Hydel Projects Trigger Water Crisis in Kalanga River Basin, Affecting Rural Communities


Farmers in several village of Kedarsyun Rural Municipality are grappling with water scarcity, and mourners cannot take ritual dips after cremating body

On October 22, a 40-year-old woman from ward 4 of Kedarsyun Rural Municipality in Bajhang, fell off a cliff while cutting grass and suffered critical injuries. She was rushed to Dhangadhi town of Kailali for lack of a good hospital in Bajhang. But the doctors in Dhangadhi advised her family to take her to a well-facilitated hospital. However, her family thought it better to take her home since they weren’t able to manage enough money for her treatment at a bigger hospital elsewhere. She died two days later in Dadeldhura on October 24 on her way home.

The family of the deceased took the dead body to the Kalanga River near their village in Sainsu for cremation. However, the family faced difficulties in performing the funeral rites of the deceased at the river. As per the Hindu rituals the dead body is cremated atop a pyre set on the river bank. The remains are then immersed in the water. But the Kalanga River was dry when the family reached the river bank with the dead body.

“The funeral attendants brought firewood from the village. Once the body was cremated, there was no water to wash the ashes,” said Jeeban Bhandari, the brother-in-law of the deceased. “Traditionally, the funeral attendants have to take a ritual dip in the river after the cremation. But we couldn’t do so, because the river was dry.”

The Kalanga River runs dry in an around 3.5 km stretch from Pauta in Bungal Municipality to Rupail of Bitthadchir Rural Municipality. The 15-megawatt Kalangagad Hydropower Project has diverted the entire river to its powerhouse and releases the water a few kilometers downstream. As a result, the locals of Sainsu, Thapaguan, Lotagada, Bina, Bhadsain, and Bhamchaur among other settlements in Kedarsyun and Bitthadchaur have been affected.

According to the locals, the hydel project has completely blocked the river since April. “People from farther settlements are hit the hardest due to lack of water in the river. Those who hold some influence ask the hydropower project to release water during cremation. But the commoners are deprived of that,” said Dharma Raj Bhat of Sainsu.

The daily life of the local people has also been affected due to a lack of water in the river. The locals used to wash clothes and bring their animals to drink water in the river. “The river that people could not wade across in the past has turned into a sandy bed. We now face problems managing water for the animals and for household use,” said Bimala Bhandari of Sedikhola in Kedarsyun. According to her, she has to walk for more than half an hour to get to another water source to wash her clothes.

There are three hydropower projects in the Kalanga River and its main tributary Sanigad. A 38-megawatt Upper Kalanga Hydropower Project was constructed at Dahabagar in Bungal-1 while another hydel project of 10 megawatts is in operation in the Sanigad stream.

The ecosystem in the area has been affected after the power projects diverted the rivers. “Forget fish, it’s even hard to find earthworms in the Kalanga River within the 3.5 km section. Great cormorants, swans and other birds and animals that used to frequent the river are all missing now,” said Gorakh Bhandari of Sainsu.

Many people from impoverished communities in the area used to earn a living by fishing in the Kalanga River until a few years back. Many such people in Dahabar, Khiratadi, Pipalkot, Kaphalseri, Sunkusa, and Banjh are hugely affected by the drying up of the river.

“Fish population started declining since hydro projects detonated explosives to construct tunnels a few years ago. The river is dry now. There are no aquatic animals in the river anymore,” said Janak Bohara of Sainsu. “Many people who earlier eked out a living by fishing have no alternative to go to India for work,” said Janak, who estimates that around 1,000 people who traditionally fished for livelihood have been affected.

Similarly, 10 irrigation channels constructed along the banks of the Kalanga River remain closed as there is no water in the river. “We transplanted paddy with the help of rainwater and floodwaters in the local streams. During the dry season, the river becomes completely dry. The wheat plants in our fields are withering,” said Gaurilal Bohara of Sedikhola in Kedarsyun. “We repeatedly asked the hydropower project to release water for irrigation. But they did not heed our request. How can we grow crops to survive?” said Gaurilal. According to him, around 400 farmers in the area have been affected after the irrigation canals ran dry.

The Hydropower Development Policy 2001 requires that any hydropower project must ensure the release of at least 10 percent of the river’s minimum monthly average flow or the minimum quantity specified in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. However, the two hydropower projects have not been releasing water in the required volume.

“The project officials had assured us that we would not have any problems because of the hydel projects. But we now find ourselves in this difficult situation. We met the project manager several times and shared our problems. He said he did not know about the problem and suggested meeting the investor instead,” said Narendra Bhandari, the headmaster of Sainsu-based Jagannath Secondary School. The hydropower project is promoted by a group of investors including former state minister Umesh Shrestha.

Environmentalists assert that the hydropower projects blocking the river completely is an environmental crime. “Completely blocking the river is clearly against the existing laws of the country,” said Sagar Dhakal, a professor of environment science at the Tribhuvan University.

Kalanga Hydropower Project, however, denies degrading the environment by not releasing water as per the legal provision. “The locals visited me several times complaining about the drying up of the river. We release water in the cultivation season. The project also fails to generate electricity as expected due to the low volume of water in the river,” said Basant Raut, chief of the hydropower project.

Source: The Kathmandu Post – Basant Pratap Singh