Thursday, March 31, 2011

sustainable rural living in nepal

young men on a traditional hollow log boat in chitwan national park
As I tried to show in my post on sustainable living in urban Nepal- sustainability is not something that is consciously sought after in Nepal- at least not as far as I could see.  It just is.  There has never been an excess of fossil fuel, either extracted locally or imported, so the dependence on fossil fuel has never had a chance to become ingrained.

Contrast this with the US where it's not unusual to hear, or read of, people complaining that 'its too expensive' to go green or 'too difficult' to live in a sustainable manner.  The problem may just be that we're too spoiled.  When oil becomes less available, as it already is beginning to be, and it becomes unaffordable or impossible to do things as we've become used to doing them, we'll have to adjust quickly.  In rural Nepal, the change may hardly be felt.

the cow shed- note the enormous cucumber vine growing on the roof and papaya tree behind

holy cow
This is especially true in Chitwan- a rural county in the southern plains of Nepal- where few people have private cars, and most people are vegetarian locavores- not because they read about it in the New York Times food section and thought it would be cool to try, but as a matter of necessity as well as religious observance.

I don't know what percentage of people are vegetarian in my wife's hometown of Jhuwani.  I know that her parents are, but weren't always.  It's not unusual for people to become vegetarian later in life as they begin to observe Hindu customs more strictly, as a sign of devotion.  The young, and less observant will eat meat, but typically only on holidays or on special occasions. Since few people have refrigerators, and the electricity to run then is sporadic, meat is usually eaten only when a family member or neighbor has recently slaughtered a goat or a chicken. My wife estimates that most non-vegetarians will eat meat about twice a month.

Nobody will eat beef.  People will keep cows for milk and for the manure, but eating cows is strictly verboten in Hindu custom.  Her parents have three- a bull, a cow and a calf, and they milk the mother twice a day.  The manure was used as a building material at one time, mixed with mud for use a plaster on the sides of adobe houses, and as a flooring material, spread on the floor in the mornings to keep the dust down.  That's less common now, as concrete houses have become more common.

That's not to say that the manure isn't useful.  The cow shed area was a great example of a closed-loop system in action.  The floor of the cow shed was gently sloped to the south, so that the cows' waste flowed out of the open-sided building and collected in a small pond next to it.  From the edge of this pond, an enormous cucumber vine grew, and some fruit trees as well, fed by the manure and urine of the cows.  The climate is hot and humid in Jhuwani, so it broke down quickly, becoming top-notch plant food.  The cucumber vines and fruit trees, in turn shaded the cows, which would have been uncomfortably hot otherwise in a tin-roofed shed.

I had a chance to try one of the cucumbers- thin, but at least 16 inches long, and delicious. 

woman bathing her cow in a stream
Grains are dried- not using a gas-fired kiln, but on strings hung across the rafters, or on the south wall of a building, or simply laid out in the street, for buses to run it over, removing the hulls, and allowing the sun to dry the grain.  Rice is stored in adobe vats (see photo below) at least if it is for the farmer's family.  My brother-in-law pointed out that they store the rice for sale on the market in wooden containers.  Apparently the adobe vats keep the rice cooler and preserve the flavor- which was lost on me- I thought the rice all tasted the same.

my nephew behind the drying corn.  note the mud container behind for rice storage

A concrete house- corn is drying here too, as is the laundry

mud and thatch houses- more common a decade or two ago
Gita, my wife, grew up in a adobe house with a thatched roof, like those in the photo above, but as her parents' farm prospered, they built a concrete house with a tin roof, which has become more common in their village as time goes on.  There are more concrete than adobe houses in Jhuwani now, many still used by the native Tharu people.  My brother-in-law pointed something interesting out to me one day, however, when we were going for a walk in the early evening as the day was beginning to cool down.

The day had been unbearably hot- probably 95F, possibly 100F, and very humid.  We sweltered in the concrete house, and couldn't bear to be on the 2nd floor, under the tin roof.  We visited an acquaintance of his who lived in an adobe house- made of mud/manure plaster over a frame of twigs and straw- similar to a thin-walled straw bale house.  The inside of the house was significantly cooler than the concrete house.  He is a doctor, and pointed out that most villagers have built concrete houses for sanitary reasons, feeling that it was cleaner to have a concrete house rather than one using mud and dung, but that it has the adverse health effect of causing more heat-related problems.

the outdoor kitchen
the water pump- the center of activity for the household
Trying to stay cool took most of our time and energy during the mid-day.  It's common to take a siesta there, but not being used to it, I wasn't able.  I stayed around the one fan in the house with the kids and tried to distract them, read, played, but all while sweating profusely.  I found out how a breezeway got its name.  We would wait in a hall, open on both ends and oriented in the direction of the prevailing wind.  When a breeze would come up, it was instant relief, and we'd all feel grateful for the little bit of wind blowing.

There was a water pump maybe 30 feet from the house which was the center of activity in the early morning and late afternoon.  The well water was ice cold, and I wanted to put my head under it every half hour, but apparently it's considered bad luck, or bad manners or bad something to take a cold bath in the middle of the day, even to just put your head under the water.  My wife said not to do it.  Being a good guest, I didn't, at least not as much as I would have liked to.  It wasn't easy.

As far as water use goes- not having running water inside the house makes a person aware of how much they are using and made me, at least, much less cavalier about taking a long shower (not at all possible) or letting the water run while brushing teeth (also not possible) Drinking any water involved going outside to pump it, and having a container ready to catch it.  For the westerners, we had the extra step of purifying the water.  Interestingly, the purifier broke down midway through our time there- we had to drink unfiltered water for a day or so- and we're fine- despite all the predictions to the contrary.  We may have been lucky, or the danger may have been overrated.  I'm not sure.

To close the water-use loop, the used water (and bath soap, dish soap and gunk from washing dishes) flowed off into miniature irrigation channels into the vegetable garden which began a few feet away.  The food grown using this water was served in the kitchen, with the leftovers flushed back into the garden as nutrients for the next generation of plants.

gate valve for irrigation ditches

The main crop in the area is rice, and the irrigation ditches for the rice paddies are massive.  The ditches are still controlled by ancient looking valves, turned by hand to allow water in when needed.

I saw a middle-aged woman harvesting the rice in her field the day after a heavy rain had knocked over much of the rice, and made it necessary to harvest quickly before it rotted.  She was wearing a sari, as if she was going to visit relatives.  Not the idea of farmers that I had in my head from the US- no overalls and tobacco spit.  It seems that farming is considered to be an honorable profession still- not on the level of doctor or engineer- the two professions that every Nepali parent seems to be pushing their child into- but still something that still garners a certain amount of respect.

And Gita's parents have done very well at it- putting 5 of their 6 children through college and varying levels of graduate school, and amassing enough farmland to be able to retire comfortably, if they were able to allow themselves to do so.

I don't mean to idealize rural life in Nepal.  There is a lot of hard physical work to do, the inequality of the castes is feeding a drawn-out civil war, young people are leaving in droves for the fast life in the city or abroad, the Himalayan glaciers which moderated the climate for so long are melting- there are problems.  But it is sustainable on a variety of levels- and will be the kind of place that many will want to go to once life becomes problematic everywhere else.

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