Nepal and India have finally announced plans to start a joint study to build acolossal 300m dam on the Kosi River by setting up monitoring centres in fiveplaces along the river in Nepal and Bihar.
Anti-dam activists are opposed to the project, which they say will submerge fertile valley floors under a 195 sq km lake in eastern Nepal, and the flood control benefits will mostly go to India. But even sceptics agree that the dam may be needed to correct the mistake made in 1960 with the construction of the Kosi barrage on the Indo-Nepal border west of Biratnagar.
The barrage has trapped sediment coming down Nepal\'s biggest river and the Kosi now flows four metres above the surrounding land. An extra-heavy monsoon would drive the river over the levees, devastating villages and towns in Nepal and Bihar. "The dam is needed, but for the wrong reasons," says one Nepali water expert.
While India\'s priority is the high dam at Chattara, Nepal is more interested in a dam upstream in the Sun Kosi river that would allow water to be diverted through a series of tunnels to irrigate 30,000 hectares in eight eastern tarai districts. This inter-basin transfer of water from the Sun Kosi to the Kamala river would benefit farmers in both Nepal and India while helping flood control on the main Kosi river.
The trouble is that if the dam at Chattara is built to its full height, it will submerge the site for the Sun Kosi dam. Will Nepal be able to get Indian help to build the diversion before the Kosi high dam, or will it be forced to comply to Indian interest?
The Kosi has nationalistic connotations in Nepal because of the perception that New Delhi arm-twisted Kathmandu to agree to build the barrage 40 years ago. Once known as the Sorrow of Bihar, the Kosi is a notoriously flood-prone river which is flowing 180 km east of where it used to be 200 years ago. A similar course change today would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Today, alarm bells go off at the barrage when the water flow reaches 40,000 cusecs. Experts now fear that a mammoth flood, like the 800,000 cusec discharge in 1968, could sweep away the barrage sending a wall of water across northern India. Even a 500,000 cusec flood like the one in 1987 could threaten the barrage.
It is to prevent such a catastrophe that both countries agreed in 1997 to jointly begin a study on the high dam. Last year, India offered to establish joint offices in Nepal but a decision was delayed because of other bilateral problems. Nepali water experts are also wary that India will try to bulldoze the high dam with scant regard for Nepal\'s own priority for the Sun Kosi Diversion. Indian officials were reportedly not very enthusiastic about the Sun Kosi scheme in bilateral meetings three years ago.
"The submergence by the high dam will not allow us to make any projects upstream," says water resource expert Ananda B Thapa, who headed the Nepali team in 1997. "The Sun Kosi diversion must be built first." The 1997 agreement includes the Nepali proposal for the Sun Kosi Diversion, but officials at the Ministry of Water Resources and Department of Electricity Development refused to show us the MoU. "We don\'t want to create misunderstandings with India by revealing the content," one official told us.
Water expert, Santa Bahadur Pun, agrees that Nepal would lose if the high dam is built first. "Kosi floods are more urgent to India," Pun says, "but Nepali land would be permanently submerged, what do we get for that?"
The Indian Embassy says there is no reason for Nepal to be worried because the joint team will look at both projects simultaneously. "It has been agreed that the detailed project reports will be prepared concurrently," says First Secretary Jawed Ashraf at the Indian Embassy. "We will deal with the issue without a pre-set mind on which project to construct first."
Department of Electricity Development officials confirmed work on the detailed project report will begin soon and will take three years to complete. "We have no cost and time estimates now, we can only say that after detailed report is complete," says Director General Arjun Prasad Shrestha.
Apart from the irrigation and hydropower benefits from the Kosi projects, Nepali officials are also excited about a navigation canal that will join the Kosi waterway to the seaport in Kolkata. Says Shrestha: "The Kosi high dam and the Sun Kosi diversion will benefit both Nepal and India. This is not about doing favours for each other, it is about mutually tapping natural resources that makes economic sense."