Page last updated at 23:13 GMT, Sunday, 30 August 2009 00:13 UK

Arduous life in Nepal's parched hills

Nepalese villager Naina Shahi fetches water from a stream in the village of Bhattegaun on August 21, 2009.
Villagers in Bhattegaun have to walk for hours to get drinking water

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Bhattegaun, western Nepal

Nestling on the side of a forested hill in western Nepal, the village of Bhattegaun is a collection of straw and thatched huts dotted between small fields of wheat and rice.

Farming is poor. There are no irrigation channels and the villagers rely on sporadic rainwater to feed their crops, which are drying and yellowing in the intense summer heat.

As South Asian leaders meet in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, to discuss the impact of climate change on the Himalayas, the people of Bhattegaun are living out the scenario likely to be high on the agenda.

Millions of people are dependent on the rainwater that comes from the annual monsoon and rivers which flow from the Himalayas .

But an Oxfam report released earlier this week has warned that poor harvests, water shortages and extreme temperatures - the consequences of climate change - will plunge millions of rural poor in Nepal into hunger.

Rivers run dry

Naina Shahi
Because of strong [river] currents, sometimes we have to come back without any water at all
Naina Shahi

In Bhattegaun, an hour's walk away from the road through forested hills, the effects are already apparent. A stream that provides water has dried up to a thin trickle.

Each day 35-year-old Naina Shahi gathers what she can for her three children and carries it back to her two-room hut.

Water shortages have made life difficult.

"We do not get a good production from agriculture at all. We cannot depend on farming and irrigation to make a living or educate our children," she says.

Her husband used to live with the family and grow wheat and rice in the nearby fields.

But the lack of water has meant the family cannot grow enough to feed themselves and earn an income. So for the past three years, he has travelled over the border to India for work.

Mrs Shahi is left to work alone in the fields. She struggles to keep the crops alive.

"The water we receive from rainfall isn't enough either for irrigation or for household purposes. It takes us two to three hours to get water from the nearest river.

"And during times when there is heavy rainfall, there's always a danger in getting water from the river because of its strong currents - which mean sometimes we have to come back without any water at all," Mrs Shahi says.

We used to have a lot of rainfall during the monsoon season in the past
Ram Bahadur Hamal

This year the monsoon has come late to Bhattegaun. The mountain slopes, parched and cracked after the driest winter in 40 years, break and slide easily when the rain eventually falls. Landslides are common.

But water shortages bring other problems too.

In a nearby village, a competition for the best song about water hygiene has been organised by local aid workers.

One entry sings about the importance of purifying water before drinking it.

In the past year, many wells and taps providing drinking water have dried up forcing people to use water from bacteria-infected streams and rivers.

This has been blamed for a diarrhoea epidemic that has swept across the west of Nepal killing more than 300 people.

'Greener days'

Prabin Man Singh, who works for the international aid agency, Oxfam, says that with the changes in weather patterns the daily struggle for survival has been accentuated.

Nepalese villagers carry fodder for cattle in the village of Bhattegaun on August 21, 2009
Farming is difficult in the western Nepali hills

"Food production has fallen because of variable rainfall, so they don't have enough to feed the whole family.

"There is a water scarcity in the hills and women have to walk a longer distance to get water," he says.

Ram Bahadur Hamal, 59, remembers a time when there was more rain, greener forests and better harvests.

"We used to have a lot of rainfall during the monsoon season in the past," he says.

"My grandfather used to say, 'During the rainy season, if there isn't enough rain to make it wet enough for mushrooms to grow on the horns of buffaloes, you can't really call it monsoon.' So that gives you an idea of how much rain we used to get in the past."

When Nepal's leaders go to Copenhagen this December, they will not only be looking for ways to halt this rise in temperature, but also for help for the millions of Nepalis who will need to adapt their way of life to the already shifting weather.

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