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Traditional water mill technology helps boost livelihoods

Improving traditional rural technology with a water-powered mill is a life-saver for many Nepalese.
(Naresh Newar/IRIN)

Sitting in a tiny water mill, popularly known as a ‘ghatta’ in Nepalese, 65-year-old farmer Ram Sharma waits for his customers to come with their wheat and maize to grind flour for a small fee.

Sharma built his `ghatta’ two years ago after he lost all his farmland and property in flash floods that devastated Dhading village in Makwanpur District, 200km east of the capital, Kathmandu.

In 2006 floods affected over 50,000 people, including tens of thousands who were made homeless. Nearly 2,000 animals were killed and over 10,000 tonnes of food were destroyed, according to the Nepalese authorities.

Life was already difficult for Sharma due to the decade-long armed conflict with Maoist rebels, which had been adversely affecting his livelihood and endangering the lives of civilians.

Sharma took out a small loan and built his `ghatta’ at a time when civilians were fleeing the villages and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were unable to provide enough assistance to impoverished villagers, he said.

All he needed was a tree trunk for the water runner, some timber to craft the turbine wheel, a stone grinder and a convenient stream.

Family fortunes on the up

Today, the `ghatta’ has changed the life of his family. “This ancient rural technology is helping my family,” said Sharma happily.

Agreeing with him, Sharma’s 19-year-old grandson, Ramesh, said: “We had given up all hope for our family’s survival after we lost everything but all that changed due to our grandfather’s knowledge about the `ghatta’”. Ramesh said his family was the first in Dhading to transform this local technology into a business.

''We had given up all hope for our family’s survival after we lost everything but all that changed due to our grandfather’s knowledge about the `ghatta’.''

Other low-income villagers are now also following Sharma’s example and building their own `ghattas’.

Sharma also manages to trade his flour in villages and local urban markets. He makes an additional income of nearly US$50 a month - a considerable sum in the countryside, where gross national per capita income was $22.5 a month in 2005 - according to the World Bank.

Dil Maya Tamang is another ghatta owner in nearby Basamari village where she runs a successful business and can now afford to school all her five children.

“Our lives have changed a lot thanks to the `ghatta’ which is so easy and cheap to build,” said Tamang.

The technology has been used for over a century, according to local NGO Centre for Rural Technology (CRT), which has been helping to preserve and promote `ghattas’ all around the country.

“This simple rural technology is being used especially by the poorest farmers and is now becoming more popular in many remote villages, and opportunities are growing after the peace accord,” said Damodar Pokhrel, a local rural technology expert.

Electricity generation

Pokhrel said there are nearly 100,000 `ghattas’ all over the country but most needed to be upgraded to make them more efficient. Traditional `ghattas’ can be improved by upgrading the turbines and can be used not only for grinding food grains but also for small-scale electricity generation in villages off the national electricity grid, he added.

Efforts to improve traditional `ghattas’ were started nearly 36 years ago by Swiss engineer Andreas Bachmann who worked with Nepali small-hydro pioneers. Several local organisations and manufacturers, especially CRT, Kathmandu Metal Industries (KMI) and Nepal Yantra Shala (NYS) have followed up on the technology and improved `ghattas’ throughout the country. CRT alone has helped in the improvement of nearly 1,000 `ghattas’ in over 40 districts and helped nearly 50,000 families around the country.

Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
In 2006 floods affected over 50,000 people, including tens of thousands who were made homeless

“The improved `ghatta’ can be very useful in electricity generation,” said Nir Lama, a local community leader in Daraune Pokhri village, where he and local villagers have rebuilt their traditional mill into a multipurpose power unit (MPPU), which now helps to generate electricity in their village.

Nearly three years ago Lama raised funds among his fellow villagers to build the MPPU. Today, the improved traditional `ghatta’ helps to generate electricity and pump drinking water for nearly 100 households in the remote village.

”Improved versions have brought about positive economic and social benefits by increasing income and employment opportunities,” said Shyam Pradhan, `ghatta’ expert from Yantrasala Energy, which helps build improved `ghattas’. He said the initial investment is very small and the technology very simple.

In a country with over 80 percent of the population dependent on agriculture, the `ghatta’ is still the simplest, cheapest and most convenient way for farmers to earn a living, according to the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), a government organisation that has been actively involved in the development of traditional rural technology.

International aid agencies have also started to show active interest in supporting local NGOs to expand improved water mill programmes all over the country, according to CRT. Dutch government agency SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation) has been investing heavily in this rural technology, said CRT.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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