Water resources will be the next contentious issue in a federal Nepal
Nepal’s forests are no longer a natural resource to be tapped for development, water is. Only 12 per cent of Nepal’s 4 million hectares of arable land is irrigated, that too mostly during the rainy season. Most of the rivers are snow-fed, so if we construct reservoir and canal network, we can irrigate land in the hills and Tarai all year round. Farms can have three, even four harvests, a year. There is no need for Nepal to be food-deficit. Water resource has multi-dimensional utilization (irrigation, drinking, transportation, and tourism, industrial) and, therefore, it shouldn’t just be understood as a source of energy. We can earn more from rafting based tourism than generating hydroelectricity from the Bhote Kosi, for instance. Kosi, Gandaki, Karnali including Bagmati can be used as waterways, the cheapest means of transport. Nepali leaders often talk about the country’s hydropower potential, and dream of exporting it to India. Even if hydro-electricity is generated, its most productive use would be domestic, to power industries and generate employment locally. By exporting raw power to India, we can earn some cash in the form of royalties of under 3 percent which will not help domestic economic growth. In a federal system, there is a bigger chance that federal units will independently negotiate to export power to India. Electricity rich provinces can sell power to those who pay the most. Most of the Nepal’s hydro-energy sites are in the mid-west, which generate over 300 MW but only half of it is consumed in the region.
At present, the central development region generates over 250 MW, of which almost all power is consumed here. But the eastern region generates only 14 MW but this is the region which consumes the highest amount of power. The mid west will export to the eastern region only if it is ready to pay the amount it demands or else it will export to India for better price.
Melamchi is in future Tamsaling province. If the Newa province wants to bring Melamchi water, it should be ready to pay the price Tamsling demands. Kathmanduites who are paying Rs 50 per month for water, will have to pay a lot more as the price of water. If Newa fails to pay the price, Tamsaling is free to sell it to whichever province pays the price. Nepal Mandala has no potential for hydro electricity. If it is declared a separate province, either people will have to live in the dark or import the power at a high price. For energy and regulated water, we need to build reservoirs on our rivers, which will inundate land in the fertile valleys. The upper riparian province will therefore be deprived of using the water, and the lower riparian will benefit. A federal Nepal will face the same issues we now currently face vis-à-vis India about river basin development. How will it be possible to irrigate Jhapa without submerging valleys in the Limbuwan province? When two provinces compete, a third province can benefit, and these disputes can weaken the nation. Decision on water resources should therefore not be devolved to the provincial units but be the prerogative of the centre, like foreign policy and defense.
But the proposed ethnic-based provinces will not accept this idea. Nepal has already signed the ILO Convention 169, which allows control of the indigenous communities over the natural resources. In other words, this convention goes against the argument that there should be central jurisdiction over water resources. The bottom line is that a federal system will not be conducive to Nepal’s national interest with regards to sharing benefits from water resources, and it will affect our development process.
This opinion piece is a translated adaptation of the original printed in NAGARIK on AUGUST 9, 2009 and published in Nepali Times of 14-20 August 2009 (#464)