Integrated water resources managementPresent-day issues in water sector development require an integrated and holistic approach.
The concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM) is based on coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources to maximise the resultant improvements in economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of the ecosystems. Water sector development is no longer mere "engineering" or a "technical" problem considering the growing complexities in water resources development, use and management in different parts of the world. Present-day issues in water sector development require an integrated and holistic approach. The UN Sustainable Development Goals-SDG (2016-30) seeks to ensure the availability and management of water and sanitation for all in the world by implementing IWRM at all levels including transboundary cooperation.
In Nepal, opportunities for economic development and people’s livelihoods depend on natural resources. Water resources are regarded as the key strategic natural resource that can be the catalyst for the country’s overall development and economic growth. Contrarily, the country's natural resource bases have been undergoing rapid degradation. The links between poverty, financial incentives, institutional weaknesses and degradation of water, land and forest resources are distinct and visible. Degradation of the natural resources would mean diminishing the scope of economic development. It is also established that the management of a country’s natural resources demands reforms in policy, institutions and governance and the people’s practices alongside investments in physical infrastructures and inputs of technology. This justifies the relevance of an "integrated" approach to managing natural resources.
Policy provisions and legislation
As Nepal has three tiers of government, the development and management of water resources falls under the jurisdiction of all three, depending on the size of the project. Besides the deep-rooted indigenous customary laws, many statutory regulations have been promulgated and amended in the country’s history. Despite all this, the government was operating without any appropriate or coherent policy until the 1990s. A paradigm shift was made by the Water Resources Act 1992 and Water Resources Regulations 1993 which supported the participation of users in water development projects. Separate Electricity Act and Regulations 1993 were enacted to specific legislation for the power sector where the main thrust is hydropower development with the promotion of private sector participation. However, all these legislative measures focused on the sectoral development of water projects where the fragmented approach of sharing a particular water source between various sectors like municipal, irrigation, hydropower and others gave rise to the possibility of conflicts.
For the first time in 2002, the government worked out the Water Resources Strategy (2002-27) as a policy and strategy document for water management. The National Water Plan 2005 was brought out with detailed plans and programmes alongside the estimated costs to support the strategy. River Basin Master Plans for all major river basins in the country are at different stages of development. The Irrigation Master Plan 2019, Irrigation Policy 2013 and National Water Resource Policy 2020 are among the significant policies and plans brought out by the government. The guiding principles of all these documents reflect the common agenda that the development of the country’s water resources shall be managed holistically and systematically, relying on the principles of IWRM.
Further, it is stated that water utilisation shall be sustainable while ensuring the conservation of natural resources and protecting the environment. As far as the transboundary river basins are concerned, it is foreseen that sharing of water resource benefits among co-riparian countries shall be the essential feature of water sector management. This all shows that Nepal is well set for adopting the IWRM concept in its water resources management concerning policy provisions.
Despite all these policy provisions, hardly any water development project has been implemented following the IWRM concept. While it is essential to have policies and plans, one significant shortcoming in the past has been lack of an effective implementation strategy that has limited the outcome of Nepal’s development endeavours, including water resource management. Policies as such are not legal tools. Legislative measures supporting the policy provisions are essential. For a long time, a bill to amend the current Water Resources Act 1992 (which does not talk about IWRM) is still in the making. There is no legislative provision supporting the adoption of integrated planning and implementation of water projects. IWRM is about allocating water efficiently and equitably between various competing water uses in a river basin, and the distribution of resources in itself requires strong political commitment. In the absence of legal provisions for its implementation, it is not mandatory for the agencies responsible for planning and executing the water projects to follow the principles of IWRM, which asks for a paradigm shift in the age-old conventional sector-specific planning approach.
Two other significant pillars for IWRM planning and implementation are establishing, reorganising and activating an appropriate institutional set-up equipped with sufficient and well-trained interdisciplinary personnel, and providing adequate financial resources and the essential provision of management instruments. A mechanism for the participation of stakeholders needs to be established, and the government as a whole should facilitate the process. This has been foreseen in the Water Resource Strategy. Strengthening the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat as a central planning and coordination agency of the government has also been sought in the 2005 National Water Plan. On top of this, focus must be put on the promotion of the private sector and non-governmental organisations to support the process of IWRM implementation by ensuring transparency and effective stakeholder participation.
Plans to establish a knowledge-based information system at the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat and the River Basin Offices in the three major river systems—Koshi, Narayani and Karnali—have remained long overdue. Two decades have passed since the government approved the water strategy, but these provisions are yet to be realised. The planning and implementation of water development undertakings are still being pursued following the traditional sectoral fragmented approach. Not considering a river basin as a single planning unit for water development has begun to create conflicts between local level stakeholders and the government in some planned programmes, including the proposed Kaligandaki-Tinau Interbasin Water Diversion Project. It is time to bridge these gaps and plan and execute water development programmes holistically, leading to accomplishing the goals set in the SDGs, to which all UN member countries, including Nepal, have expressed their commitment.