An uphill battle: how local innovation is providing communities with the answers to water access, use and management

September 12, 2019




With its fertile arable land, dense forests, and rivers and streams fed by glacier water, Pakistan is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Yet how to not only access but successfully harness the power and potential of these resources, remains a challenge. UNDP Pakistan’ Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU) has been working in Pakistan’s beautiful and bountiful northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan; a region with plentiful water flowing into rivers and streams from the glaciers located high amongst the mountain peaks. Yet it is also here, in the buffer zones of Daosai and Karakorum National Parks, where large swathes of barren lands can be seen sitting alongside rivers and streams on hilly slopes. Because of deepening beds of these mountain water streams and rivers, local communities — living in the buffer zones of National Parks— struggle to channel water from these natural supply lines to their lands for irrigation and their homes for daily use. 



In conversations with local communities, UNDP Pakistan’s Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU), with its partners the World Wide Fund – Pakistan (WWF), and the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan, heard from people about the struggles they face in harnessing water to irrigate their farmlands, which often lie at higher altitudes from the bodies of water they are trying to utilize. This altitude difference results in a, literal, uphill battle when it comes to the irrigation of farmland. 





Applying innovation in practice, UNDP increasingly seeks not to look for a “best practice” solution from outside the local context, but to focus on mapping, identifying and supporting local solutions (or innovations) to context specific challenges. Locally-developed innovations often bring great benefit to communities by enabling work that is an essential part of people’s lives to be done more efficiently and effectively than previously. We know that someone, somewhere, probably has a better way of doing things – the key is finding them, learning, iterating, adapting and finally scaling the successful solution. 



One such person was RehmatUllah Kundi – a Pakistani engineer who in 2012 was told by a colleague about the problems local people in TakhtBai Area were facing with lifting water from a small dam. Common methods for uplifting water in rural areas of Pakistan had been tube wells – which require electricity, pipelines – which are expensive, or women carrying buckets – which is back-breaking work. As an engineering student, RehmatUllah was fascinated by a method he had read about in a local newspaper; ram-pumps. The problem was, however, that they were imported from the US with replacement parts unavailable locally. He set about sourcing locally made parts to put together a prototype which he installed for testing in Jamrod, Khyber Agency, in 2013. They worked fantastically, drastically easing the burden on women and made the maintenance easy since parts could be sourced in the local market. 



While searching for local water collection solutions, a viable solution based on custom made ram-pump technology was discovered by UNDP through its partner WWF in Gilgit Baltistan. With the pump having been successfully piloted already in upper Hunza by WWF, in partnership with International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), UNDP identified an opportunity for the scale of a locally-developed solution, coupled with the organization’s expertise on natural resource management to offer a method for addressing water management issues in remote areas of Northern Pakistan.  



Hydro-Ram Pump; uses water hammer effect to uplift downstream water. © RehmatUllah Kundi


After a thorough feasibility survey of the area, the installation process is initiated. The process of installing the 20 pumps in 14 villages of Gilgit Baltistan has been quick and effective. The installation takes a week, and is done by Kundi with local technicians. Furthermore, during installation Kundi trains three locals in maintenance of the pump at each site. This kind of additional capacity building, through the training of local community members responsible for maintenance of the installed pump, is critical in the innovation process. When local communities are not simply directed to utilize the new technologies but are involved in their installation and also their maintenance, the likelihood for uptake is exponentially increased and their positive social impact spreads like a ripple effect.  


© RehmatUllah Kundi


The positive impact is already apparent; the one-time installation cost of the pump is low (PKR 120,000/- which is far below what installing pipelines would cost), with parts sourced locally in Peshawar and pipes from Gilgit-Baltistan itself. Maintenance is minimal and is done by community members who have been trained to do so. Previously, only one household was carrying out subsistence farming and no other land was irrigated – women were carrying water on their backs for household use. Now, the burden on women has been alleviated, while 88.4 acres of land in 19 villages have been irrigated, benefitting at least 400 households.  



Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU) at UNDP has further supported the communities to set up fruit orchards as well as greenhouses to plant saplings and grow off-season vegetables to be sold in the markets. With land irrigation proving so beneficial, the aim is to increase the area of irrigated land to 240 ha. Furthermore, lessons are already being learnt and plans made to adapt this prototype to include a “water sprinkling” feature which will save water waste and rotate to spray at a great distance; making it perfect for tree plantations in water deficient areas.  




This journey is a clear demonstration of how innovation is taking place not just within formal structures such as institutions or research units but developing organically in community-based settings. Innovations generated from within local communities result in the development of solutions that iteratively respond to the challenges facing particular populations – and as key players in the development space, UNDP needs to support these wherever possible.



Ultimately, through innovation, UNDP has tapped into two primary channels through which local innovation contributes to local development. Firstly, the identification, adoption and use of local innovations has positive social, environmental and economic impacts within the local context. Secondly, the local innovation process itself contributes to developing and strengthening the local ecosystem for innovation and entrepreneurship; supporting local “out of the box thinkers” and propelling them along the innovation journey with the support of international expertise. 



We are excited to see what additional benefits adaptation of the technology brings for the communities we are working with!





Ilena Paltzer
Ilena Paltzer has worked for UNDP Pakistan as Innovation Coordinator, and for the FATA Governance Project on Coordination, Partnerships, and Innovation. She has also worked for the UN in South Sudan, across the East & Southern Africa region, and New York. Ilena is interested in finding new approaches for achieving sustainable and holistic social impact and pushing the sector to reconsider the way we "do development". She is also particularly interested in innovative ways of strengthening women's agency and engagement in these processes



Tabindah Anwar
Communications Consultant, UNDP Pakistan

Tabindah Anwar works for UNDP Pakistan as a Communications Consultant and was previously with the Innovation Portfolio at UNDP Pakistan. Prior to UNDP she has worked with a social-enterprise working on youth engagement and empowerment.

Tabindah is interested in practicing and learning more about doing development differently; where the starting point is empathy, multiple disciplines interact, and things are viewed in a holistic manner.