Nepali Times
The power of water

A lot of water has flowed down the Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali in the half-century that we have been talking about Nepal's infinite hydropower wealth.

We were caught up in our own national myth. Nepal's hydropower potential became something we could only brag about: like Mt Everest or Lumbini. We didn't have to struggle to get these icons of our fragile nationalism, they were bequeathed either by nature or by a fluke of history.

When will our adolescent patriotism transcend slogans and come up with a realistic strategy for water and power? While we pen these lines (on a laptop that is running on battery because of the six-hour-a-week power cut) we are surprised at the shamelessness of our leaders and the lack of outrage of the Nepali public about water and power shortages in a country that is rich in both.

Large projects like Arun III were the wrong dam in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with the road now complete and domestic demand soaring it is becoming feasible. Nearly all our power generation is on river diversion schemes. However much activists hate reservoirs, there is no way we can meet peak domestic demand anymore without storage.

But storage brings us in competition for water with downstream India. The fact that 70 percent of the water in the Ganges flows down from Nepal's rivers is not lost on Indian planners as they grapple with irrigation and domestic water projections for the teeming north-Indian plains. India has always looked at water geo-strategically. Have we?

River issues are tangled up with pseudo-nationalism in the Nepali psyche because past leaders sold us down the Kosi and Gandaki. Yet, we can choose our friends, not our neighbours. We have water and power, India needs both desperately. How can we come to a mutually beneficial arrangement?

Every country will try its best to strike home its advantage on natural resource deals by exploiting the weakness of the partner. In Nepal, there are a lot of weaknesses to exploit: incompetent officials, politicians ready to sell out, instability, economic dependence. Yet, Nepal's negotiating strategy has been to do nothing, just wait for things to happen.

But time is running out more for us in Nepal not just because we have a huge energy shortfall in the dry season, but because we need irrigation and income from power exports to drive growth at home. India can always meet it energy needs with nuclear power or work on inter-basin river transfers.

Eighty percent of our rain falls in the three monsoon months, storing this is the only sensible way for transboundary water management into the future. The only question is, will our politicians get us a fair deal for regulated water?

Even without exports, there are project we can start right away like the expanded Melamchi ('Revisiting multi-purpose Melamchi', #379) which would be a neat way to spread the benefits of a water supply scheme out of the capital valley. Imaginative entrepreneurs in Sankhuwasabha don't just talk, they have built a scheme to sell power to the grid that pays to run higher education ('Hydropowered education', #377).

God gave us water, but not the pipes. Sharing Nepal's water with India needs pragmatism on both sides, not dogmatism.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)