Unwanted watersIf water dominates Prachanda’s Delhi-visit, how will Nepal handle it? It does not even have a water resources ministry
From what has come out in the media, talks on water resources will surface significantly during Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India this week. Dahal has hinted that in Parliament and during discussions with parliamentary parties and former prime ministers. Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat has also added weight to that possibility. When he was in the Indian capital recently to set the stage for Prachanda’s visit, he also met India’s Energy Minister Piyush Goyal and Minster for Water Resources Uma Bharati.
India too has signalled that it is an important area. “Both sides reiterated their commitment to further strengthen and deepen age-old, close and friendly ties in diverse sectors such as trade and mutual investments, defense and security, economic and development partnership, infrastructure development, energy and water resources, and forging connectivities to facilitate movement of goods and services, people and ideas,” India’s External Affairs Ministry said of Mahat’s visit.
Again, going by what has been reported, Prachanda plans to emphasise early implementation of the projects India and Indian companies have had for quite some time. Topping the list of such project is said to be the Pancheswar multipurpose project. The ruling parties appear to be sending the message that there will be no major new deal and the government will limit itself to what has already been signed and agreed on with India. And that, they seem to believe, will be in Nepal’s interest. Nothing wrong about it, if they have really done the homework on what Nepal should seek.
However, it will be equally important to know what India wants. Mahat’s meeting with Indian ministers Goyal and Bharati should have given him plenty of hints. But if that was the only source of information, it may be too little, too late. Also, as someone who hardly did anything to ease the power cuts when he was the energy ministry, how tuned Mahat was to grasp India’s interest in Nepal’s water resources is uncertain.
The Indian officialdom in recent times has been relatively open in terms of sounding out its policies. In a recent interview I did for the BBC, India’s Central Water Commission chairman GS Jha said dams were identified to be the most effective solution to the pressing problem of floods. When asked where the dams would be, he said two in Nepal and one in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
“In the Ghagra basin, we have Pancheswor project which is of course happening with an agreement with Nepal…and the dam is seeing the light of the day, it is in the process of being constructed,” he said in the interview. “And we have one more dam in the Kosi basin in Barah Chhetra (of Nepal). But because of certain internal issues in Nepal, an agreement is yet to be reached with India. We have been able to do an agreement with Nepal for Pancheswor, similarly agreement for Kosi will also happen and we are very certain about it. There is already a joint project office that is investigating different aspects of the dam on the Kosi.”
For a bigger picture, Nepal also needs to pay attention to what Indian politicians
say—not when a visit like this takes place, but when they are talking about pressing water-related issues the country faces.
For instance, in the wake of the dangerous drought this year, Indian water resources minister Uma Bharati told the BBC that
her government was going ahead with the ambitious river linking project. “We are going ahead with five links [of the rivers] now and the first one, the Ken-Betwa link [in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh] is
going to start any time now,” she said in the interview I did in May. “And then we will have the Damnaganga-Pinjal interlink which will sort out the Mumbai drinking water facility.”
On rivers involving neighbouring countries, she said “We are in touch with them and we have been holding talks with them, but I will not talk about Nepal now.” It was when relations between Nepal and India had soured following the blockade. But now that Foreign Minister Mahat has met Bharti and India is looking forward to welcome Prachanda, things have certainly changed on that front as well.
The river linking project has 30 links planned for water-transfer, 14 of them are the Himalayan component and 16 in peninsular India. In the Himalayan portion, three links—Kosi-Ghagra, Gandak-Ganga and Kosi-Mechi—have to do with rivers in Nepal. And structures like the Pancheswar and Koshi dams in Nepal can be the much-needed infrastructure for the river linking project. Other dams on major tributaries of Ganga like the Gandak will also be crucial for that purpose.
Ideal versus real
An informed discussion and negotiation are always better than a haphazard approach. Sometimes, they help you avoid sleepwalking into something you were never prepared for. The government may argue that it therefore is not entering into any new agreement. But even for its “mission” of getting the ball rolling on the projects that have been on the papers for ages, knowledge and all
these contexts will be of immense help. Ideally, that is.
The reality, however, is that Nepal does not even have a water resources ministry now. It got rid of it by splitting the one it had into energy and irrigation ministries some seven years ago. The political decision during Madhab Kumar Nepal’s government then created confusion among officials. They said they had difficulty in attending bilateral meetings and negotiations with India on water resources. The move was seen as a striking contradiction to the countries’ national policy aimed at an integrated approach to water management and development. As the years passed, water resources as a sector simply became a forgotten chapter. When designated ministries like energy and irrigation have not been able to do anything substantive, what can be expected in a ministry-less sector like water resources that has become nobody’s baby?
But it is ironic that it is this sector, according to government officials, that could top Prachanda’s agenda during his Delhi visit. Even more ironic could be that his government might not know this irony.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London