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A Policy Perspective on Water Management in Nepal: Interview with Madhav Belbase

Madhav Belbase, Former Secretary Ministry of Water Supply, Nepal

Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right in Nepal, but climate change, pollution, and lack of adequate infrastructure development may restrict access and threaten the population with water insecurity. Nepal has abundant water resources, however, water in Nepal, in most cases, is viewed as a commodity mostly synonymous with hydropower, thus disregarding other benefits of water resources. To understand more about water management in Nepal, we spoke to Madhav Belbase, the former Secretary of the Ministry of Water Supply. Until his recent retirement earlier this year, he was Nepal’s top policymaker in water sector management, pioneering mega projects and negotiating transboundary issues with India. Prior to his appointment as the Secretary, Mr. Belbase served as Director General of the Department of Irrigation, and later as Joint Secretary at the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS). Under Mr. Belbase’s leadership, Nepal pioneered interbasin water transfer projects using tunnel boring machines, initiated river basin master plans, and most recently completed the Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) which is considered to be the most viable long-term alternative to ease the chronic drinking water shortage situation in the Kathmandu valley. Mr. Belbase is highly acclaimed nationally and internationally for his technical experience and risk-taking capacity in shaping Nepal’s policies related to water resources management.

Drawing on your vast experience in the water management sector, how do you think water is seen in Nepal?

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. Although there is more than 7000 of water available per capita annually, the disparity in its availability in terms of space and time is enormous. Besides, climate change and water pollution, as well as the lack of adequate investment in the water sector have further aggravated water scarcity in water for human use, water for food, and water for environment and socio-culture.

Discourses on water management in Nepal are dominated by hydropower production and often neglect the other uses of water. Water management lacks integration. Throughout the recent water management history, hydropower has always centered the water discussion with the intent of exporting electricity to the neighboring countries. As a result, the sector was liberalized in the early 1990s. To this day, the issuing of licenses for hydropower production lacks stringent procedures. Rivers in Nepal are often diverted at multiple points along their stretches, affecting the other existing and potential uses of water.

Because of the modern-day hyper-focus on water for energy production, things like irrigation, water supply, the environment, and the cultural and social aspects of water resources management have been neglected. However, 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. Traditional irrigation systems used irrigation canals like ‘Rajkulo’ and stone spouts to direct water from natural springs and ponds into population centers. Some of the irrigation systems are in operation last 400 years. However, in the most populated areas, they are no longer widely used having been replaced by modern practices. 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.

One of the major projects that you led during your time as Secretary of the Ministry of Water Supply was the Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP), which diverts fresh water from the Melamchi river into the Kathmandu Valley. What is the long-term viability of the MWSP considering the growing stress on freshwater supplies?

Melamchi River. (Photo by Mangmingsohang)

Climate change is already impacting rainfall patterns in Nepal. We used to have downpours in January and February, but now winter rainfall is slowly disappearing and 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 (referred in Nepali as jhari) seem to be disappearing, impacting the distribution of water. Although the total amount of rain has not changed a lot. When we need water, we don’t have it, and when the water does come, we seem to be getting too much.

The Melamchi Water Supply Project is meant to be a long-term solution to address water shortages in the Kathmandu valley. However, the Melamchi river itself is snow-fed. As we may get less snow due to climate change, there could be an issue with its flow in the future. The river is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of 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. Some of the projects have been identified and are at various stages of study. Not only in Kathmandu valley, but water storage projects and interbasin water transfer projects are to be developed to even out the disparity in 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. We can’t rely too much on groundwater, so storage of surface water has to be used in conjunction with groundwater reservoirs.

The recent flood in Melamchi last month devastated the community. Was this anticipated as a once-in-100 years type event? What kinds of precautions were adopted taking into consideration upstream geology.

You have rightly mentioned the headworks of the Melamchi Water Supply project have been designed with 100-year floods in mind. To ensure adequate protection, the project includes energy dissipation devices and safety mechanisms. The surface of the structures has been constructed to minimize abrasion due to flowing debris and bed loads. Hydraulic structures are designed to withstand the worst possible situation that can occur within the designed 100 year return period. However, an event can occur which is more intense than the expected 100-year flood, meaning structures and systems are always at risk. The recent damage in the Melamchi bazaar was mainly due to a large amount of unexpected debris flow. The devastation, therefore, has nothing to do with the Melamchi headworks construction.

Drones to the Rescue in Melamchi. (Video from Nepali Times)

In your experience, what are the 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 river in India originate from Nepali rivers. The Ganges basin is home to about 500 million people, which can in itself explain the importance of the rivers of Nepal for the people living in North east India. Floods during the monsoon and a lack of adequate water for food production in the dry seasons are the two major issues facing the Ganges basin. Obviously, the construction of storage projects in Nepalese territory to regulate the flows of the rivers originating in Nepal could solve both problems in India to a great extent. However, the road that led to bilateral cooperation between the two countries was a bit bumpy in the past. In the 1950s both countries signed two treaties namely, the Koshi River Treaty and Gandak river treaty, for which there is a huge dissatisfaction among the Nepali people. The conception among Nepalis is that both the treaties yield much fewer benefits in comparison to the problems they create for the residents of areas where infrastructure is constructed as per the agreements.

Having said that, there are many opportunities for cooperation with India, but we must also safeguard Nepali interests. If reservoirs in Nepali territory to resolve the problems related to flood and water scarcity in the dry season are to be constructed, pricing of the impounded water must be judicially determined for win-win cooperation between the countries. There are of course other many issues to be properly solved before constructing such mega water projects for mutual benefits.

Looking upstream from Nepal, China 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 water supply 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 neighbor.

Recently, China sent a warning that the upstream of Tamakoshi river was dammed due to a large landslide. Tamakoshi is responsible for above 400MW of hydropower generation that covers almost one-third of Nepal's hydropower energy. What are your thoughts on a single hydropower project having such a large proportion of the national hydropower generation? What are the consequences of such planning?

The Tamakoshi River. (Photo by Bidhan Rajkarnikar)

Although this time we avoided significant problems associated with the upstream damming of the Tamakoshi due to a landslide, we must anticipate this sort of problem in the future. There are two parts to your question. 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. Under such conditions, 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 Tamakoshi, 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, being one of the least developed countries in the world, our 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 power failure due to an unprecedented natural disaster in the Tamakoshi basin.

Moving forward, what do you see as the most important issue that needs to be tackled when it comes to water management in Nepal? Do you have any parting messages for young people?

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 realize the need to limit water use as well as population growth to achieve an optimum sustainable level of consumption. Beyond consumption, pollution of our available freshwater resources is another major issue that must be understood and addressed on the individual level.

Much of this article focuses on water for energy, and water for consumption and food production. Yet the importance of water goes beyond just our physiological needs. Water is associated with cultural, social, and economic needs. To avoid water conflict, we need to retain how water is related to our cultures, societies, and economies. This is particularly true for young people who need to understand water better than us, as they will bear the brunt of water scarcity under climate change. Young people need to be much more far-sighted to understand and protect the future of water in the latter half of the century. And finally, we need to realize that water is not just a resource to be used by humans. Future planning should also provide water for animals, birds, and all aspects of nature including those that are not economically productive to humanity. It is in the hands of the younger generations to produce an integrated approach to water management that safeguards our water for all far into the future.

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