A recent flurry of hydropower diplomacy between Nepal and India has raised speculation here that New Delhi wants to rope Nepal in on its gigantic river-linking project.
The super-ambitious $12 billion scheme will take 16 years to build and will link 36 of India's rivers, taking water from where there is a lot of it to areas where there is less for irrigation, power and human consumption.
But opposition to the project from environmentalists is growing within India, and murmurs of discontent are now being heard in Bangladesh and Nepal. So far, Nepali officialdom has been blissfully unaware of the plan, even though Nepali rivers would be critical for regulating lean season flow to the tributaries of the Ganga.
"Up to 60 percent of the water in the Ganga comes from Nepal, so the river-linking scheme will have to get Nepal involved," says Sudhirendar Sharma, of The Ecological Foundation in New Delhi. Some Nepali activists suspect that India is already working towards large reservoirs in Nepal that will dove-tail into the river-linking scheme by the time it comes into operation.
Nagma Mallick, First Secretary (Commerce) at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, denies this, saying: "There is no linkage between the recent India-Nepal talks on hydropower and India's river-linking project."
However, India's National Water Development Agency says it has already completed pre-feasibility studies of 14 links in the Himalayan component of the river-linking scheme, and says it has "taken into consideration the existing, ongoing and proposed dams on common river systems in Nepal, Bhutan and India".
Suresh Prabhu, head of the river-linking task force and former power minister of India, admitted in a recent interview that India needed to get Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh on board. He added that New Delhi was already negotiating with Nepal and the reaction "had been favourable". But spokesman Bishnu Bahadur Thapa at the Water Resources Ministry in Kathmandu told us he had only "heard rumours" about the project.
"We can't comment until such time as we have been formally notified by New Delhi," Thapa told us cautiously.
Suresh Prabhu himself told India's Economic Times newspaper last week: "If Nepal agrees it would be the biggest beneficiary of this project. We have to convince them. Ditto for Bangladesh." That may be easier said than done. Prabhu is finding it difficult to convince even Indian state officials about the usefulness of the project. A meeting of Indian chief ministers scheduled for June to build a consensus for river-linking had to be postponed because it would be an electoral hot potato.
There is nervousness among Nepali water planners, too, because the project would mean building mammoth reservoirs. These dams would inundate large tracts of fertile valleys, store monsoon runoff and release the water in the lean season downstream to linked rivers in India. It is still too early to tell which reservoir projects in Nepal would best suit the river-linking scheme, but logically any new project India gets involved in Nepal henceforth will be ones that will fit its river-linking blueprint.
Talk of India reviving the 269m Kosi dam, Nepali experts say, seems to be a part of this strategy. A recent Indian map of the river-linking project shows that in future, waters of the Kosi would be taken via a mammoth canal westwards into the Ghagra, which is called Karnali upstream in Nepal. It also shows a link between the Kosi and the Mechi within Nepali territory.
Officials from India's state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) were in Kathmandu this week and made an on-site inspection of the Budi Gandaki project in central Nepal. This is a storage project, and the Indian side is learnt to have agreed to go ahead with a detailed study of the facility.
The much-delayed Pancheswor project on Nepal's western border with India is also being revived. This storage project has been stuck ever since the Mahakali Treaty was signed in 1996 because of political opposition within Nepal. Pancheswor will be a 315m rockfill dam that will also generate nearly 6,500MW of power. But more importantly, it could regulate water in the Sharada-Yamuna system downstream in India. Indian officials have also been here to talk about developing the Upper Karnali project, which the NHPC will develop jointly with Nepal Electricity Authority and the Soaltee Group.
Last week, there was a joint India-Nepal effort to remove the logjam on Mahakali through a non-governmental forum. Former Indian bureaucrat and hydro expert, BG Verghese, was optimistic that work on Pancheswor could be started. "India could offer to take over Nepal's half-share of the Mahakali project on a build-own-operate-transfer basis. It would cost Nepal nothing while guaranteeing it upgraded irrigation benefits," Verghese said.
Then there are other storage projects, like the West Seti in western Nepal which is being developed jointly by Australia's Snowy Mountain Energy Corporation, but has been held up for 10 years because of tariff disagreements with India's Power Trading Corporation.
Even without officially saying they are a part of the river-linking project, therefore, these reservoirs in Nepal would feed into India's interlinked rivers when the Indian project gets going. But if the neighbours are not consulted, the project could be a political minefield. An indication of this was a meeting of South Asian activists last week that turned into a platform to bash the river-liking scheme. "This is going to be a repeat of Farakka, it is going to bring disaster," said Asif Nazrool of the University of Dhaka, referring to the barrage on the India-Bangladesh border which Dhaka says has dried up the Ganga.
In Nepal, the UML statement this week that any agreement with India will first have to be ratified by parliament could be a sign of things to come.
India has already approached the World Bank for technical advice on the project. Mieko Nishimizu, vice president of the South Asia region at the World Bank told us last week in Kathmandu: "We have not decided yet on financing the project, but we have agreed to advise them. If the Bank gets involved financially, its rule of informing riparian states will certainly be applied."
Since the end of the ceasefire two months ago, 1,092 Nepalis have been killed. The rights group, INSEC, says 775 of them were killed by the state and 317 by the Maoists. This brings the estimated total death toll since the insurgency began in February 1995 to more than 8,000. Rights groups are worried by an increase in extra-judicial killings, disappearances and violations of the Geneva Convention by both sides that has led to civilian casualties. There has also been an alarming increase in the number of internally displaced.