Nepal Needs to Rethink Development of its Water Resources

Upon the advent of the multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, veteran leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai boasted to “wash the streets of Kathmandu with Melamchi water.” Thirty years later, the Melamchi water project – due to filthy politics and sluggish progress – has become a classic example of what a tarnished developmental venture looks like.

Water – directly or metaphorically – remains a common topic of stump speeches in Nepal. Nepalis, instead of being recipients of the development they deserve, have been rendered mere targets of these stump speeches, which talk about capitalizing the abundant yet unexploited water resources without actually delivering.

Currently, 13 of Nepal’s 21 national pride projects are directly tied to water infrastructure including irrigation canals and hydropower plants. While the hope is that these multipurpose endeavors will unleash the country’s production potentials, they come with great environmental challenges, including flooding mountain ecosystems and displacing rural populations. On top of this, the lack of time-bound plans for project completion adds a significant financial burden to the economy. These challenges make one question whether these so-called “multipurpose” projects have actually proven beneficial at all.

As a custodian of the Himalaya and an important player in the geopolitics of the region, Nepal’s approach to tapping its water resources must be well-founded. In light of the unique challenges the Himalayan country faces, particularly due to the pressures put on Nepali glacial water by the climate crisis, policy-makers must make efforts to build a futuristic discourse for water development. Yet, despite relatively ambitious climate targets on paper, the Nepali government seems reluctant to face the climate crisis head on. This urgent threat is not eliciting the serious policy response it requires..

Nepal must acknowledge that its rich ecology is also a fragile environment, and its own inaction such as allowing increased pollution is accelerating further snow melt. The country’s rugged topography and young geology make its hills prone to erosion and sedimentation. Moreover, the monsoon climate produces high rates of runoff and further exacerbates these challenges.

Above and beyond naturally occurring hazards, rising temperature is ravaging the Himalayas by accelerating the melting of glaciers and snow cover. A study published in Science Advances concluded that the average rate of ice loss in the Himalayas was twice as fast from 2000-2016 compared to the 1975-2000 period. Adding to this evidence is another study published in Nature, which found that Himalayan glaciers are melting faster in summer than they are being replenished by snow in winter. Continuation of this trend – which seems inevitable if catastrophic heat waves are not averted – could result in unprecedented precipitation along the region’s glacier-fed rivers.

To both prevent and mitigate the devastating consequences of global warming in the Himalayas, Nepal needs to expedite its development of sustainable water infrastructure while realizing that Nepal’s urban and industrial policies also impact the impending climate crisis. In doing so, water management should not be viewed as an isolated path of development but rather as an avenue to bolster green/innovative progress.

Sustainable and green development call for integrated planning. Growing infrastructural projects -- especially, ill-planned ones -- are a threat to the fragile areas where a sudden surge in natural calamities would be likely. Researchers, for instance, claim a rise in the number of landslides in Nepal is associated with the ubiquitous road construction across the country.

Clearly, for a country with dire infrastructural needs, ad-hoc and woeful project planning will cost both the economy and Nepali society fortunes. To that end, mitigating physical and ecological hazards induced by ill-conceived constructions means instigating consolidated policy frameworks and enabling meticulous project prioritizations.

However, collaborative planning should also extend beyond borders. Nepal must join arms with other countries in the region, with China, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, to safeguard the greater Himalayan watershed. In 2018, government officials of five south Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) agreed to form a regional network to curb climate change in the Himalayas. While this alliance is not the only one of its kind, the region could do better in multilateral cooperation to reconcile complex hydro-politics.

Again, here in Nepal, water and energy will be the go-to topic for politicians for the next few elections. Politicians will talk their talk, but it will be the citizens left to walk the walk. Without adequate planning and a futuristic outlook realized at the policy level, water resource development in the foothills of the Himalayas will only prove ineffective.

eARThumanities at NYU Abu Dhabi

@2020 Geopolitics & Ecology of Himalayan Water