Watershed Management for River Basins in Nepal

Nepal’s Irrigation Masterplan 2019 conceptualizes large multipurpose river diversion projects in the Karnali, Narayani, and Koshi river basins, which cross several provincial boundaries across Nepal. The diversion projects are multipurpose, and are schemed primarily to provide additional drinking and irrigation water to the downstream Terai belt while generating hydroelectricity as diverted water flows through the tunnel from the headworks. Most of the planned diversion projects involve transboundary water transfers across different provinces of the country. This feature of the plan has given rise to interprovincial grievances, which mainly stem from anticipated hydrologic alterations that are likely to impact the society, economy, environment, aesthetics, and culture of downstream localities outside the territory of the province hosting and benefiting from the project. Such grievances may escalate into an interprovincial dispute.

The interprovincial dispute on Kaligandaki-Tinau Multipurpose Diversion Project

One grievance of this nature has already come close to escalating into an interprovincial dispute: the Kaligandaki-Tinau Multipurpose Diversion Project in the Lumbini Province of Nepal. As much as the intra-basin water transfer project has elated the government of Lumbini province, it has agitated the government of Gandaki Province. Gandaki speculates that the project will adversely and multidimensionally affect the volumetric flow rate of the river at downstream locations of Syangja, Tanahun, and Nawalparasi-east districts that fall within the territory of Gandaki province. Owing to the objections and suits filed against the project, the Supreme court of Nepal has issued a stay order in the development of the project, and the project has stalled, at least momentarily.

The Kaligandaki-Tinau diversion project on Google map with municipalities, districts, and localities to be impacted by the project (Source: Prience Shrestha using Google Maps)

Institutionalizing watershed approach to pursue large water projects in Nepal

Planning and development of river diversion projects, as part of the broader watershed or basin-wide plan, can be an effective approach to multipurpose water projects, provided there is sufficient consideration of riparian communities, prior & future water beneficiaries, and instream water use. Such consideration can preclude or reduce the chances of interprovincial and stakeholder tensions regarding river diversion projects, as have currently held the Kaligandaki-Tinau Multipurpose Diversion Project in limbo. Such watershed or river basin-based planning approaches take place in a range of broader socio-economic and environmental contexts within the hydrological boundaries of the river basin. Meanwhile, undertaking such planning functions within the institutional arrangement of the federal-interprovincial nature of Nepal can provide additional support in securing sufficient ownership of basin development projects by local communities and governments at all levels. Most importantly, engagement of such institutional arrangement for basin planning, use, and development can avoid interprovincial dispute and court involvement in later stages of projects.

Presently, Nepal’s National Water Plan 2005 already conceptualizes an institutional arrangement to instigate basin-wide integrated planning, development, and management of basin systems. The plan envisions Water User Groups (WUGs) and Sub-basin commissions at the local-level, District Water Resource Commission (DWRC) and District Water Assembly (DWA) at the district-level, and river basin authorities at the central level to facilitate scientific land, water, and other resource use for conforming to Integrated Water Resource Management processes for river basin management. This arrangement could be repurposed to formulate a basin governance system by aligning it with the current federal system of governance that integrates local governments and water users at the ground level with federal and concerned provincial governments.

A sluice gate of Narayani Lift irrigation system in Bharatpur (Source: Khageri Irrigation Management Division Chitwan)

Learning from International applications of Federal-Interstate commission

Large dams and diversion projects concerning the development and optimal utilization of river systems for multiple purposes and benefits have occurred around the world. When undertaken at the behest and benefit of the provincial and federal government, such projects have often impacted the downstream and upstream riparian communities belonging to different provincial territories leading to interstate or interprovincial disputes. In response, countries such as the United States of America and Australia have established several interstate platforms dedicated to large transboundary river basins.

Out of such considerations, federal-interstate basin commissions such as the Delaware River Basin Commission and Susquehanna River Basin Commission of Delaware and Susquehanna River of United States of America (USA) have been commissioned and devolved with the entire task of planning projects within the basins, reviewing and approving projects conceptualized within the basin, allocating waters between regional governments hosting the river basin, and facilitating interstate concerns. Likewise, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, by the support of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Australia, engages in auditing the water quantity and quality of the Murray-Darling River basin. The underground reservoir covers the entire south-eastern region of Australia. The Council sets water diversion caps for states, engages in reforming water prices for irrigation purposes along the basin, and facilitates the establishment of inter-state transferable water entitlements. The role of the ministerial basin council in establishing and reforming the idea of water entitlements and marketization can be taken as a lesson to undertake similar functions through basin commissions in Nepal. In addition, the concept of water entitlements and marketization as being practiced in the USA, Australia, and other countries can contribute towards ensuring justifiable compensation for and voluntary participation of traditional water users and local riparian communities regarding water diversion activities.

The Murray-Darling Basin (Source: Murray-Darling Basin Authority (formerly commission))

The engagement of legislative basin commissions, as discussed above, has enabled the commissions to plan water development and diversion projects as part of the larger basin plan with sufficient representation of all agencies involved. Such planning of dams and diversion projects in a watershed approach has essentially preempted interprovincial and stakeholder disputes and has also eliminated the need for adjudication by the judicial branch amid the development of projects in the basins. A typical example of avoidance of judicial adjudication involves the classic agreement reached between SRBC and the City of Baltimore regarding the rights of the city to divert water from the Susquehanna River basin. The agreement is known to have prevented escalation between the city and the commission representing concerned States to court.

The benefit of watershed approach for planning and development of projects in river basins of Nepal

A watershed or basin approach to river system development and governance by establishing federal-interprovincial commissions with sufficient involvement of local entities can provide a more holistic approach to project planning in river systems in Nepal. It can address overlapping and conflicting responsibilities of multiple governments over a single body of water. It can address numerous issues concerning water quality and quantity, ground and surface water & land use, and water impact across the hydrological boundaries of the basin in a more coordinated fashion. Importantly, it conveys the need for basin commissions to be established in the three major river basins and sub-basin systems of Nepal. This approach is essential as the country pledges to develop river basins to yield multipurpose benefits in the future.

This article was originally published in Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water by Prience Shrestha on October 19, 2021.