Securing Water for Irrigation from Trans boundary Medium-size River Basins in Nepal-Part 1 – Telegraph Nepal

Saumitra Neupane
Expert on Social, environmental and livelihood issues, Nepal

Background Interest, preference, and priorities around water resources are highly plural.

Water is a vital resource for sustaining life (human and others), as well as a means for sustainable livelihood.

At the same time, it will continue to serve as the basis for advancing growth and economy.

However, unlike other natural resources, water bodies, especially rivers, do not recognize politico-administrative boundaries.

Rivers flow across multiple boundaries, including that of countries. Given this characteristic, priorities of water use in one location or country greatly influences/impacts use and availability in the other.

This co-riparian dependence thus brings forward complexities and challenges that make transboundary water governance and management inherently unique and complex.

Differing interests and priorities over water use often lead to co-riparian states locking-horns on issues of water allocation and control, leading to dissatisfaction and disputes (Zeitoun and Mirumachi, 2008; Burchi, 2008 Tortajada, 2010; Parsai and Surie, 2013).

At the transboundary level, contentions around water allocation and sharing have increasingly become more severe. With exponential growth in population and commercial activity, demand for freshwater is growing.

However, availability of fresh water per capita remains at a steady decline and is further worsened by factors such as climate change.

For example, over 1.3 billion people in South Asia directly depend on key transboundary river systems for water.

By 2025, this population is expected to reach 3.4 billion (Wirsing et al. 2012).

As population and commercial activities in the region continue to grow exponentially, water per capita continues to decline by as much as 70 percent since 1950s (Kugelman, 2011).

As countries fear reduced water availability impacting prospects of growth, water security has evolved to become a highly political and sensitive subject.

As a result, actions of co-riparian states on Transboundary Rivers continue to be driven by parochial mindset to serve self and immediate interests.

Such tend continuing, in the not so distant future, water wars between different geographic and political boundaries may not be unavoidable (Wolf 1999; Kreamer 2012).

Evolving from a state of natural and culturally approximated water co dependency, the issue of water between Nepal and India has evolved to become a highly political and sensitive subject.

Asymmetric water treaties of the past, in particular that on the Mahakali, Koshi, and Gandak Rivers, have been source of deep antagonism in Nepal.

Furthermore, subsequent unilateral interventions by India downstream and its claim on water rights according to the doctrine of prior utilization, and its effort to stall development of key water resource infrastructure have deepened distrust between the two countries.

The general Nepali perspective and sentiment continue to reel with emotions of having “lost out and being cheated” on account of unfair water sharing/allocation arrangements of the past (Verghese 1999; Gyawali 2002; Rahaman 2009; Dhungel 2009).

As Nepal and India now move closer towards marking the centenary anniversary of their formal bi-lateral water cooperation, which began with the Sharada Treaty in 1920, there is little to suggest the two countries are converging towards more meaningful water cooperation.

Effective implementation of existing bilateral arrangements remains constrained, and efforts to take forward new avenues for cooperation have failed to move beyond conversation.

However, a major change in these near hundred years, arguably, has been Nepal’s prudency in its water resource dealings, especially at a transboundary level.

This change can be attributed to many factors, including learnings from the past failures in water diplomacy, increased public scrutiny on bilateral water relations, and most important of all, enhanced appreciation of the value of water for achieving socio-economic development goals.

Nepal’s successful navigation of a turbulent social-political transition has finally paved the way for the country to make meaningful progress towards economic growth and sustainable development.

Accordingly, it has set a target of graduating from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2022 and transitioning to a middle-income country by 2030.

Achieving this will require considerable progress in economic growth and human development.

Unlocking the country’s water resource development potential, especially through irrigation development, will remain instrumental.

Agriculture is the mainstay of Nepal’s economy and still directly engages more than half of the county’s population.

It is a priority sector of the economy and continues to consistently contribute to over one third of the country’s total GDP.

However, much of Nepal’s agriculture remains subsistence in nature.

Over the years, productivity and growth of the agriculture sector have stagnated, owing to reasons such as limits on the adoption of improved technology, poor market linkages, infrastructure bottlenecks, and quality issues, among others (ADB, 2018).

Access to irrigation and lack of year-round supply of water remain among the key constraints underpinning productivity and growth of the agriculture sector.

Provisioning water for agriculture will require thinking beyond the limits and contentions of existing bilateral arrangements.

One of such avenues is enhancing water availability for irrigation use from Nepal’s medium sized river basins, i.e. Kankai, Kamala, Bagmati, Babai, and West Rapti. Historically, though Nepal’s relationship with India on these rivers has remained fairly uneasy (Dhungel, 2009), there exist no binding bi lateral arrangements which dictate norms for water use and management.

In fact, water resource development in these river basins remains a key GON (Government of Nepal) priority, and recent effort and investment of GoN have centered around schemes on these rivers.

This paper is an attempt to bring to attention the opportunities and potentials of water resource development, especially for irrigation development, in medium sized river basins in Nepal.

Specifically, by drawing on the political economy of water use in West Rapti river basin, this paper discusses the transboundary equation of water resource development and the way forward for irrigation development in Nepal.

Water Availability and Irrigation Nepal is endowed with 225 billion m3 per annum of surface water, equivalent to an average flow of 7,125 m3/s (WECS, 2002; WECS 2011). The near-6000 Rivers, which support this resource endowment, can be broadly categorized into large, medium, and small rivers.

Originating from the snowcaps of the high Himalayas, Koshi, Gandaki, Karnali, and Mahakali are large river systems of Nepal, and have creditable discharge even during the dry season spell.

Similarly, originating from the Mahabharat range, the Kankai, Kamala, Bagmati, Babai, and West Rapti are medium sized rivers.

Though perennial in nature, they are fed by precipitation and spring sources.

A common characteristic of these rivers is the high level of water fluctuation during the dry and wet season spells.

Lastly, there exist numerous small seasonal rivers that originate from the Siwalik range.

Large river systems account for an estimated 70 percent of average annual runoff; whereas medium and small river systems account for 6.5 percent and 23.5 percent, respectively (Pandey et al. 2010).

Irrigation and hydropower constitute the largest share of the country’s water sector economy.

Of the total surface water available in the country, it is estimated that only around 15 billion m3 remains utilized-95.9 percent of which is used for agriculture, 3.8 percent for domestic purposes, and about 0.3 percent for industry (ADB/ICIMOD, 2006; WECS 2011).

Of the 26, 41,000 ha of total available cultivated area in the country, only about 17, 66,000 ha remains irrigable. Of which, as of 2017-2018, 14,33,287 ha have irrigation coverage- 4,46,365 ha is being serviced through ground water; 1,67,925 ha through farmer managed irrigation systems (FMIS), and 8,16,067 through surface irrigation schemes (MoEWRI, 2018).

Given the high level of seasonal variability in water flow, and with most existing irrigation schemes built to utilize transit flow of the river, average irrigation service coverage is around 90 percent during the wet seasons, and close to 30 percent during the dry season.

Hence, only one third of the irrigated area in the country receives year-round irrigation facility.

The Terai region of Nepal alone accounts for almost half of the total cultivated area, and almost 75 percent of the total irrigable land in the country (WECS, 2011).

Still, large tracts of fertile land in the region remain without irrigation facility. Despite Nepal’s four large rivers transferring significant volume of water through the Terai to the Gangetic plains of India, only a small portion of this water is available for use within Nepal.

Irrigation in the Terai is largely depended on a few major schemes on medium-sized river basins and a host of small agency-and-farmer-managed irrigation schemes on medium and small rivers along with groundwater extraction (Adhikari et al. 2009).

A cumulative assessment of total water draw-down from all sizes of rivers (large, medium, and small) for irrigation indicates that water draw-down from medium and small rivers combined is higher than that from large rivers (CERD, 2007).

As can be accessed from Table 1 above, the number of large irrigation schemes on medium-size rivers is increasing. Also, quantum of additional water that can be drawn from large river basins for irrigation purpose remains fairly limited with restrictions under existing bilateral treaties.

Nepal’s dependence on small and medium rivers, however, is of significant challenge for intensive agriculture and improved productivity.

Existing water flow in these rivers is not enough to support year-round irrigation.

The medium-size rivers tend to have abundance of water in the wet season months (June-September), and reduce to exceedingly low levels in the dry season.

In essence, these rivers are water Deficit Rivers. For example: the mean monthly discharge of West Rapti river, largest of the five medium rivers in Nepal, is highest at 451 m3/s in August and lowest at 17.6 m3/s in the month of April (Dol, n.d).

Schemes on Nepal’s small rivers, though plenty, mostly remain operational during the monsoon availability is little to none during the dry seasons.

Opportunities and Challenges of Irrigation Development from Medium-sized Rivers:

In considering the technical, financial, and political reasons limiting optimization of immediate water use benefits for irrigation from Nepal’s large rivers, and in equal recognition of the challenge of seasonality in medium and small rivers, the Government of Nepal has emphasized the need for inter-basin water transfer and multi-purpose reservoir schemes as a means to augment water flow in medium-sized river basins to support year-round irrigation (WECS 2002; WECS 2005; MOEWRI 2018).

Based on different rounds of pre-feasibility and feasibility studies conducted in the decades of 70’s and 80’s; the Irrigation Master Plan (1990), the National Water Plan (2005), and recently circulated White Paper on Current Status and Future Action Plan on Energy, Water Resource and Irrigation (2018) have forwarded policy goals to realize set of inter-basin water transfer and multi-purpose projects on medium-size river basins.

Excluding the ongoing Shikta irrigation project and the Bheri-Babai inter-basin water transfer project, most other projects identified remain at various levels of study and preparation.

As can be studied from Table 2, post completion of the Shikta and Bheri Babai projects, the irrigation service area utilizing water from medium size rivers will account for 1,82,740 ha with an additional 48 MW of power generation capacity.

Similarly, realization of all proposed projects will support year-round irrigation for an estimated 3,67,450-4,11,250 ha (including coverage from current and under construction projects).

Additionally, these projects will also support 313-475 MW of power generation, along with other significant benefits in flood-control, inland navigation, tourism, and livelihood generation.

This essentially entails that 1,82,740 ha of land under current systems along with 2,28,510-1,84,710 ha of land currently without access to irrigation or reliable supply of water will benefit from year-round irrigation.

Prospects of water resource development form medium-size river basins will significantly aid agriculture productivity and growth in the country.

However, moving from potential to planning to development is easier said than done.

Some key challenges include: resource and investments; interplay of transboundary and geo-political interest; social and environmental cost, benefits, and tradeoffs related to inter-basin water transfer and reservoir projects; and strong policy and regulatory environment.

A closer examination of the history behind some of the above projects inform that despite the interest and commitment of GON from early days of project identification, they have remained in limbo in failure to secure required or matching finances due to India’s objection and influence on financing institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others (Dhungel 2009; Bhattarai 2009; Shrestha 2016).

India remains of the opinion that it needs to be consulted before taking up projects on various boundary and border rivers to ensure the projects do not impact/ affect existing water use in downstream areas (Verghese, 1999).

Despite strong reservations of India on some of these projects, as in the case of Shikta and Bheri-Babai, the GoN has taken up the initiative to develop these projects as national pride projects by mobilizing its own resources.

These two projects while remain sectoral priority, however, are not allocated sufficient/required funds on a yearly basis due to Nepal’s weak budget position.

This has resulted in significant delays and cost-overruns. Based on 2018 estimates of the GON, the Skita project, which began work in 2004, is expected to be completed by 2020 with a revised cost estimate of NRs 25.02 Billion (NRs 7.45 Billion in 2004). Similarly, the Bheri-Babai project, which began work in 2012, is expected to be completed by 2021 with a cost estimate of NRs 16.43 billion (NPC, 2018).

Besides financing, there exist other significant costs and tradeoffs with regards to developing reservoir based multi-purpose project. Of which, the issues of inundation and displacement remain critical.

# About the author: Shri Saumitra Neupane has extensive knowledge and experience in social, environmental and livelihood issues related to water and energy resource development, and has led the designing, implementation and management of hydropower projects.
Text Courtesy: Association of Former Career Ambassadors of Nepal (AFCAN) Journal December 2020 edited by Dr. Khaga Nath Adhikari.
# AFCAN Special issue on “Strategies for the Development and Management of Nepal’s Water Resources”.
-Thanks the distinguished author Saumitra Neupane.
# published with the straight permission from AFCAN President Ambassador R. B. Thakur: Upadhyaya N. P
Our Contact email address is: [email protected]
# References available in the concluding part: Ed.

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