Nepal needs to plan for plenty and scarcity of water
Climate change, pollution, and lack of infrastructure restrict water access in Nepal. Madhav Belbase, retired Secretary of the Ministry of Water Supply, who pioneered inter-basin water transfer and was involved with the Melamchi Project, speaks about water resource management in Nepal.
Excerpts from interview:
Nepali Times: Drawing on your vast experience in the water management sector, how do you think water is seen in Nepal?
Madhav Belbase: There is a popular misconception among many Nepali people that Nepal is the second most water-rich country in the world. This is added to a narrative that if you have a resource in abundance, you do not need to manage it. But it’s not true.
Discourses on water management in Nepal are dominated by hydropower production and often neglect the other uses of water. Water management lacks integration. Rivers in Nepal are often diverted at multiple points along their stretches, affecting the other existing and potential uses of water.
Because of the hyper-focus on water for energy production, irrigation, water supply, the environment, and the cultural and social aspects of water resources management have been neglected. This wasn’t always the case. Nepal has a rich history of traditional water management techniques that took advantage of the country’s natural resources and topography. If energy is the focus of today’s water infrastructure, food production was the focus of these traditional systems, ensuring food security for decades. Unfortunately, such traditional knowledge has given way to a more technocratic approach that views water as a commodity.
What is the long-term viability of the Melamchi Water Supply Project considering the growing stress on freshwater supplies?
Climate change is already impacting rainfall patterns in Nepal. We used to have downpours in January and February, but now winter rainfall is becoming increasingly precarious. Even in the monsoon, rainfall patterns have completely changed. The intensity of precipitation is rising, which creates larger runoffs and landslides, and lower infiltration. At the same time, heavy downpours in the winter months seem to be disappearing, impacting on the distribution of water. Although the total amount of rain has not changed a lot, when we need water, we don’t have it. When the rain does come, we seem to be getting too much of it.
The Melamchi Water Supply Project is meant to be a long-term solution to address water shortage in the Kathmandu Valley. However, the Melamchi river itself is snow-fed and may get less water due to climate change. But we can safeguard ourselves from the worst-case scenario through the development of water storage projects within or just outside the valley. Water storage projects and inter-basin water transfer projects can balance water availability. This can be done by transferring water from surfeit to deficit basins. Water storage can either be done through constructing large-scale reservoirs and dams, or small-scale ponds and household level reservoirs and even rainwater harvesting. Dams are critical for the long-term sustainability of water management and irrigation in Nepal.
Was the flood on the Melamchi in June anticipated as a once-in-100 years type event?
Yes, the headworks of the Melamchi project were designed with 100-year floods in mind. To ensure adequate protection, the project includes energy dissipation devices and safety mechanisms. The structures have been constructed to minimise abrasion due to flowing debris and bed loads. They are designed to withstand the worst possible events with a 100 year return period. However, an event can occur which is even more intense.
What are Nepal’s opportunities and challenges for transboundary water cooperation with other riparian countries?
About 40% of the annual flow and 70% of dry season flows of the Ganges in India originate from Nepal’s rivers. The Ganges basin is home to about 500 million people, which can in itself explain the importance of Nepal’s rivers for people living in northern India. Floods during the monsoon and a lack of adequate water for agriculture in the dry season are the two major issues there. Obviously, the construction of storage projects in Nepal’s territory to regulate river flow could solve both problems in India to a great extent. However, bilateral cooperation between the two countries has been a bit bumpy in the past. In the 1950s both countries signed two treaties on the Kosi and Gandaki which was greeted with huge dissatisfaction among Nepalis. The perception among Nepalis is that both the treaties yield fewer benefits in comparison to the problems they create for the residents of areas where infrastructure is constructed.
Having said that, there are many opportunities for cooperation with India, but we must also safeguard Nepal’s interests. If reservoirs are to be built in Nepal to resolve the problems related to flood and water scarcity in the dry season, the pricing of the impounded water must be judicially determined for win-win cooperation between the two countries.
China upstream also shares our rivers. Nepal’s main concern with Chinese water relations is the sharing of flood and rainfall data. Because precipitation and weather events in China affect Nepal’s rivers downstream, better cooperation is needed to properly manage transboundary water risks. This type of data sharing is already happening with India, which has a greater interest in being Nepal’s downstream neighbour.
Last month, China sent a warning that the Tama Kosi river was dammed due to a large landslide, upstream from the 465MW Upper Tama Kosi project. What are your thoughts on a single hydropower project having such a large proportion of the national hydropower generation?
Firstly, given the geology and steep slopes of the mountain as well as intense rainfall that occurs in Nepal, the structures we build on the rivers are always vulnerable. It is often difficult to predict the worst-case scenario flood. There are computer models to estimate near to actual situations, however, how accurately we provide the input data largely determines how closely we can predict the flows. Due to climate change, this type of prediction has become more and more difficult. The Tama Kosi headworks are designed to weather a flood with a 1,000 year return period, including a glacial lake outburst flood, meaning the headworks are designed to withstand a flood so intense it is only predicted to occur once every 1,000 years. This level of risk planning is common practice, and would normally be safe for the typical worst-case conditions.
Secondly, Nepal’s per capita electricity consumption is very low, about 300 kWh. As the country progresses, the per capita consumption grows, and you need to produce more electricity. In such a situation, a 456 MW project like Tamakoshi is not actually that big, and we will have similar projects distributed all over the country. However, for the present condition of the country, when a single project generates about one-third of electricity, there is always the risk of electricity shortages due to an unprecedented natural disaster in the Tama Kosi basin.
What do you see as the most important issue that needs to be tackled when it comes to water management in Nepal?
Water is a finite resource, and there is increasing stress on water resources. Our attitudes of abundance and overuse are risky, and we must uphold a sustainable limit to water uses to protect this precious resource for future generations. Nepal also needs to explore the possibilities of reusing and recycling water. Young people need to realise the need to limit water use as well as population growth to achieve an optimum sustainable level of consumption. Pollution of our available freshwater resources is another major issue that must be understood and addressed at the individual level.
Experts from longer interview with the Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water.