DANIEL M MAXWELL
From Kathmandu, the troubled Melamchi Water Supply Project appears as just another development debacle similar to a number of stalled hydropower projects. Melamchi itself, however, has introduced a national conversation about the community's concern regarding project benefits and equitability.
The project was supposed to be completed in 2006, but work on the 26km tunnel that will bring water from a snow-fed river to Kathmandu is only 10 per cent finished. Many argue that the Melamchi project's inter-basin water transfer is too ambitious and expensive for Nepal.
There are also political concerns, as Nepalis debate natural resource exploitation under a future federal structure. The project costs half of the country's annual budget, yet it will only supply the capital's water needs. The Melamchi Social Upliftment Program (SUP) has been trying to promote local development in the region, but the debate continues: are the people of the Melamchi Valley merely project stakeholders, or furthermore, are they entitled to become project shareholders?
The SUP is only a small component of the overall project, and was conceived late into the project cycle to appease local groups demanding benefits. The unusual manner by which locals have won their demands carries unprecedented implications for Nepal's development path.
The project site office near Melamchi Pul Bazaar looks like a fortress, with a perimeter barbed wire fence, and an army base and police station nearby. Throughout the war, the project site was often attacked, further delaying construction work. Nonetheless, conflicts plagued the project years after the war. Blockades were staged by affected villagers, where the main office was sometimes padlocked by five different groups simultaneously. In 2010 alone, the office was padlocked for seven months.
Local groups secured most of their demands, allowing the project to move forward. The rural movement, facilitated by the Norwegian Norplan Consulting, led to the formation of a local NGO to implement SUP which was partly instrumental in amplifying the concerns of the community.
The local NGO is comprised of an autonomous committee, where each member represents one of the 14 VDCs eligible for SUP funds. The SUP initiative outlined five objectives: the creation of a Langtang buffer zone, broader health and education services, formation of income generation programs, and rural electrification.
Such objectives may be an opportunity for local capacity building with a participatory approach, a remedy across rural Nepal where local autonomy is almost non-existent. Perhaps this is how project planners intend to present SUP to the mainstream in order to maintain public support for an increasingly unpopular program.
Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence this is happening. Despite the ability to efficiently allocate funds, the committee is often deadlocked about how to disburse them. The SUP's annual Rs 65 million is therefore handed to an arguably dysfunctional VDC, a politicised arena with competing economic interests.
The more troubling aspect of SUP is the unhealthy political space it opens, which affects participation. By channelling funds to the VDC, the SUP has further polarised local politics. This has been seen in VDC-organised Water User Committees which are used by members as an arena to 'gauge' their political strength. Individual members of the committee usually become prominent through oppositional politics against the VDC chairman. In such an environment, party politics takes precedence over local representation.
The future of SUP is uncertain, as only verbal agreements negotiate benefit sharing. Currently, the government has promised one per cent of Melamchi water revenues for local benefit sharing. The foremost demand from locals, however, is a written agreement from the government for 10 per cent of benefits, comparable to hydropower projects which provide 12 per cent of energy revenues to the DDC. There is a possibility that future SUP benefits may be far less than the current annual budget of Rs 65 million given fluctuations in the price of water.
The Investment Board of Nepal recently proposed 14 'national pride' mega-projects, which will all require some degree of social mitigation measures. Social upliftment is a vague and generic term, and Nepal does not have a legal framework to make such determinations. The case of the Melamchi SUP will set a precedent for what donors, NGOs, and political actors will expect from future social programs.
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