Nepali Times
Harm reduction

Trust our rulers to try to wreck what is working. In a country where there are so many other priorities (ensuring there is no famine by winter, planning now to avert next year's cholera epidemic, keeping prices down, creating jobs) you'd expect any sane government to be in permanent crisis management mode. Not here. Here, we are too busy trying to fix things that ain't broke.


One of the few things this country can be justifiably proud of is the setting up of national parks like Chitwan which rescued tigers and rhinos from the brink of extinction. Chitwan is cited the world over as a model for people-park relations and in community mobilisation for buffer zone protection.

Credit goes to Nepal's visionary conservationists, who in the 1980s had the creativity and foresight to find home-grown solutions, and had the integrity and management skills to implement them. Chitwan became synonymous with ecotourism: the healthy symbiosis between private sector entrepreneurship and the state's responsibility to protect the environment.

World-renowned, award-winning resorts like Tiger Tops pioneered responsible conservation tourism and set standards for others not only in Nepal but internationally. The area around these resorts have the richest biodiversity within the park, and the presence of tourism helps stop poaching. Other parks with no eco-tourism have been decimated by poachers.

And now, on the pretext that their contracts need to be renewed, the government has closed down the lodges inside the park. We understand there is a lot of vested interest at work here: buffer zone lodges want the resorts inside parks closed down, or they want to be inside too. Resort owners inside the park are trying to run each other down, and there is evidence new ministers and senior bureaucrats want a piece of the action.

Nepal's reputation for being an ecotourism pioneer is at stake here. Income for conservation from royalty, jobs for villagers in the buffer zone are threatened as tour groups cancel peak season bookings. Our recommendation: immediately reopen the lodges inside the park while the longer-term issues are worked out rationally.


Sometimes, the lack of logic in our planning defies logic. Kathmandu Valley's population has doubled to 3 million in the past 10 years, outstripping its limits to growth. The summer water shortage has turned into a year-round crisis. Back then, there was a workable and affordable plan: building a necklace of storage reservoirs on the Valley rim, upgrading antiquated mains to cut loss and improve distribution.

But, of course, we decided 30 years ago to opt for the much more grandiose $500 million Melamchi project to divert snow-fed streams from Helambu to Sundarijal through a 26km tunnel. It was foolhardy to go for a white elephant when cheaper, more sustainable, alternatives were available but we went ahead anyway.

Today, one could make the argument that with the present rate of urbanisation, Kathmandu will need Melamchi in future. But by hurriedly inaugurating the tunnel last week Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal's government has compounded the original mistake by making another.

If Melamchi is inevitable, then it makes much more sense to increase the radius of the tunnel from 3.7m to 5, add hydropower and irrigation components in the Bagmati for very little additional cost and reap huge side-benefits. (See: 'Revisiting a multi-purpose Melamchi', Nepali Times, #379) You kill three birds with one stone with this plan that has been floating around for five years, and yet successive governments and the mandarins in Manila have over-ruled it over turf-battles and possible payoffs.

There isn't that much of a cost differential for a wider tunnel because it can accommodate trucks, making it cheaper than rail for drilling and debris removal. Adding water from Larke, Yangri and possibly Balephi will allow the generation of up to 260MW of power and feed into Bagmati irrigation in the Tarai. This way, it won't just be Kathmandu's pampered citizens that usurp benefits from Melamchi, rice farmers in the plains will benefit and the power will feed into the national grid.

Our hunch is that in both Chitwan and Melamchi the possibility of kickbacks sway decision-making in times of political transition. Fine, we'd be na?ve to assume that corruption can be eradicated. The least our MPs investigating Chitwan, Melamchi and other issues this weekend in the Parliamentary Accounts Committee can do is to ask that the government's decisions, however lubricated they may be by payoffs, meet the broad national interest.

Let's at least try to minimise the harm caused by mismanagement, poor planning and corruption.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)