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J L Karmacharya

Executive Member, Nepal Commission on Large Dams

"Dams and Development" in Nepalese Context

Abstract: Nepal is water rich. However the uneven spatial and temporal distribution of run-off creates water stress situation for 60% of the population in the year 2025, if storage facilities are not built. The goal of bringing all the population of the country above poverty line by the year 2025 can only be achieved with GDP growth of 8%. This is possible only if irrigation is extended to all irrigable land, drinking water is provided to all population and 22,000 MW of hydroelectricity is generated. Dam Construction alone can help realize these targets. The WCD’s guidelines, specially the approach for achieving public acceptance, elements of comprehensive options assessment, introduction of dispute resolution mechanism, International Panel forSharing Rivers, could create potential difficulty in the construction of dams. The result will be end of dam construction because of lack of fund. The alternative to dam construction is hunger and darkness.

1.Water Availability Scenario


Water utilization for drinking and irrigation is increasing with the growth of population. It is estimated that about 4 billion people, half the global population will live in the countries with high stress condition by 2025. The per capita availability of water is projected to reduce from today’s 6,600 cubic meters to 4,800 cubic meters by 2025. Still worse, the uneven distribution of water resources in many countries forces 3 billion people to live with the water availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters per capita. Any further quantity below that will create water stress situation. It is absolutely important that pre-emptive actions are taken before human population start reeling under water stress. In order to avoid Economic Water Scarcity- a situation where the country has sufficient water resources to meet their needs but will have to increase water supplies through additional storage- about 25% more storage capacity will have to be created. Human catastrophe can be avoided by expanding by some 30% harvested area by 2025. This would mean that an additional 150 cubic kilometers of storage will be required for irrigation by 2025 and 200 cubic kilometers of storage might be required to replace the over consumption of groundwater. However slowdown in dam building will limit the expansion in irrigated area to 5-10%. This shortfall in irrigated area will result in considerable food shortages and rising food prices.

Even the present situation is alarming. More than 800 million, 15% of the world population gets less than 2000 calories a day. They are exposed to chronicle under-nourishment. Half the world’s people do not have access to sanitation. Over 2 billion people do not have access to electricity. How to come out of this alarming situation? History has taught a lot about managing the water. Dam construction has been an integral part of increasing food production, supply of drinking water and generation of power. About 1 billion people benefit from the dam related irrigation and a great number of water supply is also dam related. About 20% of the power is generated by dam-related projects.

nepal 1
Fig. 1

Fortunately, Nepal is water rich country. Its 6,000 rivers generate about 225 billion cubic meter of water. This gives about 10,000 cubic meters per capita availability of water at present.

The per capita surface water availability is expected to reduce around 6,000 cubic meters by 2025. If compared with the standard set by Malin Falkenmark and accepted by World Water Council that requires about 1,700 cubic meters per capita of water availability to avoid water stress, the situation in Nepal does not seem to, on an average, be alarming (Fig. 1). However, the uneven spatial and temporal distribution of water across Nepal does not present a comfortable picture. Around 78% of the average flow of the country is concentrated in four Major River Basins, 6% in the Medium River Basins and 16% in the numerous, small Southern Rivers Basin in the Terai Region. But population wise 42% of the population resides in the major basins, 19% in the Medium River Basins and 39% in smaller river basins. This leads to a very uneven distribution of the water availability ranging from almost 25,000 cubic meters per capita in Mahakali basin to 2,000 cubic meters per capita in Bagmati Basin today. In the year 2025, these figures are expected to go down to 14,000 cubic meters and 1,200 cubic meters respectively. Countrywide, although the water availability in 2025 will be at the comfortable level, about half the population will be in area of water stress where the availability will drop below or very near to the 1,700 cubic meters per capita. Based on the annual average figure of 1,700 cubic meters per capita requirement, average monthly per capita comes to 142 cubic meters. In terms of temporal distribution of water availability, the major river basins will be in a comfortable situation with more than double of water availability even in the driest month. However the people living in medium and southern basins, they will suffer monthly water stress at least seven months a year (figs 2,3,4). In other words almost 60% the population will suffer water stress by 2025 To avert this human sufferings the water will have to be stored for seasonal regulation, which without dam is not possible. As we all know the water stress index is based on a minimum per capita requirement for basic household needs to maintain good health and includes the requirement of agriculture, industry and energy production. Hence water stress will result in food scarcity, lack of sanitation affecting health and set back to industrial growth. The situation in India and China will be even alarming with 1990 figure for India being 2464 cubic meters per capita and 2427 cubic meters per capita for China. Both the countries are definitely to fall under the water stress category before 2025.

nepal 2
Fig. 2

2.The World Commission on Dams Guidelines


Against this background of potential human suffering that, in all probability, is going to occur in Nepal- a comparatively water rich country- if dam building is stopped, I would like to discuss the impact of the World Commission on Dams’ (WCD) report "Dam and Development" is going to have in tackling this problem. This is, if the WCD guidelines are imposed to be followed without exception and due consideration to the practicability of the guidelines.

World Commission on Dams has collected and analyzed an impressive volume of information. Researchers have invested tremendous effort to put together multitude of documents related to the dam development- except for the technical aspect. There is nothing to debate about the five core values- Equity, Efficiency, Participatory Decision Making, Sustainability and Accountability- on which World Commission on Dams have relied upon to develop the guidelines. Although some may question how could efficiency be achieved by following such a multi-layer procedures to process a dam project or how equity could be ensured by following prescribed decision making process, which apparently discriminate majority of population vis-à-vis minority indigenous population. However these concepts, in principle, is not different from widely accepted one in the dam construction industry, except for few badly handled projects, which should be treated as exception rather than the rule.

Also, the seven priorities identified, i.e.

  1. Gaining Public Acceptance
  2. Comprehensive Options Assessment
  3. Addressing Existing Dams
  4. Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods
  5. Recognizing Entitlements and Sharing Benefits
  6. Ensuring Compliance
  7. Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development and Security

could be considered as constructive elements for decision-making. These strategic priorities are supposed to provide guidelines for all affected parties for achieving equitable and sustainable development of dam through a process, which is supposed to integrate social, economic and environmental considerations into decision making. It is this suggested process or guidelines, which are based on the seven priorities, that have been analyzed to ascertain whether these really help to achieve the objective of dam construction. The paper is devoted to critically analyze the practical aspect of implementing the guidelines prepared by WCD. It would be difficult to deal with all the aspects of 26 guidelines in this paper. Hence those aspects, which seriously impact on the development of dam, will be discussed.

nepal 3
Fig. 3
nepal 4
Fig. 4

2.1Gaining Public Acceptance

The first strategic priority is the Gaining Public Acceptance, which has three elements:

  1. Stakeholder Analysis
  2. Negotiated Decision-making Process
  3. Free, Prior and Informed Consent

Stakeholder Forum is considered as a dynamic construct, which is supposed to change from stage to stage of a development of a dam. The guidelines advocate financial support for capacity building of stakeholders and introduction of independent facilitators to correct any imbalance of influence. Firstly how any agency, leave alone the dam project, could finance for the capacity building of members of Stakeholders’ Forum, who are subjected to the change at every stage and how long it will take to complete the job of gaining the public acceptance if "independent facilitators" are to play role in achieving the acceptance. The public acceptance is considered as negotiated processes where disputes resolution mechanisms will have to play a role. Aren’t we being advised to create a mountain of litigation in the court with never ending conclusion? Worldwide experience tells that the requirement for complete public consensus could stall almost all project. The competing nature of interests involved makes such consensus elusive. It is naive to think that public debate, in multi-polar and democratic society, will bring a unanimous decision. The Free, Prior and Informed consent are primarily required of indigenous and tribal peoples. This requirement divides the affected people into two catagories- a minority group of indigenous and tribal people and majority of other affected people. Hence this requirement effectively gives a veto right to one constituency at the expense of the rights of the others, a clear contradiction to the spirit of equality, adopted as one of the core value. The result of enforcement of this guideline is never to build a dam.

2.2Comprehensive Options Assessment

The options assessment is a standard process usually carried out to select a best option from among candidate projects for implementation. Therefore, the projects are usually studied to some engineering level. This is a one shot exercise using multi-criteria assessments. However the report suggests option assessments throughout the life cycle and at every stage of study. It further suggests that investigation for assessments are analyzed on a river basin wide understanding of social, economic and environmental values, requirements, functions and impacts including cumulative impacts. This is obviously an open ended, cumbersome, expensive and time consuming exercise. The option assessments must stop at a stage, where comparative study with respect to social, economical, technical, financial, environmental aspect are done and a project is selected for implementation. Life-cycle assessment and Greenhouse Gas Emission Study cannot be carried out for one and all projects. These could be done only in representative basis.

One of the major deficiencies in the Report is the treatment of projects of any size and type with the same set of guidelines. Storage project impacts differently from the run-off the river projects. For example, the Greenhouse Gas Emission phenomena may not be relevant to a ROR project although it could have a dam of more than 15m height.

2.3Addressing Existing Dams

The guideline regarding addressing existing dams is not based on the practical experience. It will be pertinent to point out that almost all the dams operate under strict operating rules including existing environmental and social considerations. Moreover the advocacy that a comprehensive integrated cumulative and adaptive periodic evaluation at 5-10 years interval, where such evaluation may take a couple of years, particularly if it is a participatory process, is neither practical nor necessary. This could mean a perpetual reviewing, which may result in the changing of operating parameters. This would also lead to deprivation of resources for investment in new projects.

2.4Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods

One of the glaring example of unpractical aspect of the guideline is the suggestion that "a basin-wide understanding of the ecosystem’s function, values and requirements and how community livelihoods depend on and influence them, is required before decisions on development options are made. One wonders how these requirements could be met whenever development options are made, as it is universally accepted fact that it takes generations of scientific teamwork to understand the ecology of a watershed. This requirement is a guarantee to postpone any project.

2.5Recognizing Entitlements and Sharing Benefits

Significant improvement has already been introduced in the mechanism of compensation for dam-related affected people worldwide and also in Nepal. The compensation package not only includes the compensation for lost property but also the rehabilitation package. The rehabilitation package is based on the reorganization that regaining lost livelihood requires adequate lead-time and preparation and therefore includes food allowance, house rental and the compensation for the crops till the next crop is reaped. However the WCD report does not analyze and suggest modification in such practice. Instead it proposes an approach, which is heavily loaded with legalistic process with binding contractual agreements including Master Contracts and Performance Contracts with communities and families binding the governments and developers. Intent of this requirement may not be questioned, but in practice what would be the end result? It would definitely result in the diversion of resources from the just beneficiaries by way of paying the legal fees. Additionally, it should also be recognized that the non-construction and delay in construction of projects would also result in the loss or denial of benefit to affected people. The bottom line is that the affected people should be compensated adequately and justifiably and benefit should flow to them and not that they be entangled in the cobweb of negotiations and legal fights.

2.6Ensuring Compliance

The WCD Report has come up with a major valuable recommendation that governments and other stakeholders need to be satisfied that, once informed decisions are made, all parties will ensure that they comply with respective obligations through the life of a project. This is a positive requirement that will ensure the unhindered completion of a dam project, due to avoidance of level of conflict. However, the suggestion that the compliance should be subjected to independent review, introduces an element of reliance on a third party rather than building trust and confidence among the involved stakeholders. The introduction of third party mechanism is again an unnecessary burden with the potentiality of diverting resource away from right use.

2.7Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development and Security

Strategic Priority that assumes special significance in the Nepalese Context is the sharing rivers. All major Nepalese rivers flow down to join Ganga Basin. Nepal, being water rich but land limited, the question of whether water should be shared or benefit that can be derived from it, assumes special significance. In the view of this sensitivity, Nepal has entered into various agreements with India with respect to the water utilization of different river basins. These Agreements serve the basis for the exploitation of water resources of Nepal. Therefore the role of independent panel is irrelevant and also unreasonable, as sovereignty of an independent panel cannot be above that of a state. It is essential to respect existing treaties between countries, especially as these have often taken several years to negotiate and include set procedures for project development and not necessarily need to notify the options and agree on the procedures for impact assessment to exploit the water resources of Tran-boundary Rivers

3.Significance of Dam: Nepal Context


With more than 40% of the population living below poverty line, Nepal’s economy is highly dependent on developing the water sector. It is calculated that in order to achieve the objective of bringing all the population above poverty line by 2025, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth should be 8%. This growth could be achieved only by making available round-the year irrigation for all the arable land, providing safe drinking water to all the population and generating 22,000 MW of hydropower for domestic need as well as export.

The nature of the monsoon rain in Nepal is highly seasonal, characterized by the 80% of the annual rain occurring during the four months of June, July, August and September and the remaining months falling short of the demand to meet the crop water requirement. With the fast depletion of groundwater, water will have to be stored or transmitted from one basin to other basin to distribute water even for drinking purpose. Nepal does not have any other means of generating electricity than hydro-resources. Under these circumstances; Nepal does not have any alternative to uses of water to meet the demand of agriculture, electricity and social needs. And to use water for all these purpose construction of dams is an absolute necessity. Is there any other alternative to dam? Yes there are. And these are thirst, hunger and darkness.

4.What Next?


We, in Nepal, have studied the WCD Report "Dam and Development" with all seriousness. We do not question the necessity of the guidelines for building dams. We also want to build dam with human face. But we feel difficulty in implementing the guidelines in the present form, not because these are not reasonable, but because these are not implementable, if followed the suggested approach. We feel, these should be feasible enough to be accommodated with political, economic and cultural framework of the country. We feel comfortable reading through the WCD statement "the report is not intended as a blueprint. We recommend that it be used as the starting point for discussions, debates, internal reviews and requirements of what may be established procedures". This statement should be understood in words and spirit as such by all. But it does not seem to be the case. To World Rivers Review (Nov/Dec 2000), the Report has provided a boost to anti-dam campaigners around the world. The cry is a call to action and that action is moratorium in dam building. Eighty-five groups of NGO from 30 countries insist on "immediate and comprehensive adoption of the recommendations of the WCD and integration of them into World Bank’s relevant policies. Failure by the Bank to amend its position on the WCD Report, the Group threatens’ will have impacts beyond the water and Energy sectors and the NGO’s may be less inclined to engage in future multi-stakeholder dialogue with the Bank". The Group even accused the Bank of misinforming or even lobbying governments and other institutions so that they reject the WCD Report. We are particularly alarmed by such statements and hope these may not serve as an impediment to the modification of few WCD guidelines in order to make them adaptable. After all so much of effort, resources and time have been invested to produce the document to be used universally and not to make it another addition to the book-self.

We welcome the World Bank’s intention of using the report as a non-binding reference point for decision-making on dam-related projects, which is compatible with the WCD’s position. This is realistic approach as every country has its own set of culture, development stage and compulsion.World Bank is not a super-government, which can dictate all the nations to a policy, which may or may not suit the country’s interest. Further, it should not be forgotten that each member country is a shareholder in the Bank and even NGO would not deny that the Bank must take the stakeholders into confidence. National government, which is accountable to the people have more responsibility than any group.

The Dam Development Unit, which is proposed as successor to the WorldCommission on Dams’ secretariat, should consult more and more governments, identify elements of the guidelines which the governments may find difficult to implement and take into consideration their concern in redefining those elements. Universal acceptability is a must in order to take maximum advantage out of the appreciable effort put to produce the Report.

This is absolutely necessary for smaller countries as large countries can still survive the irrational pressure. But nations, as ours, may be seriously impacted if irrationality prevails and cry for moratorium has its day, which may result in the drying up of all public and private sector funding for dam construction. Because, as has been said, the alternative to dam construction for Nepal, is hunger, thirst and darkness.

I wish, the Report on Dam and Development should have sub-title. "A Report on How to Build a Good Dam". This will help establish the impression that the Report is produced to show how to build a good dam and not not to build dam at all.