Managing Nepalese Waters

Dr B.H. Nepal

It is commonly forecasted by experts that inter-state water conflicts may turn bloody in the 21st Century. Nepal, rich in water resources, is not an exception. It occupies 800 km. long different ranges of mountains, out of 2500 km long and 300 km. wide Himalayas to the north of South Asia.

According to Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, the Himalayas are the youngest mountain system in the world. Some 70 million years ago, the formation of the present day Himalayas began by a cataclysmic collision. It provides the world’s fifth largest freshwater treasure of nearly 5000 cubic KMs in the form of ice and snow after Antarctica, the Arctic islands, Greenland and Alaska. Only a little of the treasure melts every year resulting in the world’s mightiest rivers like the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Indus.

In this context, Nepal’s noted researcher and scholar late Yogi Narahari Nath, noted that if the Himalayas to the North of South Asia did not exist, the surrounding areas of South Asia could turn into a huge desert. According to him waters flowing from the Himalayas join and form the seven oceans. Therefore, they are crucial to world climate and bio-diversity in all periods. With such geographical settlements, Nepal possesses more than 6000 world’s most forceful rivers and streams. Out of 194,471 drainage area, 76 per cent falls within Nepal and 33 of them are greater than 1000 Nearly 225 billion cubic meter water from Nepal every year flows to the Bay of Bengal via India. The Karnali, Sapta Gandaki and Sapta Koshi, all trans-Himalayan rivers flowing through Nepal, contribute 71 per cent of the dry season flows and 41 per cent of the annual flows of the Ganges. After Brazil, Nepal is the largest country of the world in hydropower generation capability with some 83,000 MW in total, out of which some 42,000 MW is financially and technically feasible.

Nepal receives rainfall during summer, (June-September) when the southwest monsoon brings about 80 per cent of its annual rainfall and the rest during winter. Snow, ice and ground waters act as natural reservoirs, supplying the rivers throughout the dry season. Annual withdrawal of groundwater for different purposes in the Terai region is 1.04 billion cubic meters, which is nearly 20 per cent of the minimum possible recharge estimate of 5.80 billion cubic meters. In contrast, the Kathmandu valley is alarming because present estimation of annual abstraction is 23.4 million cubic meters, much greater than the maximum recharge estimate of 14.6 million cubic meters.

Intra-state Water Issues
Nepal’s government has identified certain constraints on ten broad areas regarding water issues:

  1. General Issues
    Need for comprehensive water resources policy
    Lack of integrated river basin planning and management
    Problems in water pricing and cost recovery
    Potential of water transportation-navigation not fully utilised
    Macro-economic implications not seriously addressed
  2. Water Supply and Sanitation Issues
    Lack of adequate planning, design and construction of water supply and sanitation projects
    Lack of appropriate approach towards rural water supply system
    Improper management of water supply systems of Kathmandu valley and other urban centers
    Lack of water quality standards for drinking water.
  3. Hydropower Issues
    There is a need to:
    Improve power system planning
    Increase access to electricity in rural areas
    Encourage private investment in hydropower
    Reduce cost of development
  4. Social Issues
    Water management and harnessing also lack the following considerations:
    Poverty and malnutrition
    Balanced gender participation
    Appropriate technology for primary target (social) groups
    Hill to Terai and rural to urban migration
    Project impact and resettlement
  5. Irrigation Issues
    Reorientation of supply-driven approach
    Poor performance of irrigation systems
    Lack of effective implementation of APP (Agriculture Perspective Plan).
    Farmer’s dependency syndromes and sustainability
    Problems of river management
    Weak institutional capability
    Symbiotic relationship between agriculture and irrigation (weak linkages)
    Strengthening of WUAs (Water User Associations)
  6. Legal Issues
    Non-specificity of water rights and ownership
    Lack of sub-ordinate enabling legislation (delegated)
    Lack of harmony among related legislation
    Lack of adequate provisions to encourage private sector participation in multipurpose projects
  7. Database Issues
    Inadequate hydro-meteorological network
    Inadequate funding and management of existing network
    Inadequate flood forecasting and warning systems
    Lack of regulatory mechanism in hydrogeology and geo-seismology sectors
    Inadequate seismic survey data related to geophysical parameters and information
  8. Environmental Issues
    Lack of environmental database and mapping
    Integration of environmental considerations into planning of water resources developments
    Effective implementation and enforcement of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) norms and recommendations
    Bio-diversity conservation
    Surface and groundwater pollution
    Lowering of groundwater tables
    Lack of environmental awareness
    Landslides, erosion, sedimentation, Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), flooding
    Watershed conservation
  9. International Issues
    Compliance with the provisions stipulated in Koshi and Gandak agreement
    Implementation of the provisions of the Mahakali Treaty
    Formulation of general legal framework for development of transboundary rivers
    Absence of mechanism for institutionalised cooperation between riparian countries
  10. Institutional Issues
    Absence of an effective central planning organisation
    Blurred responsibilities between policy, implementation, operational and regulatory institutions
    Absence of an institutional framework for coordinated and intigrated development
    Jurisdictional overlaps and the challenge of maintaining coordination between public and local bodies.
    It is recommended that while managing the country’s waters, the ‘permit program objectives’ could be addressed focusing on: Ease of implementation, administration, and enforcement; equity; effectiveness in protecting water resources; robustness and flexibility; economic efficiency; and finally, political and legal feasibility.

Water-Use: Inbound and Outbound
Government figures indicate that some 66 per cent of the Nepalese population has access to safe drinking water, but many experts have reservations about this data. In the case of the Nepalese Terai, more than half of the country’s population lives there, and more than 95 per cent of the people use groundwater through tube-wells pumping from 20-100 feet deep. Nearly 800,000 tube-wells are in the Terai region, out of which only 30,000 tube-wells have been tested for arsenic content. In some 2000 tube-wells arsenic content was discovered. WHO standard for drinkable water is up to 10 micro-gm per litre. But India and Bangladesh have accepted 50. For instance, in districts like Nawal Parasi, Siraha, Kailali and Rautahat 30, 18, 15 and 8 per cent tube-wells, respectively, contain arsenic above Nepalese standard of 50 micro gram per litre. Harmful arsenic-poison was first discovered in Bangladesh some 24 years ago. Kathmandu’s drinking water is not regarded as safe and sufficient, as per international standards.

Regarding irrigation issues in Nepal, 41 per cent of the irrigated land has ‘year-round irrigation’ facility. 1.15 million ha. land has access to irrigation, 2/3rds of which still follows the traditional method of the farmers. After the year 2000, government has stopped subsidies to shallow tube-wells but continuing them for deep tube-wells. The deep tube-wells, irrigating 30-40 hectares, are found to be quite useful in Nepal. On the one hand, Nepal depends upon the tube-wells for irrigation and, on the other hand, India through the Sharada Barrage alone, is irrigating 1.7 million hectares of Nepal’s soil.

Nepal’s new ‘Water Plan’ is being formulated. It is a follow-up to the ‘ Water Strategy – Nepal’ prepared in 2002, which was for 25 years and precisely divided into short, medium and long term strategies starting from 2002. Lack of resources and conflict have been the major hurdles to the plan.

Nepal is currently working on six major irrigation projects. They are: Pancheswore Multi-Purpose Project, Shikta (Banke), Babai (Bardiya), Kankai Multi-Purpose Project, Bagmati and Kamala irrigation projects – all flowing five sub-basins in India, namely: Ghagra (Karnali, Sharada, Rapti, Babai, etc.); Gandak, Budhi Gandak (from the vicinity of Birgunj; Koshi (the Sapta Koshis) and Mahananda (Mechi, Kankai, Tista, etc.).

Most of the rivers flow to the Ganges Basin. They have the linkage to India’s ambitious River Linking Project, which Bangladesh has vehemently criticised. Surprisingly, Nepal has not reacted officially in this regard. Some technical experts confess that Nepal has not considered the detrimental effects of the project.

The biggest constraints regarding irrigation developments in Nepal at the moment are two projects: Babai and Shikta. In Babai, according to Nepal, nearly half the work was done and international donors were ready to invest. Similarly, Shikta Irrigation Project revised its DPR some 25-30 years ago with a target to irrigate nearly 1 lac hectares. The EU and Saudi funds were available for the implementation of the project. However, Nepal, due to India’s stand on the basis of the unilateral downstream riparian rights, has been unable to implement the projects.

The Ganges will be hard-pressed to meet the burgeoning demands of the densely populated Indian heart-land on its own, and interventions will have to be made in its upper reaches if natural availability is to be ‘regulated’. Irrigation Project within 30 km from the border, Bikas Thapa observes that stopping the implementation of Shikta, is in direct contravention to Nepalese sovereignty and the Helsinki Conventions.

Nepal’s first hydroelectric installation was the 500 kW turbine in Pharping, built in 1911 to supply electricity to Kathmandu. In 1934, another installation of 900 kW — now 640 kW — followed at Sundarijal, but hydropower generation was not a government priority and no more installations were built until the 1960s.

Accordng to Jean Marion Aitke, Godfrey Cromwell and Gregory Wishart, from 1965 to 1975, electricity came to be seen as an essential requirement in the modernisation of Nepal’s economy. During this period five government plants were commissioned, bringing installed capacity of 36 MW. By the Fiscal Year 1986/87, government-operated hydro-stations rose sharply to a total of 161 MW.

It took a long time for Nepalese Parliament to ratify the unsuccessful Mahakali Agreement of 1996. There are also views that as one of the world’s poorest countries with current per capita income of less than US $ 300.00 and an estimated total GDP of around US$ 3.00 billion, the Nepalese economy cannot tolerate billion dollar mistakes. P.J. Thapa asks: ‘Imagine the long term impact of investing US$ 1 billion on female education, or on improved rural credit and communication in rural Nepal in lieu of Pancheswore?’

The bitter experience of the rejection of Arun III can best be summed up as: ‘The withdrawal of Arun III has left multiple effects in terms of the sustainable development of the country. For an LDC like Nepal, such happenings will make it difficult to go ahead. The situation has compelled us to think of alternatives.’

Arun III wasted ten years as well as large sums of money to prepare a feasibility study. In 1995 another mega-project, ‘Kali Gandaki- A’ of the capacity of 144 MW was forwarded to the government of Japan. It is today regarded as a successful project, with the cooperation of the then OECF (Japan) and ADB, in parallel to HMG/Nepal; even though the actual costs exceeded the initial estimation.

It has been estimated that the cost for the production of Nepal’s capacity of 42,000 MW would come roughly to US$ 80.00 billion and for 25,000 MW, it would be around US$ 50,000.00 billion. Nepal’s Fiscal Budget for 2004/2005 was nearly US$ 1.6 billion; it is thus impossible for Nepal alone to harness water for hydropower in a large scale. But the Sharada Dam constructed through the Agreement of 1927 between British India and the Rana regime of Nepal in exchange with some Sal trees and (Indian Rupees) IRs. 50,000.00 that time, Koshi Agreement of April 25, 1954 and revised on December 19, 1966 bearing technical constraints of the ‘ sluice gate’ , silt in the Chatara canal and change of course of the river etc. for getting none or little water to the Nepal side during dry season and ‘ inundation’ during lean season; Gandak Agreement of December 4, 1959 with similar technology, Dam constructed in Bhainsalotan; and Tanakpur Agreement done by G.P. Koirala in 1991 became ‘ maiden shock’ to Nepal. Technically the life of Koshi Barrage is 50 years and for the past 50 years, no one has raised any questions concerning its legitimacy and significance of the clause of Koshi Agreement of 1954 that binds Nepal to provide Koshi barrage site on lease for 199 years, when the life of the barrage is only 50 years.

In 2004, Indian Union Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav inaugurated the Koshi High Dam Project, which, in 1954, was rejected on grounds of high costs and is highly criticised in Nepal today. Detailed plans have not come out to the public yet. Among the vehement critics of the dam, Former Water Resources Minister Pradip Nepal says: ‘Koshi High Dam is the invitation to destruction.’ It damages 155 villages and 236 wards in Nepal, e.g., fertile places like Khursanitaar, Guthikhet, Triveni and the others at the banks of Arun, Tamor and Doodh Koshi. It is estimated to be 270 metres high i.e. the places below 1200 feet will be under water. The opposition started with the notion that it is another design to control floods in Bihar.

Out of 93000.00 MW total estimated potential of the Ganges System, 83,000 MW sites are within Nepal and out of 42,000 MW, Nepal has been able to extract less than 1 per cent. Until 1994, it was just 0.3 per cent where as Brazil, Norway, Bhutan, India and China had extracted 17.8, 69.00, 1.62, 11.9 and 8.0 per cent, respectively.

Considering such difficulties, Nepal brought out ‘The Hydropower Development Policy 2001’, in which the fundamental problem of price fixation of electricity has been lessened by converting the existing Electricity Tariff Fixation Commission to a regulatory body. But this management also could not convince the external buyer.

Due to poor motivation of the local investors, Nepal’s cheapest projects like Upper Tamakoshi have been wasted. The Norwegian Feasibility Study reveals that nearly US$ 300.00 million is necessary for the project including 65 KM road black topping, 33 KM of which is to be newly constructed to connect the site. The cost per unit thus comes nearly 89 Nepali Paisa. Money can be allocated from: the remittances of the Nepalese workers abroad, banks, provident fund reserves, etc., if the government has zeal.

Upper Tamakoshi is much cheaper than the Upper Karnali because for 309 MW Upper Tamakoshi’s total cost comes to US$ 300.00 million, while total cost of the Upper Karnali Hydroelectric Project has been revealed as US$ 456.7 million based at January 1998 price. Many politicians and scholars are not happy with the agreement made with India, signed recently with 70 per cent and 30 per cent ratio of investment by India and Nepal, respectively.

The people of Nepal have developed a mistrust about India due to past agreements, starting from 1927 for Sharada Dam Construction, Koshi Agreement of 1954, Gandak Agreement of 1959, Tanakpur Agreement of 1991 and the Mahakali Treaty of 1996. The Nepalese feel that they have been ‘cheated’ in these agreements and projects, except the Mahakali Treaty about which people are divided. The Mahakali Treaty came to assess extensive discussions among responsible people and experts. In 1990, A.B. Thapa in the Water Energy Commission on Mahakali Treaty said that the Treaty had been hastily concluded, hence the need to analyse the Treaty by both the countries to arrive at the most correct interpretation.

On ‘How not to do a South Asian Treaty’, Iyer’s opinion (Iyer: 2001) that Nepal could say ‘No’ has been explored by S.B. Pun. Once the treaty has been signed, it does not mean that it will be applied forever. Treaties can be amended and canceled as per the demand of time, e.g. 1950 Treaty and Letters of Exchange of 1950 and 1965 signed at a crucial time between Nepal and India are not practical today, and the SAFMA Declaration of October 9-10, 2004 recommends that they be reviewed.

Referring to the passing of the special suggestion of the Nepalese Parliament immediately after passing of the Mahakali Treaty, the then Indian Water Resources Joint Secretary had said, ‘India government is interested only in the actual wordings of the Treaty and not in what such prastavs say.’

Mini Vs. Mega Projects and ‘Eco-Romanticism’
Arundhati Roy, in favour of environment protection, wrote that she was not an ‘anti development junkie’ nor a ‘proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition..’, but she respected the environment. R.N.A. Reddy is of the opinion that the development of mega-power projects suffered from the ‘Eco-romanticism’ of North America and Europe. As a matter of fact, Arun III was ‘ eaten-up’ by such ghost opinions which Reddy rightly opposed. If not so, why does the U.S. not sign the Kyoto Protocol?

Although the Japanese side was fully convinced, the World Bank backed out of Arun III. The efforts made were not a complete waste. The GIF/Japan and the UNU, Tokyo organised ‘Global Infrastructure Conference, October 31 – November 2, 1995, in which two important provisions were passed as proposed by Nepal: first, Arun III should be re-considered and second, ‘regional navigation’ and ‘NIBB-C Water Ways: 21st Century Multi-Purpose Project’ be considered by the world multi-national companies and donor agencies had consented to.

The mini and mega projects’ dilemma has been overcome by ‘ Plan for Action for Integrated Water Resource Management’ approach. While Pundits of water resources argue for smaller dams, biger dams have their advocates as well.

In this context, Karnali (Chisapani) Multipurpose Project is of high concern. This is a ‘giant project’ , not as big as ‘Three Gorges’ of China’s or the newly proposed 40,000 MW Hydro-Electricity Project at the Inga Rapids, near the mouth of the Congo River, to electrify Africa. But Chisapaani is yielding 10,800 MW and has 16.2 billion m3 live storage capacity project. The costs at 1988 price were calculated at US$ 4,890.00 million but at 2000 price, with an annual increase of 1.45 per cent it comes to be US$ 5,836.00 million. Since this project is totally of export-of-energy purpose for Nepal and multi-purpose for India, the Nepalese side from the popular front is still sceptical of Indian involvement. Nepal feels that India does not like the fact that Nepal develops hydropower independently. Between these myths and reality Enron was fully disturbed to work in Karnali (Chisapani).

The Inundation Tragedy
The Third Bilateral High Level Technical Committee between Nepal and India (HLTC) Meeting on the inundation problem in Nepal was held in Kathmandu during 27-29 September68 and concluded without any real results. The current problem zones were due to Indian Laxmanpur Barrage vis-a-vis Rupandehi and Rassyal Khurdalautan vis-a-vis Banke district of Nepal.

India agreed to manage ‘sluice gate’ regarding Laxmanpur Bund but regarding the threat of inundation to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, India rejected the maps presented by the Nepalese side. Following the failed 3rd HLTC Meeting in Kathmandu, the 13th Meeting of the Bilateral Standing Committee on Inundation Problem (SCIP) on 30 October, 2004 in Kathmandu and immediately later the secretary-level meetings in New Delhi also failed.

Leader of the SCIP discussion from the Nepalese side, S. B Regmi in an interview said that inundation problems starting from 1985 to 2 October 2004 were extensively discussed, e.g. issues on Mahalisagar arrangements vis-a-vis Kapilvastu to Koilabas barrage of Dang to the matter of Ring Bund endangering Rautahat. He further added that Nepal is facing big difficulties, at least in 17 places, due to Indian construction works.

Dipak Gyawali, Former Minister for Water Resources says that disputes over allocation of water rights either achieve celebrity status or remain simmering until they erupt. Some of the projects to the Indian side are constructed just in a 300 meter distance from No Man’s Land.

In South Asia 45 per cent of the population falls below the poverty line, i.e. less than 1.00 US$ income per head per day. The global share of income of this region is just 1.3 percent but it is home to nearly 1/5th of the world’s population. Nearly 400 million people live in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna (GBM) region alone. It will be 600 million in the next half of the century. This area is the largest concentration of the poorest people of the world.

Considering these factors, the policy-makers, decision makers and implementing agencies of this region need to think of new development approaches. Managing and harnessing waters could be an important initiative to reduce poverty and uplift the standard of living of the people for which massive employment generation is a must.

Hence, countries should conduct a preliminary survey on ‘NIBB-C Water Ways : 21st Century Water Ways Multi-Purpose Project’. NIBB-C represents riparian countries: Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. Being the largest benefiting country of the region, India’s role in this is crucial. It is envisioned that NIBB-C Water Ways can change the fate of the people of this region. It is a gega-project inviting multi-national companies and donor agencies to invest multi-billion dollars. Under this vision, shipping can be conducted from the Bay of Bengal to the riparian cities. This means shipping is possible from Bay of Bengal to Koshi Tappu of Nepal or Varanasi, Lucknow, Assami Highlands of India or Highlands of Tibet via Brahmputra or inside Bhutan and Meghna region of Bangladesh.

NIBB-C Water Ways could be extensively used for trade, transportation, navigation, tourism, entertainment and recreation centers, water sports, irrigation, hydropower, drinking-water, flood controlling measures, water resevers etc. etc. To connect water levels of higher dams, ship elevator system through double gate water level can be applied.

To resolve the indo-centric water conflicts of the region like Indo-Nepal, Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Pakistan water conflicts on upstream and down-stream rights of the riparian countries, it is recommended that they follow the South Asian Regional Riparian Rights Statutes (SA-RRR-S) Model for their statutes. It could be 8 KM or so upstream down-stream rights proposition.

It is welcome news for Nepal’s domestic requirements that World Bank will provide loans to Nepal amounting to US$ 350.00 million for those projects ranging upto 10 MW capacity.78 This package, in a sense is the re-compensation for the Arun III failure. The project has a provision that the dams should not be higher than 25 metres, which means that Nepal’s up-coming Water Plan should clearly address domestic, bilateral and regional plans as per their short, medium- and long-term strategies for 25-years. As far as the ‘NIBB-C Water Ways: The 21st Century Multi-Purpose Project’ is concerned there should be a ‘ special time frame’ and planning as per feasibility study.

To manage and harness Nepal’s waters, it is very important that India changes its water policies regarding neighbours, and acts with good faith of mutual cooperation in the region bilaterally and multi-laterally.

(Dr. Nepal is Former Ambassador of Nepal and is an expert on peace, conflicts and development studies. He can be reached at:


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