Exploring the possibility and Challenges of Domestic and Regional Connectivity through Inland Waterways-2 – Telegraph Nepal

– Dikshya Singh, Research officer
South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), Nepal

It gives rise to the possibility of renewed interest in reinvigorating development of these rivers in the Nepali side to make them suitable for water transport. Access to NW-1 would also open gates for Nepal to gain access to Bangladesh’s vast inland waterways network.

In Bangladesh, over 50 per cent of all arterial freight traffic and one quarter of all passenger traffic is carried on inland waterways transport.

India and Bangladesh have signed a Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade as a part of their trade agreement.

The Protocol allows the movement of goods and people on identified inland waterways routes between two places in one country through the territory of the other.

There are four functional routes and five ports identified under the protocol. Bhutan has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bangladesh to allow Bhutan’s cargo to be transported through Bangladesh’s designated inland waterways.

In a similar vein, if Nepal also makes an arrangement with India and Bangladesh then it could open up further possibilities to diversify transit routes for improved trade facilitation.

Water Transport in Nepal:

Although river navigation is limited to adventure sports, as in white water rafting, or to facilitate river crossing, historically, Nepali rivers had served as navigation channels. Five decades ago, Tribenidham in Nawalparasi district in Nepal was a thriving river port where commodities from India, including construction materials, were transported via Narayani River.

However, after the construction of Gandak Barrage, the river in the Nepali side fanned out making navigation difficult.

At the same time, construction of the East-West Highway in Nepal diverted the river traffic to the road.

Due to the prominence of cross-border navigation in the area, the Gandak Treaty has made mention of constructing structures to let vessels pass.

As a part of the barrage, there is a river siphon constructed to allow vessels on the river to move between India and Nepal but it is now not functional.

Although, only traditional wooden boats are operated in the various parts of the Narayani-which is formed by the confluence of seven rivers, thus also known as Saptagandaki- reservoir formed in one of its tributaries have been running a successful ferry service.

The steamer service has been running between Mirme and Seti Beni in Syangja on the reservoir created by the construction of a dam for Kali Gandaki A Hydroelectric Project in Syangja.

The riverboat service has reduced the travel time between these two points to 45 minutes from three-hour walk.

The ferry service has also helped bring the prices of commodities down due to inexpensive transportation.

In addition, steamer is also a popular tourist attraction in the area popular as a pilgrimage site bringing in multi-fold benefits to the locals with enhanced livelihood opportunities.

On the Koshi River and its tributaries too, river navigation is mostly limited to river crossing on wooden boats.

However, recently a jet-boat service that navigates along the river from Chatara in Sunsari to Simle in Bhojpur began operation from April 2018.

A private company named Barahkshetra Jalyatayat Ltd is operating the service.

Till 2012, jet boats operated by Sumnima Jal Yatayat Company and Nepal Water Transport Company were providing navigation services on the Arun River portion of Saptakoshi from Chatara to Simle bordering Bhojpur and Dhankuta districts.

The service provides an alternative route of travel to the people in the hilly region of Dhankuta and Bhojpur reducing travelling time to 30 minutes which would have taken nearly half a day.

Moreover, the service was also a tourist attraction as people from Biratnagar and even from bordering Indian towns come for the ride.

However, technical issues and lack of repairing facilities led to shut down of the earlier services.

On Karnali River also semblance of river navigation is present in the form of traditional and improvised motor-powered boats that are used for river crossing.

The Rajapur island that bifurcates Karnali into two branches was dependent on these boats for river crossing to reach both Bardiya and Kailali side.

However, boat crossing has waned since the inauguration of the motorable bridge over Karnali. Past Endeavours.

At present, conversation related to developing inland waterways is missing from narrative related to water resources as well as from transportation discourse.

However, there was a time when Nepal had tried to explore the possibility of navigation on its rivers.

The first survey regarding the feasibility of developing inland water transport in Nepal was conducted in 1966 by a team of foreign and domestic experts while India was constructing Farraka Barrage (Karki 1995).

The study found that depths of Nepali rivers were too shallow and draft too low to be navigable all year round. However, the said study recommended the Narayani River as the most suitable one to be developed as a waterway.

That is the reason for introducing a provision in the Gandak Treaty for having a navigational lock at the Gandak Barrage to ease the movement of ships.

But, as India lost its enthusiasm for developing inland waterways, the activities in Nepal also did not take off (Karki 1995).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nepal’s Panchayati rulers were keen on developing Nepalese rivers as a feasible option of transport (Khanal 2014).

That is when the government enacted Ships Registration Act 1971 which provides legal groundwork for owning ships by Nepal and/or by Nepali citizens (Khanal 2014).

The Koshi River has also seen quite a few attempts at developing a viable water transport system.

In 1980, an inland waterways development project was established in the Ministry of Works and Transport (Karki 1995).

The department conducted reconnaissance studies in three major rivers of Nepal.

However, it failed to make any major breakthrough in developing inland navigation. Moreover, test operations of jet boats were conducted in the Koshi River from Chatara towards Tumlingtar, and also in rivers such as Bheri and Trishuli and in some selected locations in the downstream area of the Kali Gandaki River.

However, the test run showed difficulties in navigation in the rivers as the high silt content frequently broke down the jet engines (Karki 1995). Similarly, a master plan prepared by Japan International Cooperation Agency for Koshi River Basin had also recommended using jet boats on the river for navigation in 1985.

The possibility of developing waterways has been mentioned oftentimes in policy documents, government plans (WECS 2002), and regional discourse (SAARC Secretariat 2006).

However, no serious effort seems to have been dedicated towards making this a realistic option.

The Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport (MOPIT)‘s Transport Division looks after the issues related to inland water transportation and had commissioned a feasibility study for water transport in the Koshi, Gandaki and Bheri River basins in 2012 (Ecocode Nepal and East Consult 2013).

The study done by engineering consultants of EcoCode Nepal and East Consult appraised the 175 km, 150 km and 125 km of the Koshi, Gandaki and Bheri Rivers, respectively.

The study has concluded that most of the routes they appraised were suitable for operating vessels for recreational and touristic purposes.

However, no concrete steps were taken by the government. One project that keeps propping up in connection to inland navigation is the controversial Saptakoshi High Dam Multipurpose Project.

The multipurpose project envisages construction of 269m high dam for flood control and benefits such as irrigation and power generation also envisions construction of a navigational canal.

The total length of Koshi Navigational Canal is expected to be 165km, out of which a 120 km long section would be in Indian territory.

India and Nepal agreed to begin the works to prepare a detailed project report at the location of the dam site
– Barahkshetra in Sunsari, where three tributaries of the Koshi converge.

The joint project office was set up in 2004 in Biratnagar.

However, the work has not progressed owing to strong opposition from the locals of the areas up in the hills and mountains that are expected to be inundated.

Challenges Considering the attempts at developing waterways since the past six decades, it is worthwhile to explore the reasons for river transportation not taking off.

The reasons could range from difficult hydromorphology to the lack of institutional capacity and policy-level indifference.

These issues become more pertinent as Nepal readies itself to embark on cross-border navigation on its transboundary rivers for enhanced connectivity.

Technical Hydromorphology refers to the physical characteristics of the riverine structures such as river bottom, river banks, the river’s connection with the adjacent landscapes and its longitudinal as well as habitat continuity.

Navigability and the extent of river engineering required depend upon hydromorphlogy.

The large rivers are highly complex, thus, it would be fallacious to stamp certain water bodies as navigable or not based on few parameters.

Two of the basic preconditions for navigation are least available depth (LAD) and buoyancy that allow vessels to move.

To ensure these conditions, flow of water is required to be maintained through dams, navigational locks and channeling of the river, known as river engineering,

Thus, the question here arises, how much work would be needed to make Nepali rivers navigable.

Nepali rivers originate in the Himalayas, thus, carry high sediment load that force the rivers to change course and depth frequently.

The Koshi River with a sediment load of about 187 million tonnes per year is notorious as ‘Sorrow of Bihar‘ for frequent and devastating floods.

Similarly, flowing down from the Himalayas through the valleys of Chure, the velocity of its flow reduces as the river reaches the Terai plains: from about 5 m/s at Chatara gorge to as low as 1.25 m/s as it enters India.

Similarly, the sediment load of Karnali is estimated to be about 92 million tonne per year while Saptagandaki or Narayani River yields 105 million tonnes.

The velocity of the river and high sedimentation that keeps forcing rivers to change course and depths may not be hospitable for inland navigation.

However, in the present day, there are different classifications of inland waterways based on the geological attributes of the waterways. Vessels have been developed that are suitable for navigation in accordance with the type of the waterways.

Thus, it is worth noting that, with a minimum river engineering also, Nepal could have short-haul river transport. Chatara-Simle jet boat is an example of such a possibility.

At the same time, considering the fragile conditions of the young Himalayan rivers and the surrounding areas, it is absolutely necessary to be highly aware about any impact on the environment from river engineering projects.

The environmental issues are directly linked with livelihood concerns as most of the people in the region are dependent on agriculture.

Institutional: policy-level indifference and difficulties:

Although Water Resource Strategy 2002, National Transport Policy 2002 and National Water Plan 2005 all have mentioned developing rivers as waterways for improved connectivity and livelihood opportunities, no work towards this end has been undertaken in reality, not even a study to ascertain navigability of the rivers, besides one exception.

Nepal does not have any laws or legislation to address water transport.

There is a Ship Registration Act, 1971 that provides legal ground for owning ships and boats for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The Act envisages setting up of Nepal Ship Office for the purpose of registration of such ships and boats that ply the international seas or Nepali waters.

In the absence of laws, the boat service providers operate under the laws and edicts of local bodies.

There needs to be a legal mechanism in place that will not only regulate the services for safety of the passengers and cargos but will also show the way for the service operators in the case of mishaps.

Moreover, in the absence of the Ministry of Water Resources, an authority to pursue the matter was also lacking. Before the state restructuring, a small division under the Ministry of Physical Planning and Infrastructure was responsible for waterways.

Given the size of the division, the allocated budget was not even enough to hire a research agency to conduct a feasibility study of the rivers, an official heading the division had said.

The Water and Energy Commission Secretariat also has its hands full with energy and irrigation issues, and has not heeded to the possibility of inland navigation.

However, the new Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation with its fresh mandate could play a pivotal role in this matter.

Also, the current Prime Minister Oli’s affinity towards water transport may help push the inland waterways into the national narrative. Transboundary Rivers Since all of the large rivers are transboundary and one of the major goals of developing inland waterways is for enhanced regional connectivity, Nepal will always be required to keep India in the picture while taking any major decision.

And, when India is involved in any water related issues, political controversy is always bound to happen. Nepal’s experience with India in river sharing has always left Nepal feeling cheated, be it Koshi Treaty, Gandak Treaty or the Mahakali Treaty.

As per the international laws, and ethically too, as an upstream country Nepal needs to discuss with the downstream region, India in this case, before undertaking any project that might have an impact on the hydromorphology of the water bodies.

However, among the political sphere and in the public sphere as well, Nepal is not in a place to fully trust India due to real and perceived reasons of slights.

Moreover, the narrative involving water and India has become complicated to an extent that even having an objective discourse is difficult.

In spite of such impasse, it is absolutely necessary to have an informed and science-backed discussion regarding the possibility of inland waterways connectivity between the two nations.

Moreover, Bangladesh, India and Nepal have already signed a Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) that has offered a possibility of seamless movement of vehicles in the region.

As a sequel to the MVA, the possibility for a Multi modal Transport Agreement which will encompass cross-border transit via inland waterways, along with road and rail, has also emerged.

Thus, Nepal not only needs to have a discourse with India but also with Bangladesh for the matter.

Similarly, Nepal being an upstream country should observe the developments being undertaken on Indian rivers from afar.

It is not only the downstream that is affected by the actions upstream, but the rivers are also affected by the actions being taken in the downstream as well.

However, the denouement of the transboundary issues always takes place at the negotiating table.

Nepal for its own various reasons has never been good at negotiations -all the river treaties being the examples.

Nepal needs to be fully prepared in the negotiations with science-backed arguments that will provide Nepal and its neighbours equitable share of the benefits accrued by any such navigation projects.

Transboundary navigation will be fraught with wide-ranging issues such as water sharing, environmental and ecological impacts, sharing the costs of maintaining navigational channels that will have multidimensional costs and benefits, issues related to security, issues related to trade facilitation and so on.

Thus, if Nepal wants to extract as many benefits as possible from transboundary connectivity, the country needs to negotiate a better deal.

Recommendations Getting connected to a network of inland waterways of India and Bangladesh could be highly beneficial to Nepal.

Recognising the potential of inland navigation as a gateway to better transport and trade infrastructure, Nepal has been envisioning development of waterways.

However, technical, institutional and political issues have prevented a concrete and result-oriented large-scale outcome to determine the future course of direction in this regard.

If Nepal wants to make inland waterways more than just a piped dream, a host of reforms and initiatives need to be undertaken.

The first and foremost is to undertake a comprehensive hydromorphological study of all of the major rivers.

Considering the changed geological conditions in the last century and the advent of new technologies, Nepal could come to some definitive conclusion on whether to pursue development of inland waterways or to give them up for good.

Even though the possibility of operating long haul large vessels on the rivers is slim, strong haul operations of jet boats are not entirely improbable.

Studies to identify those stretches are necessary to develop an integrated transport infrastructure.

Moreover, upgrading the existing traditional boats, with due consideration to social and ecological impacts, could also be opted to provide a head-start towards adoption of evolved river transport.

Equally important is the setting up of a strong institutional mechanism with legal footing if inland waterways are to be developed.

A body or an entity need to be assigned with the task of developing waterways and its peripheral activities.

Likewise, a comprehensive set of policies, Act and regulations also need to be framed to facilitate navigation in coordination with other water usage.

Nepal is on the verge of undertaking large multipurpose projects such as Budhigandaki hydropower project and Karnali Chisapani multipurpose projects.

Their project documents mention that navigation could be one of the benefits accrued but they do not seem to have provided serious thoughts to it.

Even the elusive Pancheswor Multipurpose project has failed to have taken benefits of navigation into account.

A mechanism should be in place that should explore navigation options whenever possible.

Furthermore, to establish transboundary inland waterways connectivity to facilitate trade and transport, Nepal needs to hold effective talks with the neighbouring countries- India and Bangladesh.

Negotiations should be based on informed science-backed research so that all sides could decide on equitable share of costs and benefits- with economic and environmental costs accounted for.

Having an integrated basin approach should be undertaken instead of focusing on certain rivers only, drawing an inspiration from the Danube River Commission and the Mekong River Commission.


ADB. “Asia’s Rivers and Canals: Inland Waterway Transport.” The Asian Development Bank. 08 22, 2013. https://www.adb.org/features/making asia-flow-inland-waterway-transport (accessed 12 12, 2016). ADB. South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation Operational Plan 2016-2025. Manila: Asian Developmet Bank, 2016. Aryal, Ravi Sharma, and Gautam Rajkarnikar. Water Resources of Nepal in the context of Climate Change. Kathmandu:Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, 2011. Ecocode Nepal and East Consult. Feasibility Study of Water Transport alongkoshi, Gandaki and Bheri River Basins/ Draft Report. Kathmandu: Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, Government of Nepal, 2013. International Navigation Association. Guidelines for Sustainable Inland Waterways and Navigation. Brussels: International Navigation Association, 2003. Karki, Mohan Dhoj. “Inland Water Transport.” In Water Resources Development, edited by Bhekh B Thapa and B Bharat Pradhan, 187-198. Kathmandu: Institute of Integrated Development Studies, 1995. Khanal, Omprakash. “Ojhelma Jalamarga.” Arthi Abhiyan Dainik, 11 13, 2014. WECS. National Water Plan. Kathmandu: Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, 2005. WECS. Water Resource Act. Kathmandu: Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, 1992. WECS. Water Resources Strategy. Kathmandu: Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, 2002.

Text courtesy: Association of Former Career Ambassadors of Nepal( AFCAN), Journal on Strategies for the Development and Management of Nepal’s Water Resources, 2020, edited by Dr. Khaga Nath Adhikari.
# Published with the straight permission from the AFCAN President. Ambassador Dr. Ram Bhakta Thakur. Thanks the distinguished author and President AFCAN: Ed. Upadhyaya.
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