Nepal’s water resources development plans are flawed: What should be done?

A view of Marsyangdi River.(Photo: Wikipedia)
  • Read Time 8 min.

Holistic development of water resources through the multi-dimensional management and utilization of available water-resources remains largely unachieved in Nepal. The state of having sufficient water seems to have made the nation complacent, resulting in lack of urgency and sense of priority in water-resources development.

Water resources, labelled as ‘white gold ‘ for long, have largely remained unmanaged and unutilized. That rivers and water-resources are key agents of Nepal’s economic transformations is limited to rhetoric. The availability becomes meaningless unless we utilize it for a common good. Strategic development of water-resources can become the panacea of all socio-economic problems facing the country.

Over the years, several new challenges have emerged in addition to the pre-existing conventional water problems in Nepal. The increase in the frequency of extreme events and the consequent disasters is likely to be a major impediment to the development of water-resources in the coming days. Majority of our water resources are located in the hills and mountains which are exposed to multiple hazards. These hazards are further expected to exacerbate as a consequence of unscientific land-use practice, haphazard development and, not to forget, the changing pattern of monsoon.

Even though we are in the very beginning of monsoon this year, floods and landslides have led to severe damages of many hydropower projects, bridges and other infrastructure. We need to include a risk management plan as an integral part of Nepal’s water-resources development policy to avert such damages.

In various water resource project sites, conflict between the upstream and downstream water users has led to the premature termination of many projects. Resolving such conflicts will require proper planning and management of different aspects of water-resources in local, provincial as well as federal levels.

Tracking the trajectory

History of water resources development in Nepal is rather short but it has seen plenty of ups and downs. Various legal instruments have been created to systematize water resource development in the country. Water Resources Act (1992) was formulated for providing a basis for the management of water resources. Similarly, the Water-Resources Strategy (2002) facilitated by the National Water Plan (2005) laid a foundation for the development of water-resources for a period of 25 years. The ultimate goal was to “improve the living condition of Nepalese in a sustainable manner” through the sectoral development and improvement of water resources. Out of 10 specific outputs set in the Water-Resources Strategy, majority were centered on the utilization of water resources for fulfilling the water-supply, irrigation and hydropower needs. The essence was that the water resources development should contribute significantly to national economic growth and poverty alleviation.

Electricity can be a key driver in the overall economic growth of the country. This is evident from the experiences of several countries. Take Bhutan, where the development of the hydropower sector transformed the country’s economy and people’s well-being. 

In Nepal, however, hydro power development stands at a slow pace. In the last two decades, installed hydropower capacity has increased from about 400MW to a mere 1200MW while the 14th National Plan (2016/17-2018/19) had set a target to increase the installed capacity to 2300 MW from 850MW.  These figures are just the representatives that expose the problem that lies in our implementation strategy and framework.

Under the circumstances, how can we expect that the goals that we have set for the future development of water resources will be materialized? We still depend disproportionately on electricity import from India, which accounts for over one-third of the total power usage in the country. Yes, some progress is noticeable. Survey licenses for 302 projects with a total capacity of 15,885 MW have been already issued, out of which 172 projects have secured generation licenses and construction is ongoing for total capacity of 4,642 MW. Power purchase agreements have been completed for 244 projects with total capacity of 4,138 MW as of 2019 according to the recent study by Asian Development Bank (ADB). But our implementation efficiency is fraught.

River systems of Nepal

Admittedly, hydroelectricity has acted as a catalyst in elevating the economic growth of the country from about four percent in the 2000s to nearly seven percent in 2018.  In 2018, services accounted for 51.6 percent of GDP, followed by agriculture (26.2 percent) and industry (13.4 percent). It should be noted, however, that electricity development alone is not the end goal, the ultimate objective of electricity development should be to enable economic activities which will enhance the national economy.

Therefore, the government should simultaneously focus on improving industrial infrastructure, introduce policy reforms to motivate businesses which will utilize the electricity for manufacturing and promote small scale entrepreneurs. Nepal has set the target of adding over 1200MW electricity this year. However, Nepal Electricity Authority has no plan on how to utilize the surplus energy. Proper planning is necessary before any water-resources development project is undertaken.

Irrigation and agriculture

Development of the irrigation system is another important component of the river utilization but in Nepal, the hydropower sector remains largely dominant. The budget allocated in the hydropower sector is over two times that of the irrigation sector. Ironically, irrigation development remains an overlooked priority in a country where agriculture accounts for nearly one-third of the GDP. Of course, irrigation itself cannot be a stand-alone driver of economic growth, but it is a prerequisite (like electricity) for supporting and enhancing agricultural productivity. Without reforms in agricultural policy and practices, we won’t be able to reap full benefits from irrigation.

Why have we achieved so little amid abundance of water resources? We often focus on what should be done in the future but the factors that led us to this level of under-achievement are often overlooked.

Against this backdrop, Water Resource Strategy has identified irrigation development as one of the main inputs in increasing food production. But it is mainly focused on the conventional approaches of irrigation. It has also recognized the lack of reciprocal relationship between irrigation and agriculture as a key hindrance to achieving the effective output from the implementation of irrigation projects.  Development in the irrigation sector should be complemented by the improvement in the agriculture sector.

In the last few decades, land abandonment, out-migration of people from villages to cities and abroad, diminishing agricultural land, urbanization, among others, have impacted the agriculture sector. Emphasizing agriculture as the engine of growth, Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) was formulated with a goal of taking the agriculture sector to a high growth path from 1995 to 2015.  Irrigation was identified as one of the priority inputs in APP where the year-round irrigation was targeted to increase from just under 0.5 million hectares to slightly over one million.

Despite some achievements, the goals set by the APP have not materialized due to the poorly formulated plan, ambitious targets and inadequate institutional capacity for implementation. As a result, the expected output from the implementation of irrigation projects has been only partially achieved. Learning from the fallouts in APP, Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) has been formulated with the goal of achieving ‘self-reliant, sustainable, competitive, and inclusive agricultural sector that drives economic growth and contributes to improved livelihoods and food and nutrition security leading to food sovereignty’ for a period of 20 years from 2015 to 2035. ADS intends to ameliorate food trade deficit, expand year-round irrigation from 18 percent to 80 percent of the agriculture area and increase agriculture land productivity (AGDP) from 1800 USD/ha to 4800USD/ha. Accomplishing these targets will require rapid progresses in implementation strategy and paradigm shifts in agriculture policies.

Photo: World Vision

The Irrigation Master Plan (IMP) of 1990 formed a basis for the overall planning, implementation and management of irrigation development in Nepal. It will now be replaced by IMP-2019 which will pave the way for sustainable irrigation development till 2044. The core goal of IMP-1990 was to improve food self-sufficiency through irrigation development by enhancing agricultural productivity. Though irrigated agriculture area increased from 0.9 million hectares to 1.4 million hectares, the national food self-sufficiency decreased from 90 to 83 percent during 1990-2019.

Irrigation Policy (2013) aims to implement multi-purpose projects, use groundwater for irrigation, use non-conventional irrigation methods etc as the major activities for the sustainable irrigation development. Irrigation development in hills and the mountains should be focused to promote the local economy and living standards of the local people. Without the implementation of some mega irrigation projects of strategic importance, national economic growth won’t be realized.

The 15th National Plan of Nepal recognized the lack of inter-basin transfer and multipurpose storage projects as the major impediments to the underachievement in the irrigation sector. This has been reflected in the IMP-2019 which has prioritized the execution of seven mega projects of multi-purpose nature. In addition to these, IMP-2019 has also emphasized the utilization of groundwater resources which will complement the mega projects in augmenting the irrigation in Tarai region. Irrigation is yet to be expanded in the vast agriculture areas of Tarai, the food basket of Nepal. Further, the existing irrigation systems have encountered several hydrological, morphological, hydraulic and operational problems.  Out of 2.5 million hectares irrigable area across the country, almost 1.5million hectares lie in the Tarai region which shows how important irrigation is for this region.

The newly drafted Water Resources Management and Regulation Bill (2020) has incorporated several aspects to address the water resources management and development challenges that evolved in recent years. Focus on the sectoral development of water-resources rather than a basin level planning was a main drawback in the National Water Plan. The Bill has defined the planning and optimum utilization of water resources at the river basin level. It also lays emphasis on the inter-basin transfer of water from surplus basin to a deficit basin. These aspects were missing in the Water Resources Act and the Water Resources Strategy.

Broad framework  

Rather than implementing on a project-to-project basis, inter-basin transfer and other multi-purpose schemes should be inducted in a broader framework of national water-resources development. In this context, we suggest that Nepal learn from the National Water Grid (NWG) of India, which was first proposed by Dr KL Rao, the then minister of water-resources in 1972. According to this concept, river basins will be zoned according to the water availability and interlink where the deficient basins will receive the water from the surplus basins. This concept will not only help achieve multiple benefits from river flow utilization but also prevent flood hazards. Majority of rivers in Chure and Tarai remain dry for most periods of the year. They can be revitalized which will not only improve river state but also provide valuable benefits to the riparian area.

The actual water crisis in Nepal arises from the sheer mal-distribution of the water-resources which is further compounded by the wrong spatial distribution of population.

The Department of Water Resources and Irrigation (DoWRI), the government body that oversees water resources management and irrigation development, has not been able to do its mandated job. Formulating policy guidelines, enhancing technical expertise of its staff, providing critical analysis to the government on trans-boundary water conflict etc are yet to become its mainstream practices.

Over 34 billion rupees has been spent in the last five years by different government offices in outsourcing the consulting services according to various media reports. Consultants are in general meant for providing the specific expertise which sometimes can be deficient in the institution. However, most of our institutions are fully dependent on the consultants even for the basic works which can be done by themselves.

Suchana Acharya (L) and Saroj Karki

A separate section fully dedicated for the design and planning should be prioritized with sufficient human and other technical resources. Under the current institutional arrangement and policy, the technically skilled human resources, which can improve implementation aspects, focus on developing innovative ideas and envision long-term water resources development plans, are made to sort out messy administrative issues. In this situation and under the current framework, accelerating river utilization will be daunting.

Way forward

Why have we achieved so little amid abundance of water resources? We often focus on what should be done in the future but the factors that led us to this level of under-achievement are often overlooked.

 “The more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future,” said Theodore Roosevelt. Analyzing the flaws of the past policies will help us make a better decision for the future. Rather than formulating separate policies and strategies for each sub-sectoral use, all the aspects of water-resources development including agriculture should be included within a common framework of policy because each individual sub-sector is interrelated to each other.

It is necessary to understand how our river systems and the overall water–resources function to be able to overcome the challenges. The actual water crisis in Nepal arises from the sheer mal-distribution of the water-resources which is further compounded by the wrong spatial distribution of population. The double-edged adversity—spatial and temporal variations—inflicts the water woes in the country.

Brahma Chellaney in his book Water, Peace and War writes that, ‘the greater the seasonal variability of water availability in the economy, the greater the economy’s risk of experiencing water-induced shocks’. In order to absorb these shocks, water-resources projects that serve the multi-purpose benefits should be at the core of the water-resources development plan of Nepal. Are we ready for that change?

Suchana Acharya and Saroj Karki are water resources engineers working with the government sector.