Water Management in Transboundary Rivers

Political boundaries are drawn without any consideration to river basin boundaries.  There are 263 rivers crossing international boundaries, but only 143 of them have developed any mechanism for co-operative water management, while 158 lack any such water management framework.  These international water courses account for almost 60% of global run-off and affect roughly 40% of the world population.  Disparities between riparian countries in economic development, institutional capacity, infrastructure and political orientation often give rise to multilateral or bilateral disputes.  But what could really trigger social and economic instability in these international watersheds include factors like climate change, deteriorating ecosystems, demand for non-fossil fuel energy, continued population growth and aging infrastructure.  Co-operation on shared water resources is critical, special in water scarce countries,  where upstream and downstream impacts of consumption and pollution are highly magnified.  Managing the interdependence of transboundary waters is one of the greatest human development challenges of the international community.

Traditional approaches to Transboundary Water Management:

The river basin has a singular importance as unit of analysis in relation to water because the river basin as a territorial unit enables us to understand the complexity it composes, being part of and embedded in a larger socio-ecological system.  Since the basin involves the water cycle, land use as well as a variety of relationships and interactions within  different levels from regional to national to municipal, which in turn involves different geographical scales of analysis, an integrative approach becomes imperative.  An integrated approach demands the establishment of appropriate legal instruments, institutions and management tools at the river-basin, sub-basin and regional levels.

.Traditional  approaches to governance of international water resources are largely geared towards meeting national demands of water and emphasize the state as the appropriate geographical scale of analysis.  These traditional approaches also rely on the certainty that historical data covering water supply, demand values, and ecosystem health can be used to predict the future.   In addition they protect sovereignty through clear-cut rules for dividing water resources rather than flexibility to adapt to change and to  foster resilience of the system.   Managers of transboundary river systems are facing increasing challenges related to conflicting national interests, power disparities between riparian countries, differences in national institutional capacities, limited information and data exchange, besides lack of sufficient basin-scale knowledge and institutional capacity for decision-making.   Characterised by state-centric  top-down management aimed at maximisation of yield, with heavy reliance on scientific and technological expertise while  by-passing community or indigenous knowledge, the traditional approaches are poorly suited to face conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability related to climate change. However there is an increasing  emphasis on collaborative management  of socio-ecological systems like river basins which aims at building their resilience in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Resilience and Sustainability:

Like other forms of common pool resources, transboundary rivers are complex dynamic socio-ecological systems,  the governance of which requires the recognition of links and complex feed-backs between the social and ecological components of the system, as against traditional natural resource management approach which involves a one-way management by the social system for services from the ecological system in return.  Resilience theory is one such theory which provides a framework for understanding the coupled complexity within a socio-ecological system, which helps to develop governance systems aimed at enhancing its resilience and thus  its sustainability.    When applied to ecological systems without a human component, resilience theory focuses on the capacity of the system to return to its prior level of self-organisation following a disturbance and the degree to which that capacity is influenced by changes. When applied to social systems, resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses.  By viewing governance in a way that recognizes the coupled complexity, rather than as a feature independent of the ecological system it manages, resilience can be enhanced both from the natural adaptive capabilities of the ecological system,  as well as the ability of the social system to respond to ecological problems by seeking to restore the ecosystem.  Resilience theory thus focuses on the broader social context within which the ecosystem functions, and provides an umbrella theory for integration of concepts of natural resource management with ecological response to achieve sustainability.  Traditional natural resource management approach, on the other hand, focuses on the optimization of yield or efficiency through tight control of the system at the cost of its resilience or inbuilt self-organising capability to deliver the full range of services.  A system thus compromised on its resilience is vulnerable to be shifted to a threshold into a new regime of function and structure that may fail to provide the full range of ecological services.

Adaptive Management and Polycentric Governance :  An Imperative Need

In Resilience theory, the concept of adaptive management has been used to describe a process of learning through the monitoring of ecosystem response to a particular action followed by incremental change in the action based on what is learnt.  The concept includes the process of feedback to a managing agency from the monitoring of the response of the ecosystems.  Adaptive governance has emerged at the intersection of common pool resources and resilience of complex socio-ecological systems.  Adaptive governance moves from a focus on efficiency and lack of overlap among jurisdictional authorities to a focus on diversity, redundancy and multiple levels of management that includes a role for local knowledge and local action.  Adaptive governance is polycentric governance with many centres of decision-making, formally independent of each other, but very closely co-ordinated.  The diversity and overlap among several jurisdictions with authority to mange the same ecological resource inherent in adaptive governance  is preferable to the hierarchical management with  clear cut divisions of authority  of the traditional management modes.   Polycentric governance views local capacity building for purposes of self governance as key to effective governance, and therefore.seeks to grant a larger voice and decision making power to local institutions or actors, while retaining a network of state and federal institutions,  without surrendering total control to local authorities.  The redundancy of management actually enhances the resilience of the system.  Polycentric regimes with multiple centres of authority but one main centre of horizontal and vertical co-ordination are more likely to adopt sound good governance practices like stakeholder participation, transparent water allocation, equitable water management practices and climate-friendly policies.

International Law for Transboundary River Governance:

International law has primarily been concerned with the development and optimal use of international watercourses, and it is only recently that the ecological services provided by water and the resulting importance of protecting water quality have become concerns of international watercourses law.  Further hydrological relations between surface water in rivers and lakes and ground water have become better understood leading to calls to international law to extend to connected ground water systems  as well.

A rich body of customary law has been developed in response to conflicts over use of shared watercourses.  These include the 1957 Lac Lanoux Arbitration between Spain and France in  which the tribunal upheld the general obligations of upstream users to notify downstream users and to take their interest into account through good faith negotiations.  Similarly in the 1997 case between Hungary and Slovakia concerning the Gabcikovo Nagynoros Dam, the International Court of Justice reiterated the principle of ‘community of interest’ which provides for equality of all riparian states in the use of the whole course of a shared river, and excludes any preferential privilege of any one riparian state.  The principle requires that state boundaries should be ignored and a basin should be regarded and managed as an integrated unit.  The court decision also added concern over the environment as an important dimension of international law emphasizing that environmental protection and vigilance is required on account of the often irreversible character of damage to the environment.  These principles of customary law have now been expressed in the United Nations Framework Convention on the Law of Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses of 1997, and the International Law Commission Draft Articles on the law of Transboundary Acquifiers.

The International Watercourses Framework Convention establishes a number of key principles to which all watercourses states in their agreements governing shared watercourses should adhere to and adapt to suit their unique needs.  The first principle is that watercourse states shall utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.  Secondly watercourse states are obliged to take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse states, and where harm has nevertheless taken place to ‘take all appropriate measures to eliminate or mitigate such harm, and where appropriate to discuss the question of compensation’.  Third it mandates all riparian states to co-operate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilisation and adequate protection of an international watercourse.  The Convention sees co-operation as critical to the implementation of the conflicting principles of equitable utilisation and prevention of significant harm, to be achieved by establishing joint mechanisms for attaining optimal utilisation and adequate protection of the international watercourse.  Fourthly watercourse states are required to regularly exchange information on the condition of the watercourse.  And fifthly the Convention mandates a watercourse state seeking to implement planned measures which are  likely to have significant adverse impact upon other watercourse states to provide the latter with timely notification. The Convention also requires all watercourses states to individually and jointly protect and preserve the ecosystems of international watercourses.

However it must be noted that political and financial constraints have made it difficult for many countries of the world to adopt the International Waters Convention, 1997.  More than 17 years  after its adoption by the vast majority of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Convention has obtained only 36 ratifications which has however  enabled it to enter into force  on 17th August, 2014. .  However a whole lot of key countries remain outside its scope.


Global climate change will pose a wide range of difficulties to water courses, altering water quality, water quantity, systems operations and imposing new governance complications.  For countries whose water-sheds and river-basins are within their national boundaries, adaptive water management will be a difficult enough task.  But for countries with transboundary watercourses implicating  a multiplicity of political entities and actors, water management will be very difficult requiring the engagement and co-ordination of all actors across the basin.  Besides most transboundary river agreements are based on the assumption that supply and quality of water will not change much or will change marginally, and do not include adequate mechanisms for coping with social, economic or climatic conditions.  There is therefore the need to improve the flexibility of existing inter-basin agreements.  This will need efforts for creating flexible water allocation strategies and water quality criteria, agreements on response strategies for extreme weather events like floods and droughts, development of clear amendment and review procedures to allow for changes in hydrological or climatic conditions, and establishment of joint management institutions to facilitate  climate vulnerability assessments.  With water no more remaining a local or national or even a regional issue, there is need for global water management to take over.

Effective Water Governance: Need of the Hour

Water is identified as the 3rd largest risk in the World Economic Forum Risk Report, 2015. A growing population pressure on finite water resources, coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation, globalisation and trade treaties are resulting in increasing demand for water and upstream-downstream conflicts. Further the physical availability of water does not guarantee a safe and affordable water supply to all.  The latest Global Environment Outlook says that if the present unsustianable trends of water use and management continue, then about 1.8 billion of world population will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity by 2030 and about 60% of world population  could be subject to water stress. The resulting decline in water quantity and quality will be exacerbated by climate change. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, 2014, has established that fresh water resources have the vulnerability to be strongly impacted by climate change with wide-reaching impacts on societies and ecosystems. Due to global waring and associated changes in hydrological cycle on account of changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers, most of the world’s water-stressed areas will get less water, while while flows will become less predictable and more subject to extreme weather events and floods. With its inextricable links to food security, economic development and energy nexus, water scarcity is becoming one of the defining problems of the 21st century.

Water Crisis- A Crisis of Governance

Water is unevenly distributed both spatially and temporally.  It is even more unevenly distributed among different strata of society and among different competing uses. While availability of water is a concern for some countries, at the heart of today’s water crisis lies power, inequity and poverty.  Part of the problem lies in the unique characteristics of water as a public good. Because of its life-sustaining character, water is a basic human need.  But scarcity and competing demands on its use makes water also an economic good.  Water of an acceptable quality is required to maintain ecosystem services and sustain ecosystem integrity.  So water is also an environmentally essential good.  One of the main reasons for the water crisis, according to Vandana Shiva, a well-known India-based water expert, is the commodification of water which has led to increased control on water management by multinational corporations.  The World Bank and IMF have in the past ecouraged many developing countries to privatize water supply in the hope of increased efficiency in its management.  The involvement of profit-oriented MNCs has reduced the involvement of citizens in water management.  With the withdrawl of subsidies, both direct and cross, on the advice of these international financial institutions, the poor have often found themselves shut out from water access due to increased prices, sparking unrest in many parts of the world.  With water use growing at more than twice the growth rate of polulation, the challenge of water management lies in meeting the basic needs of humans, both present and future geneations, needs of the environment, and in ensuring that water of acceptable quality is available for use in agriculture and industry without compromising ecosystems integrity.

Water crisis has aptly been described by the UN as a crisis of governance rather than a physical scarcity of water.  The world’s water problem stem from our failure to meet basic human needs, ineffective or inappropriate institutions and management, and our inability to balance human needs with those of the natural world.  These maladies are rooted in a wasteful use of water characterised by poor management systems, improper economic incentives, under-investment, failure to apply appropriate technology, and an antiquated mindset focussed on developing new supplies to the exclusion of increasing conservation, efficiency, and effective demand management.   Water management is far from being a technical issue involving endeavours to match supply with demand through application of science and technology, rational problem solving approaches with stakeholder involvement, etc.  Water management is about shifting patterns to a contested and scare resource, and is inherently a political issue.

Politics of Water Regimes:

The core business of water management is about coping with variability.  it is related to storing excess water from wet periods to bridge dry periods, protecting low-lying areas from floods, balancing withdrawals between upstream and downstream, and balancing water uses between socio-economic activities and ecological uses.  Hydrological interactions are typified  with commonplace upstream-downstream effect in which down-streamers have to cope with variations in hydrological regimes occurring in the upstream. Socio-political structures shape the way natural resources are used and benefits and risks are distributed.  dominant interests and distribution of decision-making powers get reflected in decisions regarding the management and development of water resources.  through engineering, design, cost-benefit analysis, and through environment impact assessments  and strategic impact assessments, the provision of a public good like water gets intertwined with political and financial interests.  it is not incidental that polluted areas, water-short neighbourhoods and flood-prone localities are co-related with higher levels of poverty and vulnerability.  Paradigmatic example of asymmetries of power in water management is the way cities siphon off water away froma griculture through administrative fief, and rarely through the market, thus imposing externalities on citizens in terms of pollution, flood damage, acquifier depletion, etc.  And industry while siphoning off groundwater without paying market price sucees in shifting costs in terms of pumping stations, falling water tables and water stress to tax payers as a whole.

In an ineffective water governance regime, decision -makers or interest groups manage to frame the water management discourse in favour of certain  interests such that the voice of the impacted weaker sections is limited or unheard sicne they have little access to channels of information.  There is a tendency to depoliticize water management problems by clothing inherently political debates through the use of political technologies using scientific or technical or neutral terms.  But the need of the hour is to acknowledge the political dimension of water development and management, and re-politicize the issue through a re-balance of decision-making and discoursive power towards the empowerment of the community as a whole.

Not and Bolts of  Effective Water  Governance:

Amidst a growing recognition over the last sixty years that technology and infrastructure alone are not sufficient to address persistent water problems, discourse about water governance began to emerge in particular withe the Dublin International Conference on Water & development in 1992.  Early thinking about water governance was based on highly centralised systems emphasizing the role of governments in water management.  Today however the term water governance is used more broadly to describe the political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place, and which directly or indirectly affect the use, development and management of water resources and the delivery of water services to various levels of society.  A governance regime  is a system of formal institutions, water legislations, informal institutions like social norms and customs for water-sharing, as well as actor networks for policy formulation and implementation.  Water governance regimes address, among other things, principles of equity and efficiency in water allocation and distribution, water administration based on catchments, need for integrated mamagement of water, and the need to balance water use for socio-economic activitiers and ecosystems.  They calrify the roles of governments, civil society and the private sector in terms of ownership, management of water resources and water services.  Good governance requires the involvement of the public, and the interests of all stakeholders must be included in the management & development of water resources.

Water governance is important because how societies choose to govern their water resources has great impact on people’s livelihoods and sustainable development of ecosystems.  Socially how water resources and related services are distributed have direct impact on people’s health and livelihoods.  Efficient and equitable use of water resources is critical for poverty alleviation.  At the political level, all water stakeholders and citizens, including marginalised sections like indigenous people, slum-dwellers, small farmers, women, etc should have equal opportunity to influence and monitor water management decisions and their outcomes.  The environment dimension of water governance is critical to ensure that water use takes into account the need to maintain ecosystem services.  As opportunities for increasing water supply decrease in many parts of the world, competition over current supplies increases creating the need for improved water governance.

Water governance decisions are anchored in three levels – government, civil society and the private sector.  Facilitating dynamic interactions among tham and promoting dialogue and partnership is critical for water refors and improving water governance.  It must be noted that water governance depends not only on specific institutions mandated to govern water, but also on the overall governance context of the country.  If the country lacks essential democratic institutions like right to freedom of speech, right to information and right to organize, then participatory approaches to water management will suffer.  Similarly in the face of lack of information about water availability and water quality, people will have little chance to halt environmentally harmful projects or hold governments accountable for ill-governance.  water use and distribution is also affected by facts and circumstances outside the water sector.  For example global markets and trade agreements can affect the choices of crops with serious implications for water demand in the agricultural sector.  Water reforsm must therefore take into account social, economical and political conditions outside the water sector that can have direct or indirect impact on water resources.

Water Reforms around the World:

With slowly emerging changes in the predominant economic development paradigm towards a more balanced approach which recognizes the importance of investment in natural capital and the need to maintain ecosystem services and livelihoods, many countries are moving towards a greener economy.  In the face of increasing pressure on water resources, acute competition for water, declining water quality and a continuing need for improving access to water and sanitation, water reforms have become an imperative need. Climate change has made water resources management more challenging imposing major possibilities of rapid variability and unpredictability of water flows.   Many countries are therefore moving away from the traditional water governance modes dominated by top-down approach topwards bottom-up approaches which harness the knowledge, understanding and expertise of local people.

Water being essentially a local issue, its management requires a plethora of stakeholders at the municipal, basin, national, regional and international levels.  In the face of absence of effective public governance to manage the interdependence across policy areas and between levels of government, water policy-makers face obstacles in effectively formulating and implementing water reforms related to institutional and territorial fragmentation, limited institutional capacity, questionable resource allocation and unclear allocation of roles and responsibilities of different agencies.  Insufficient means for measuring performance contribute to weak accountability and transparency.  Similarly insufficient hydrological data and networks for sharing information poses difficulties specially in transboundary rivers.  The nexus between water, energy, agriculture and environment also present significant challenges for water policy reforms.  Due to silo nature of governmental functioning, policies across water, energy, agriculture and environment are formulated without sufficient consideration of their inter-relationship. For example, as countries confront water resources constraints they turn to energy-intensive solutions like long-haul water and desalination, and when confronted with energy constraints, they resort to water-intensive options like biofuels and steam-cycle power plants.  Institutional arrangements need to be re-engineered to create a greater intersection between policy formulation and implementation across these areas.

Water reforms in many countries have typically included components linked to decentralisation of water decision-making, increasing stakeholder participation, promoting incentives for more and better public-private partnerships, privatization of water delivery/distribution services, community involvement and clarification of isntitutional roles and responsibilities through formal legislation or informal customary law.  Local stakeholder participation has facilitated more informed decision-making, more effective implementation and enhanced conflict-resolution, besides giving voice to relatively powerless groups like subsistence farmers, indigenous people, traditional fishermen, women, etc.  However it must be said that water economies in most developing countries remain largely informal with little interface between users and public institutions.   In some countries, reform efforts have largely focussed on direct regulation and management, over-estimating the capacity of legal provisions to influence water use patterns, while sidelining incentive-based approaches which can deliver better results.

Privitasiation: A Controversial Issue

Although various private enterprises, community based organisations, water-users associations and NGOs can play important roles in partnership with government agencies in better delivery of water services, the privatization of water supply is a particularly controversial issue and bogged in ideological debates.  Since water is such a vital part of the economy and infrastructure, it is not surprising that there has been an enormous push for privatization of water services.  Some privatization programmes have produced positive results, but some have been catastrophies like the case of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when a consortium of private companies led by American corporate Bechtel had to quit the contract due to public unrest, and then file an arbitration case with the International Centre for the Resolution of Investment Disputes for losses of over 25 million dollars. The overall record of water services privatization is therefore not encouraging.  From Argentina to Bolivia and from Philiphines to the US, the conviction that the private sector offers a magic solution for unleasing efficiency and equity neede to accelerate progress towards the goal of ‘water for all’ has proved to be misplaced.  While these failures of private water contracts do not provide evidence that the private sector have no  role to play, they do point the need for greater caution, better regulation and a greater committment to equity in public-private partnerships. Weak or non-existent governmental regulations for the protection of the poor can result in a case of ‘no payment, no supply’. Weak regulations can also result in market-based rules pushing water rights from low-value use to high-value users like industry.  In such cases, the water sector ceases to be a social responsibility, and water changes from being a social good to a mere commercial commodity. The conclusion of the 4th World Water Forum held in Japan in 2006 that governments should have the primary role in providing water access without precluding the role of the private sector in providing some of the services highlights the democratic accountability of the state for the provision of water services.


In conclusion, given the complexities of water use within the society, allocating, developing and managing water resources with equity and sustainability requires that disparate voices with different perceptions of water are heard and respected in decisions regarding its use.  In conflicts ocer water, the dispute is not exclusively or mainly socio-environmental, but also economical, political, cultural and territorial. Therefore the issue of water governance has to encompass all these different dimensions.  Developing effective water governance and management practices grounded in equity and sustainabiluty is indeed one of the challenges of societies in the 21st century.






Ozone killing enough crops to feed millions of poor


Subhra Priyadarshini

Ozone pollution is destroying 12% of India’s annual cereal production – enough to feed 94 million people below the poverty line through the year. This startling estimate has been revealed in the first ever calculation of ozone pollution in the country¹.

A study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune points a finger at the absence of air quality standards to protect agriculture from ground-level ozone pollution, primarily from vehicles and cooking stoves.

Ground level ozone is the main component of smog and is formed when polluting vehicles, industries or burning matter emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants react with sunlight to form ground level ozone, which is killer for vegetations.

Sachin Ghude

IITM scientist Sachin Ghude and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California San Diego carried out the modeling study, supported by emission inventories and crop production data. They quantified the impact of ozone on the yields of cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat crops in India for the year 2005, an year they used as representative of the first decade of the 21st century.

Through the simulation studies, the scientists estimated that wheat was the most impacted crop – every year the country was losing around 3.5 metric tonnes – followed by rice at around 2.1 metric tonnes, mostly in central and north India.

On national scale, this loss is about 12% of the cereals required every year (61.2 Mt) under the provision of recently implemented National Food Security Bill (September-2013) by Government of India, the duo report.

“This study, since it was led by Indian government institutions, should have a major impact on the country’s approach to air pollution mitigation. It should speed up India’s attempts to drastically cut pollution,” Ramanathan told Nature India. High surface ozone concentration over major agriculture regions in India, particularly the Indo-Gangetic Plains, one of the world’s most important fertile agricultural lands is a threat to the country’s food security, the scientists say. They estimate that ozone concentrations will only increase further in the future.

The greatest losses of rice and wheat crops were reported from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal and Uttaranchal states.

“The possible ways to minimize these losses is to reduce anthropogenic emissions especially from vehicular and Industrial source and cooking stoves,” Ghude points out. He says another alternative could be to breed ozone-tolerant crops.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan

Ramanathan says some off-the-shelf technologies could be put to use immediately to cut the most damaging pollution – the emission of nitrous oxides from the transportation sector. “This contributes to more than half of the nitrous oxides produced and controlling it would have a major impact in reducing ozone. In so doing, we will also reduce the global warming effect of ozone,” he says.

The study puts India’s economic losses from ozone-induced crop damage at $1.29 billion in 2005, mostly stemming from losses in rice and wheat crops.


1. Ghude, S. D. et al. Reductions in India’s crop yield due to ozone. Geophys. Res. Lett.(2014) doi: 10.1002/2014GL060930

Nepal’s forest users cope with climate stress on water


DANG, Sept 14: In June this year, thousands of farmers, especially in Nepal´s western region, were wrestling with rain deficit, constantly gazing toward the sky devoid of monsoon clouds.

In some areas badly affected by the weak monsoon, farmers were seen irrigating their parched crop fields with water supplied through pipes.
But, in Hapur village of Dang district, the picture was entirely different. Even as farmers reeled under the drought-like situation elsewhere, the Hapur villagers remained unaffected.

“The monsoon was late and weak this time around,” says Puni Kala Khadka, president of Chandra Jyoti Community Forest Users Group (CFUG), which has 124 families of Hapur as its members. “But, we had no problems at all.”

A woman in Makawanpur district walks through the jungle to fetch water in this recent photo. (Bijaya Gajmer/Republica)

Before this year´s paddy plantation season began, Chandra Jyoti CFUG built a canal to use irrigation water from a local stream. “Had this canal not been built, our crop fields would have parched like elsewhere,” says Khadka.

Due to what scientists have dubbed as a result of climate change, monsoon rains, the backbone of Nepal´s agriculture, are becoming erratic. Farmers are becoming more vulnerable to threats of droughts or floods than ever before.

This year, Meteorological Forecasting Division (MFD) announced monsoon´s arrival one week later than the usual date. But, even thereafter, it remained ineffective till mid-July, sparking fears of dismal crop output. Farmers felt relieved only after monsoon rains became more even and intense by July end.
“Rains are no longer reliable,” says Khadka. “Fortunately, we have this irrigation canal now.”

However, hundreds of thousands of farmers are not as fortunate as the Hapur villagers. They are still deprived of irrigation facilities. According to the Department of Irrigation (DoI), nearly 500,000 hectares of Nepal´s cultivable land still lack irrigation facilities.

Worse, the rate at which the DoI is expanding the irrigation coverage area is disappointing. “At the current rate, it will take us at least 25 years to expand irrigation coverage to the whole cultivable land,” says Basistha Raj Adhikari, a water resources management specialist.

Adhikari says the pace of irrigation coverage expansion cannot be accelerated only institutional and policy reforms are carried out. “In the existing scenario, farmers´ dependency on rain water cannot be done away with,” says Adhikari.

However, farmers in remote villages cannot afford to wait for institutional and policy reforms. They have already started to deal with their problems in whichever way or scale they can. And, forest users, affiliated to over 18,000 groups and spread across the country, are turning out to be a pioneer in this battle.

As climate change puts tremendous stress on water resources by driving the monsoon erratic and accelerating the Himalaya glacier melting rate, Nepal´s community forest users, as in Hapur village, are exploring their own ways to cope with the looming water crisis.

Community forest users are building canals, ponds, reservoirs and better managing watersheds. Under the government´s ambitious Multi -Stakeholder Forestry Program (MSFP), supported by the governments of the UK, Finland and Switzerland, community forest users are getting support to identify their climate-induced problems and solve them.

“Ours is a bottom-up approach,” says Ramu Subedi, the MSFP team leader. “We encourage forest users to identify climate hazards and enable them to cope with them. We do not impose adaptation programs from the top.”

In its 2007 report, the United Nations (UN) panel on climate change has stated that water and its availability and quality will come under immense pressure in the wake of global temperature rise. What the UN panel states seems a reality in Nepal as well.

Forest users are now preparing Local Adaptation Plan of Action (LAPA), a village-specific document that helps the local communities adapt to the effects of climate change by identifying their climate hazards, along with their periodic operation plans. And, in most villages, water scarcity and irrigation problem appear to be the most common climate hazards.

“The severest stress of climate change is on our water resources — be it drinking water or irrigation,” says Subedi. “So, under the MSFP, we are helping local communities deal with these problems apart from mitigating the effects of climate change through forest conservation.”

Subedi adds, “Our National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) document has identified 1.1 million households as vulnerable to climate change. We want reduce vulnerability of around 0.5 million households in a period of 10 years.”

In Hapur village, Chandra Jyoti CFUG allocated Rs 30,000 for the canal construction. Under the MSFP, the CFUG members got an assistance of Rs 50,000. The locals also made labor contribution worth about Rs 40,000.

“This project does not look big but effective enough to help the locals to adapt to climate change,” says Kul Bahaudr Lamichhane, a district committee member of the Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal (FECOFUN). “As in Hapur, forest users are coping with climate change by managing their water resource elsewhere as well.”

Published on 2014-09-15 10:29:37

Nepal at risk as more extreme weather events loom


KATHMANDU, Aug 25: The inhabitants of Surkhet, a district in Nepal´s mid-western region, were recently struck by what was arguably the worst flooding in living memory.

The death toll from the Surkhet flood, caused by the downpour that continued for two days in the second week of August, has reached 33, excluding 99 people still missing and thereby feared dead, so far, according to the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC).

Around the same time, devastating floods struck other districts of the mid-western region like Bardiya and Dang, too. So, what led to such disastrous floods throughout the whole region? “Such a heavy downpour is unprecedented,” says Mahesh Gautam, president of Nepal Red Cross Society, Bardiya. “We had never before witnessed such intense rainfall.”

Banke flood victims heading for higher grounds along with their belongings last week. (Republica)

According to the Meteorological Forecasting Division (MFD), more than 150 mm of rainfall was recorded in eight different districts of the midwestern region during a short period of just 24 hours ending at 8:45 in the morning of August 15. In other regions of the country, no more than 100 mm rainfall was recorded during that same period.

“If 150 mm rainfall is recorded in some particular area in such a short period, we generally anticipate devastating flooding,” says Gautam. “But, in some places like Surkhet, even more than 400 mm of rainfall was recorded around that same time. It was something we never witnessed before. Even the elderly people in our community do not remember if they had witnessed such a heavy downpour before.”

The MFD officials say some rain data recorded in the midwestern region this year are record-making. Ever since it started keeping rain data in 1969, the MFD had never recorded 423 mm of rainfall in just 24 hours in Surkhet. Similarly, 298 mm of rainfall recorded in Dang during the same period is highest of all time. “Rains were intense this year in the midwestern region,” says Barun Poudel, a meteorologist at the MFD. “In our recent memory; we had not seen such an extreme weather event.”

Scientists say climate change causes extreme weather events, among other things. The term ´too much rain or too less rain´ is often used to explain the effects of climate change in the simplest way. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally stated that climate change is already causing extreme weather events.

So, can the intense rainfall of the midwestern region be described as a result of climate change? “Theoretically, yes,” says Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “This is what climate change causes. But, we cannot say surely without proper research.”

Dr Shrestha says climate change increases frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, meaning that Nepal could face in future more of what led to the devastating floods and landslides of the midwestern region. “It is a wake-up call,” says Dr Shrestha. “We now need to better mitigate climate change and better adapt to its effects.”

However, what happened in the midwestern region during and after the flooding has demonstrated that Nepal is yet unable to deal with disasters. When floods ravaged much of the region, early warning system collapsed, embankments gave way and government authorities fell short of resources to rehabilitate the displaced families.

In Bardiya, thousands of families living along the Babai River were confident that an early warning station set up to the north of their villages would alert them in case of a disastrous flood. But, the locals living south of Chepang village, where the station was placed to gauge the water level in the Babai River, had no inkling that the flood was about to wash away everything they had. The station failed right at the moment when it was needed the most.

“We had not anticipated such a worse flood in Babai,” says Rajendra Sharma, chief of Flood Forecasting Project at Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM). “The very first wave of flood swept away our station; and people were caught unguarded.”

Gautam, the Bardiya Red Cross president, says, “We need better early warning system as climate change poses more serious threats of extreme weather events.”

Published on 2014-08-26 02:42:03

Nepal’s disaster preparedness woefully inadequate


KATHMANDU, Aug 21: Nepal has put in place plenty of plans, strategies and mechanisms to deal with disasters in the last five years.

But, is Nepal now well-prepared to manage disasters?

The answer is a big NO.

In the aftermath of the recent Sunkoshi landslide and other devastating floods, particularly in the plains of the midwestern region, it seems that Nepal´s disaster preparedness is almost non-existent.

Zero mitigation

Government officials often dub 2009 as a landmark year in the field of disaster risk management. On October 11 that year, the government approved a national strategy for disaster risk management, outlining top five priority areas.

In the years since 2009, several mechanisms, as envisioned by the national strategy, have been formed to manage disasters.

Water trapped by the August 2 landslide in the Sunkoshi River flows from two outlets dug in Mankha VDC of Sindhupalchowk district on Thursday. The water level in the trapped river had dropped by a meter and a half by Thursday. Nepal Army, which is involved in draining out the water, said it aims to reduce the water level by 15-20 meters. (Dhurva Dangal/Republica)

First of all, a consortium for disaster risk reduction was formed. The consortium, led by the home secretary, consists of development partners supporting Nepal´s disaster preparedness programs; and provides required financial and technical assistance.

Also, disaster response networks and search and rescue strategies have been prepared. The Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MoFALD) has also formed disaster management committees in many districts and villages.

So, despite all this preparedness, why did the recent floods cause so much damage in the mid-western region?

According to the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), floods and landslides have killed 123 people, injured 67 people and left 126 people missing in several parts of the country since August 14.

In the same floods and landslides, 9,954 houses were completely damaged, 10,361 houses partially damaged, and 11,205 houses were inundated, and 20,245 families were displaced. Although the recent floods and landslides have hit as many as 25 districts, Surkhet, Dang and Bardiya are the worst affected ones.

Why did Nepal´s disaster management plans, programs, trategies and mechanisms fail to reduce the damages caused by the recent floods and landslides?

“Perhaps, our disaster preparedness is far from adequate,” says Ramesh Shrestha, an early warning system officer at Mercy Corps Nepal, an NGO working in disaster management sector.

Shrestha believes that there is no gap in disaster management policies and strategies but their implementation is far from satisfactory. “This is why disasters continue to cause so much destruction every year,” says Shrestha.

Ram Chandra Neupane, chairman of ECO-Nepal, another NGO working in disaster management sector, says, “In our plans, programs and strategies, we have focused on how to respond to disasters. But, we have failed to focus on how to mitigate risks of disasters.”

Neupane says mitigation is as important as responsiveness or even more so. “Unless mitigation is prioritized, response will always be insufficient,” says Neupane.

Constructing embankments along rivers is one of the most important aspects of mitigating the risk of floods. But, even flood-prone rivers are without embankments and flowing waywardly, killing people, damaging houses and displacing families every year.

This year, Babai River swelled up, changed its course and caused devastation in a vast area of fertile land – somewhere as far as five kilometers from the original water course. Although Babai is and was always a flood-prone river, the government has not built a strong embankment along its serpentine course so far.

Only a few months before the onset of monsoon, temporary embankments were built in some parts of Babai River, which were washed away by the flood. “Had there been a strong embankment along Babai River, damage would have been far less in Bardiya,” says Shrestha. “This is one area where our disaster management plans have failed.”

Poor response

Even in terms of responsiveness, Nepal does not look well-prepared. As part of Nepal´s flood forecasting project, nearly two dozen flood measurement stations have been set up. But, the recent floods showed these stations are too few and far between. In Babai River, the flood washed away the entire early warning system.

In the flood-ravaged villages, the displaced people have no place to sleep, no warm clothes to wear. They have been given rice. But, without kitchen utensils and fuelwood, they are unable to cook their meals. According to the NEOC, the government has distributed more than Rs 1.6 million as relief money to the flood victims. But, that seems too little.

“The recent floods and landslides showed that we are yet not prepared to deal with big disasters,” says Mahesh Gautam, president of Nepal Red Cross Society, Bardiya. “We need to go a long way in disaster preparedness sector.”


Published on 2014-08-22 02:07:15

Sunkoshi tragedy exposes failure in hazard mapping


KATHMANDU, Aug 7: The landslide that killed more than 150 people and blocked the Sunkoshi River last Saturday at Mankha village of Sindhupalchowk district has exposed yawning gaps in Nepal´s hazard mapping and early warning mechanisms.

Hours before the dawn of August 2, a massive landslide occurred, creating a huge debris dam that completely blocked the course of the Sunkoshi River for over 12 hours. Only after a Nepal Army (NA) team created a channel through controlled explosions, some of the blocked water started flowing downward. However, almost a week later, the dam is still there, posing flood threats to people living downstream.

As per a report released by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a 1.9 km long slope of land perched 1,350 meters above the river bed collapsed in Jure area of Mankha village, burying around two dozen houses. Within the first three days of the disaster, rescuers recovered 33 dead bodies from under the rubble. On the fourth day, the government declared all 123 missing people dead.

Nepal Army soldiers perched atop rocks in the Sunkoshi River as they set up ropes for possible rescue efforts in view of the continuing threat of flooding.(Phot Couresy: Nepal Army)

Immediately after the Sunkoshi landslide, the government declared downstream villages along the river a flood emergency zone and evacuated more than 100 vulnerable families from the area. As days passed, normalcy seems to be slowly returning to downstream villages. With the NA team trying to release more water through controlled explosions, a lurking crisis seems to have been averted.

However, the Sunkoshi disaster could just be a wake-up call. If serous efforts are not undertaken, immediately, more such disasters could strike Nepali villages in future, say experts.

Haphazard settlements

In Larcha, a little village located between Tatopani and Fulping Katti VDCs of Sindhupalchowk, a massive landslide had occurred in 1996, sweeping away dozens of houses. However, the landslip-affected families resettled in the same village.

The Larcha landslide is a testimony to how hundreds of thousands of families are haphazardly living in flood and landslide prone villages. They are often struck by floods and landslides but continue to live there. Worse, the government has no plans and programs to identify flood and landslide prone villages and rehabilitate people from there.

Even in Jure, the hill where the Sunkoshi landslide occurred had collapsed around 60 years ago, according to Amrit Kumar Bohara, a CPN (UML) leader who witnessed the disaster when he was just a six-year-old child. But, the locals of Jure neither relocated to safer locations nor the government ever tried to evacuate them.

Suresh Nepal, who was Vice President of the Sindhupalchowk District Development Committee (DDC) when the Larcha landslide occurred, says, “People always want to live near the road even though there is constant fear of flooding and landslides. This is why the locals in Larcha and Jure did not move elsewhere even after being struck by landslides in the past.”

It is not just the locals who choose to overlook the threats of possible disasters. Even big companies have built hydropower plants fully knowing the risks of possible floods and landslides. Along the Sunkoshi (Bhotekoshi) River, there are at least three major hydro power plants apart from many other micro hydropower projects.

“Some people know the risks but are too poor to go elsewhere,” says Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist at the ICIMOD. “But, if you look at houses built along the Sunkoshi River, it would be hard to say that all the locals are poor and therefore incapable of moving elsewhere. In fact, they take calculated risks. So do hydropower companies.”

Risks can be reduced

The Sunkoshi river basin is vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) and Landside Dam Outburst Floods (LDOFs). In the last 30 years, one GLOF and two LDOF events, excluding the August 2 tragedy, have already occurred in this region.

After a GLOF event in 1981, the level of the Araniko Highway was raised and taller bridges were built in an effort to minimize damages that future GLOF and LDOF events could cause. Beside, early warning system was set up by the Bhote Koshi hydropower plant.

What was done in the wake of the 1981 GLOF needs to be scaled up, say experts. They say hazard mapping and early warning system need to be developed not only in the Sunkoshi basin but across the country. “Although we cannot control natural hazards like landslides and floods, there are many things that can be done to minimize their adverse impact on lives, livelihoods, and valuable infrastructure,” says the ICIMOD report on the Sunkoshi landslide. “More efforts to map landslide risks are needed, and much more frequent monitoring of potential landslide sites is necessary.”

Can what the ICIMOD report recommends be done? “It is not a question of whether we can,” says Dr Shrestha. “We can and we must do it. If we cannot do it across the country at one once, let us start it from the most vulnerable village. But, let us do it right now.”

Published on 2014-08-08 03:06:2