a few decades ago.

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Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

Once a girl from Sumling village was married off to Rangrik village. Upon seeing the dry, parched fields of Rangrik, the girl’s family was distressed and decided to give her the most precious treasure they owned – the glacial water source. Back then wealth was measured in terms of one’s fields, cattle, agrarian assets and one’s access or ownership to land and water resources. With Sumling’s prime water source as a gift from her maiden family, the bride happily settled in Rangrik and many believe that Rangrik’s expansion, prosperity in present day and harvest abundance is attributed to the bride’s “Dak-ja” (parting gifts for brides). However, stories like these are often loaded with contentions and depending on who is telling the story and from what perspective, the details, the bold claims, the story arcs change dramatically.

 

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Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

While the story attributes Sumling-pa as the custodian of the precious glacial melt water which is located at the mountain range above their village, however the coin flips its side when Rangrik villagers elucidate the situation. They trace their ownership to the waterbody in accordance with traditional land and water rights that have been bestowed to them. In terms of settlement in Spiti, Rangrik came into existence much earlier than its neighboring villages and the locals believe that the vast stretch of land, pastures, waterbodies from Rangrik till Sumling covering Khurik, another villager in-between, historically comes under the territory of Rangrik and thereby belongs to them. They further elaborate that they have been maintaining the waterbody since the olden days. If there’s steady flow of water in canals of Rangrik and Sumling village, it is because villagers of Rangrik have traditionally been preserving it. In the olden days, one member from each household of Rangrik accompanied by their horses and donkeys would make a day’s trip till Shang-ma – located at the mountain top of Sumling to directly channel glacial melt into their canals. 

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Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

The crucial portion of the Kul (canal) head is at the glacier top, which is to be tapped. It is to be kept free of debris and so the Kul is lined with stone to prevent clogging and seepage. Water is, then, collected through the night and released into the exit channel in the morning. The Kul which stretches for over 7 km from Sumling runs through steep mountain slopes and crosses numerous crevices to reach Rangrik. The water flowing in the Kul is the only viable way to sustain vast agricultural lands in Rangrik and to feed their cattle. Villagers go on to describe that at night when the canal is dry, they even let their horses take shelter inside it to protect the livestock from cold. "In the olden days, our Kuls are that deep and water that abundant” muses munshi Chhering Angchuk – a teacher at government school in Rangrik who has been patiently corresponding with me over phone and explaining the details. Rangrik's Gyetpo (village headman) is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of water, governing its distribution among farming households and mediating if there’s any conflict around for water distribution from Kuls can cause tensions when there’s shortage.

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Sumling village

Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

The glacial water source, although located at Sumling village, is primarily maintained by Rangrik village and therefore enjoys greater access to it. However, the rules around water are not straightforward and take on complicated turns as the meandering stream from the hills. In order to ensure there’s parity and less discrepancies, a consultation was made to village deities and the communities from two villages agreed upon several traditionally governed rules to be followed henceforth. While these rules are not hardbound or codified legally, it works purely on faith. Communal integrity and fidelity to verbal commitment is a virtue everyone strives to adhere to hence, going against one’s word or breaking a promise made in front of village deity and village elders is considered a grave offense.

 

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Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

The rules governing usage of water and access to it is as follows:

 

  • while villagers of Rangrik can tap the glacial water from its source, they cannot completely divert it to their side or block the Kul's head with mud, reinforce it with cement, grass or cloth to prevent downstream Sumling village from using it.
     

  • The water seeped out from the crevices, naturally caused chasm and narrow openings can be used by villagers of Sumling. The oozed-out water “Dsag-ti” is then subsequently diverted to the fields of Sumling and are fed to their cattle.

 

Water being a precious resource, there are meticulous rules even for using “dripped out” water (Dsag-chu) which would be otherwise viewed as an “extra flow” or "excess water” and left unregulated.

Is the contention then completely resolved?

 

Disagreements, tensions between two communities occur even now and in fact women from both these villages are stereotyped as ‘quarrelsome’ for they are primarily responsible for irrigating the fields and unfortunately sometimes end up in heated arguments. Knowing fully the onus of such conflict and subsequently a scandal that follows majorly lies on them, upon asking, many of them ruefully answers “chui thupa zinna mekak” - “our water conflict can never be fully resolved”. The story of bride being gifted water or the claims made by respective communities remains an enigma that transcends monolithic binaries of right or wrong but the story lives on and so do the many contentions around water that continues to discord people’s lives. Across the globe, access to water has always been a source of tension and it continues to be a conflict among stakeholders.

 

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Photo courtesy: Chhering Angchuk

Despite the contention, many native Spitian lores, verses and religious incantations dwell on the divine, metamorphic concept of water. Referring to it as “life giving” “life line” – evoking mutual interdependence of people and water. It is culturally revered, venerated, celebrated and the guiding philosophy underlying diverse forms of water usage is respect for water considering it as an inherent, living part of nature. As such there are plenty of religious verses, hymns, odes dedicated to rivers, streams, ponds, spring waters, mountain top glaciers and rivulets to prevent it from drying and seeking its abundance in nature. In Spiti, during one of harvest festival Da-chang, villagers recite sacred verses (aforementioned) where they collectively pray protective deities to bestow “water, son and a horse” – three essential resources to sustain agrarian life in mountain desert.

 

About the Storyteller 

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Chhering Angchuk

Chhering Angchuk is from Sumling village in Spiti. He teaches at a government school in Rangrik. He is passionate about Spitian culture and particularly oral literature that is slowly dwindling from everyday experiences of people’s lives. He likes interacting with Spitian elders and documenting peras (proverbs) which has rich insights of traditional ways of living.