Water cooperation has potential to lift India-Nepal ties

South Asia Monitor, September 17, 2014
By Dr. Ram Kumar Jha

Water resources is considered the backbone of the Nepalese economy. The issue of water resources has always been in the priority list of bilateral cooperation between India and Nepal.

It has vast potential to generate power and can assist in irrigation facilities by construction of mega projects. However, flash floods, erratic behaviour of rivers and construction of a barrage along the India-Nepal border have submerged Nepalese territory and caused huge loss of lives and property during the monsoon season.

The river system of Nepal with more than 6,000 rivers drains from north to south towards the Ganges. The total average annual runoff from all these river systems is estimated at about 225 billion cubic metres (BCM). Nepal is utilizing only a part of it (estimated at 15 BCM) for economic and social purposes. Until now, Nepal has utilized mainly medium and small rivers for different uses such as drinking water, irrigation and hydropower.

The larger and perennial Himalayan rivers have been virtually left untapped, except for a few run-of-the river schemes. Since there is extreme seasonal variation in water availability in the Nepalese rivers, all future programmes will have to focus on storage of water during the rainy season and its utilization during dry periods.

The Koshi River Basin is a trans-boundary river system that stretches from China in the north down through Nepal and across the Himalayan mountain ranges, and discharges into the Ganges river in India covering about 70,000 km2 of land. This basin is the home of millions of people reliant on the fertile floodplains and the river for their livelihoods. At the same time subsistence farmers balance the threat of starvation with that of floods.

CUTS International, a Jaipur-based research and advocacy organisation, with support from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Government of Australia, has conducted a survey in Nepal to estimate the live conflicts and their remedial actions for water security between India and Nepal. The study found that India and Nepal signed the Koshi agreement in 1954 to regulate the flow of the river and to ensure flood management.

The project is utilised for power generation and irrigation purposes. The development of the Koshi project took place in three phases. The first phase was the period of the 1950s, when the Koshi Agreement was signed. Koshi Barrage was built between 1959 and 1963 and straddles the Indo-Nepal border. In the second phase, the 1966 version stated that Nepal would lease the land for the barrage to India for a period of 199 years.

The third phase of the Koshi project started in the late 1980s, when the Indian government proposed the idea of an alternative project to protect the Koshi barrage itself. This stemmed from a breach in the eastern embankment in 1987 and then in 1991 secretary level talks were held on the issue of building the Sapt Koshi High Dam.

It was contended that since the overall lifespan of the barrage would not be more than 50 years, the period of 199 years was too long. Questions have also been raised on the feasibility of the project from the social and environmental perspectives.

This is a point of commemoration that the Koshi River carries high concentration of sediment and mud, creating a delta of fertile but unstable plains. Until the construction of embankments, the river was moving westward. The embankments stopped this process and caused the accumulation of sediment on the river bed, which rose and led to the breakup of the embankments in 2008. As a result, the entire dam construction project is fraught with danger and can lead to major disasters.

Some aspects of the 1954 Koshi Agreement created friction between India and Nepal, the most important of which was the issue of compensation and irrigation. The other points of contention are the issue of water rights and the question of the management, control and operation of the barrage. These issues are considered as an infringement on Nepal’s territorial sovereignty.

With a view to optimizing the benefits and tackle the problems, both India and Nepal have set up three-tier mechanisms: Joint Ministerial Commission for Water Resources (JMCWR), 2012; Joint Committee on Water Resources (JCWR), 2011 and Joint Standing Technical Committee (JSTC), 2008 to implement agreements and treaties.

An additional mechanism: Joint Committee on Inundation and Flood Management (JCIFM) which deals explicitly with the issues of inundation, embankments and flood forecasting was also established in 2008.

The latest development is in line with our expectations of an improvement in India-Nepali relations. In this context, India-Nepal should arrive at a common framework and they also need to arrive at a shared understanding on upstream and downstream rights. At the same time, information sharing and cooperation on water issues is also an important element.

For water management and control joint mechanisms need to be evolved with a multi-stakeholder approach. It could help in minimising risks that could affect the lives of common people in the long term. Therefore, water cooperation can be an effective remedy to the irritants in India-Nepal relations.

(Dr. Ram Kumar Jha, is Policy Analyst, CUTS Centre For International Trade, Economics & Environment, Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS International).He can be reached at

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