Helping Nepal navigate water management

At first glance, the relatively small, snowy and mountainous nation of Nepal bears little resemblance to the flat, dry and sprawling Australian continent, but both experience prolonged dry seasons and have to juggle many competing demands for water.

That’s why the Australian Government’s scientific research agency CSIRO is working with Nepalese colleagues to implement a scientifically sound and socially equitable water management plan in the Kamala Basin, an important irrigated agriculture zone in the country’s south-central region.

“The Government of Nepal identified the Kamala Basin as a priority because it is one of the drier interior catchments of Nepal; the biophysical and social-economic complexity of the region; and many subsistence farmers, especially the elderly and women, live in poverty with few opportunities to improve their livelihoods,” says CSIRO’s David Penton. 

Nepalese local communities also identified the Kamala Basin as a priority, he adds, and for similar reasons.

The community and government see the region has a good representation of most of Nepal’s water resource management issues; that these issues require attention from a range of disciplines; and that the region had not gained the attention of other donors or researchers.

Nearly 1000 people, including government representatives, have participated in workshops and focus group discussions to provide input. The main dissemination of results and advice is expected in the first half of next year.

New ideas certainly are needed. As Saumitra Neupane, a water governance expert at Nepal-based development company Policy Entrepreneurs Incorporated, notes, water policies and legislation in Nepal have not been updated or revised since the early 1990s. 

“Much of the previous attempts at planning was limited to a hydrological approach and failed to take into consideration the social, political, and economic realities of the changing country context,” he says.

Change hopefully is coming. Nepal has been on the road to a federal model of government since abolishing the monarchy in 2008 and in doing so has added another level of government with a stake in water management.

What Australia can offer, says Neupane, is a more scientific and participatory approach, and expertise in water resource planning at the basin level.

Penton says this planning includes collecting information about who uses water, what they use it for, and the state of water resources, while engaging with the community, listening to ideas, analysing options and determining strategic directions.

“Through this process, we have confirmed that Kamala Basin, like [Australia’s] Murray-Darling Basin, does not have enough water to meet everyone’s needs during dry spells,” he says.

There are several parallels between the two, he adds, including the effects of drought and flood, the impact of climate variability on farmers, and the desire to build and manage large irrigation infrastructure. 

And, he says, on a scientific and personal basis there is also “much that Australia can learn from Nepal”.

“Internationally there is concern that irrigation infrastructure has supported some segments of society to the detriment of others; with more knowledge and understanding we can identify better investment decisions.” 

Because Nepal’s Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali rivers feed into India’s Ganges river system, what happens to Nepal’s water also has significance for its neighbours. 

Sundeep Waslekar, President of the Strategic Foresight Group, an Indian think tank interested in water diplomacy, says India and Nepal have several agreements covering all shared rivers, but “these agreements have to be implemented in the spirit of cooperation”.

Nepal has abundant water resources, he says, but they are not harnessed for irrigation and hydropower, which can improve living conditions in the developing country. 

Generally, he adds, South Asia lacks regional water cooperation agreements to harness benefits of trans-boundary rivers. 

“There are bilateral water allocation agreements between India and Pakistan, and India and Bangladesh, but they fail to bring countries together,” he says.

“South Asia can seek inspiration from West African river basins which have been able to work together to use rivers collaboratively to develop irrigation, hydropower and navigation systems.”

For now, the farmers and other residents of the Kamala Basin are benefiting from the expertise of a nation thousands of kilometres to the south. 

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