Unravelling Water Woes: Neglected Transboundary Crisis in Nepal’s Churia Range

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The Bhote Koshi river symbolizes the realistic fight of climate change and the environment. AFP

Nepal is sacrificing its ecology and neglecting domestic priorities to build economic ties with India, says Ramesh Bhushal

This June, monsoon rains wreaked havoc in Nepal’s hilly regions, but the country’s southern lowlands were instead reeling from a severe lack of water. Tube wells dried out in several parts of Parsa district, in a drought shared by regions over the border in India.

The southernmost foothills of the Himalayas – known as the Churia Range where they lie in Nepal, and Siwalik in India – face serious environmental problems due to soil erosion, deforestation and rapid population growth. In addition, shifting rainfall patterns caused by climate change have led to severe water crises in several areas.

However, experts say this transboundary water crisis is absent from the political agenda.

By late July, the journalist Chandra Kishore was lamenting the crisis from Birgunj, a border town in India’s Bihar state: “I have consistently raised the issue of Churia-Siwalik range degradation that has resulted into water crisis in the southern plains … It is our collective failure to bring this discussion to the forefront and it is a missing issue in our bilateral relations.”

Talking to The Third Pole, Chandra Kishore expresses his frustration that these important issues never seem to be on the national agenda in India or Nepal – much less the countries’ conversations with each other: “Kathmandu listens a bit but doesn’t act, [since] the leadership is [too] busy dealing with India on how to stay in power.” Furthermore, Bihar is currently governed by a party that opposes India’s federal coalition parties. According to Chandra Kishore, “Bihar’s voice rarely reaches Delhi.”

Chandra Kishore’s frustration speaks to a wider failure by the Nepali government to prioritise domestic problems – from changing water cycles and ecological destruction to inadequate electricity grids – if they complicate or threaten economic ties with India.

Official silence on climate change

India and Nepal share multiple rivers that flow from the Himalayas, each central to the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens – and each vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In particular, the Ganga River Basin (Asia’s most populous) lies mainly within India and Nepal and is beset with water-management issues, including poor river conservation, a lack of research on water resources and insufficient groundwater recharge.

To India, climate change is a foreign agenda and for Nepal, it’s something to talk about to be nice.

Rather than talking about the various vulnerabilities of their shared rivers, India and Nepal use these meetings to explore the potential of hydropower. This is unsurprising, given that hydro represents approximately 96% of Nepal’s installed electricity capacity. During Nepali prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India in June, a long-term energy trade agreement was finalised: Modi confirmed in a joint press conference that “India will import 10,000 megawatts of electricity in the next decade.” The only point relating to water was a brief mention of flood control.

Meanwhile, several transboundary projects, ranging from railways to petroleum pipelines, were inaugurated in June. These included the second construction phase of South Asia’s first transnational petroleum pipeline, the Motihari-Amlekhganj.

Nepal’s former water resources minister, Dipak Gyawali, tells The Third Pole: “To India, climate change is a foreign agenda and for Nepal, it’s something to talk about to be nice, especially with western countries.”

Power distribution problems

While Nepal emphasises delivering hydroelectricity for India, some of its own people are yet to receive an adequate supply. At a tea stall in Bhaisepati, a southern neighbourhood of the Kathmandu Valley in central Nepal, one tea maker (who wished to remain anonymous) spoke to The Third Pole: “It’s hard to rely on an electric stove … I don’t understand why there are frequent power cuts.”

This was in late July, when the monsoon rains were in full swing, and rivers were swollen – good conditions for generating hydropower. Speaking to The Third Pole, Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) spokesperson Suresh Bahadur Bhattarai says current installed hydropower capacity and generation in Nepal are approximately 2,800 megawatts (MW) and 2,100MW respectively, while peak demand is approximately 1,800MW. In other words, power should be available. However, Nepal has distribution issues.

Source: The Third Pole