Friday, May 1, 2009

Federalism will hinder optimal exploitation of water resources

For this scribe “People’s Movement II” is “Rhododendron Revolution” of 2006 which not only paved path for the abolition of much maligned monarchy, subsequent to Royal Palace massacre – reportedly committed by the then Crown Prince who is alleged to have committed suicide after committing heinous crime of regicide (also patricide), matricide, fratricide (both bother and sister) and also killing off an uncle and couple of aunts (however, most of the people still do not believe this “yarn” – which denigrated royalties (mainly the last “monarch” of Nepal and his son) in the eyes of the “loyal subjects” of Nepal, in 2001 June, but also afforded an opportunity for the people of Nepal to write a constitution of their own – through the elected Constituent Assembly. The assembly is supposed to decide the form and content of the constitution and also the structure of the state as to whether federal or unitary. However, the overzealous people in the commission writing Interim Constitution went out of way to declare that Nepal will be a federal state; preempting the people’s representatives in the assembly from deliberating about it and arriving at a well thought through decision. Now it has become a contentious issue as to whether spinning off of Nepal into an indeterminate number of provinces under federal structure is really a good idea. Here an attempt is being made to analyze how will federalism affect optimal exploitation of water resources.

Water Resource – Unique Natural Resource
Optimal exploitation of most of the natural resources can be done locally. They can benefit by cultivating land, harvesting it, collecting herbs, living off forest or extracting minerals. But water resource is a different kind of natural resource and things are not that simple with its exploitation. Local inhabitants can benefit, for example, by building micro hydropower project (less than 100 kW) or from water based tourism like rafting. But exploitation at a larger scale to benefit from scale economy results in different set of additionalities and externalities.

Construction of a run-of-the-river (RoR) hydropower at a specific site deprives upper riparian populace from using the river water for consumptive uses (i.e. irrigation) as any reduction in the quantum of water will result in decrease in electricity generation and in turn downsizing the revenue stream. Similarly, a patch of the river will become dewatered as water will be diverted from the river into powerhouse through a network of canal/tunnel and eventually penstock pipe by building intake. The people dependent on this patch of river will face severe water scarcity – amply demonstrated by the dewatered area in Marshyangdi River by the highway to Pokahra. If the users of electricity come from a different province, the people adversely impacted as such will never agree to construction of implementation of hydropower plant in their province resulting in failure to generate electricity at optimum level.

Reservoir Project
Contrasted with RoR project, a storage project will entail building a reservoir resulting in inundation/submergence of large tracts of fertile agricultural land, forest and even extant infrastructure and will also displace the inhabitants. Daily pondage project also causes similar adverse impact, by a lesser magnitude, though. In this scenario, people of the province set to lose their land and to get displaced will not be too eager to build a project if the electricity is to be used in another province. Moreover, storage project also generates downstream benefit in terms of augmented flow which benefits the lower riparian people by making water available for water supply, irrigation, industrial use, improvement of watershed and they can also use the same for water sports based tourism and navigation. In this backdrop people in upper riparian province will have no reason to agree to build such a project, thus scuttling the prospect of implementation of a multipurpose project, but for federal structure.

Resettlement of people displaced by a multipurpose project will also become problematic as there is scarcity of good land in the hills where such projects could be sited while the resettlement in the area where necessary land is available will not be allowed for reasons of disturbing ethnic balance. Tharus in western Terai are already objecting to the resettlement plan for people to be displaced by West Seti project. After formation of separate provinces, the ensuing tussle will take the form of agitation as to why should upper riparian province lose land and its people to electricity for some far off city.

Irrigation and Flood Control
Nepal has 3.97 million hectares of cultivated land (mostly in Terai) and only 0.5 million hectares (only 12.6%) has some irrigation (mostly during rainy season). Cultivation of multiple crops in a year – imperative to ensure food security in the country (including high value cash crop that will make the farmers there prosperous) – requires massive irrigation during dry season which is possible only by building a reservoir in the hills that will store water during the rainy season (about 4 months in year) for irrigation during other 8 months. Building reservoirs as such will also control flood in the river’s flood plain in the Terai. But such a scheme will be precluded after splitting the country into federal structure for reasons explained above, especially if Terai is to become a separate province.

Suppose it is decided to have 5 provinces in the lines of current development regions, then western development region will be generating most of hydropower (over 329 MW), using only about half of its generation capacity, while eastern region will be consuming a lot more than what it generates (under 14 MW). Central development region will consume a little more than it generates (275 MW). Under federal structure this type of happy sharing will not be possible. Simple issue like pricing can spin out of control and provinces with more generation capacity can shut off power if the price is not right.

Dispute over water resource
What is happening in India should be an eye opener for us in Nepal about to cross the threshold into federalism. There is dispute between Punjab and Haryana over Yamuna Sutlej Link canal. A clutch of states are fighting over Narmada and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka do not see eye to eye on Cauvery. All this is impeding optimal exploitation of water resource in India, although she has adopted federal structure due to her huge land mass.

Negotiating power
From Koshi through Gandaki, Tanakpur and Mahakali treaties Nepal has ended up getting raw deals. These things took place before Nepal went federal. After implementing federalism, each province will be squabbling with other province/s and Nepal’s negotiation capacity will be further weakened vis-à-vis India and the nightmare of a “monkey” from abroad settling dispute between two “cats” - siblings - over sharing of a bread of loaf (water resource) and monkey ending up eating the bread bite by bite will become a reality. Merely this should disssuade patriotic Nepali people from breaking up Nepal into several provinces.

Implementing water resource projects in a federal structure will become difficult/daunting task due to competing demands over water and clashing aspirations of each province and several provinces. The complications will get compounded due to the convention of demarcating provinces by using rivers as the boundary. This will result in diametrically opposite aspiration of one province with that of the province on the other side of the river.

In view of this, and also due to the fact that Nepal is as small or smaller than a reasonable sized province of India and most federal nations, we need to tread cautiously before going for federal structure. As far as water resource is concerned, splitting the country in haste will provide us ample opportunity to repent at leisure.

(A shorter version of it was published in Nepali Times # 449 (1-7 May 2009.)

No comments: