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.