'Water planners ignore social issues'

Nepal is slated to be a major hydropower supplier in South Asia with the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Australian government for a US$ 590-million 360-megawatt project on the Karnali river. But Nepal's big projects, like the Arun III, has run into many controversies. dipak gyawali, 43, one of Nepal's leading hydroengineers and environmentalists, once in Nepal's ministry of water resources, now its sharp critic, was in Delhi recently at a India-Nepal colloquium organised by the School Of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He spoke to Amit Mitra about hydroengineering and other environmental problems of the region. A physics graduate of St Xavier's College, Bombay, who was trained in hydroengineering in Moscow, he returned to Nepal in 1979. After nearly 15 years of association with water projects, he has now finally surfaced for other involvments. Gyawali is now associated with the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Nepal is slated to become one of South Asia's major power suppliers with the signing of the MoU with Australia for the West Seti project. What are the problems with the project?
From the hydro-technical point of view, the project seems okay but other environmental issues like seismicity and sedimentation haven't been considered. The project represents the liberalisation of the hydropower sector. I'd welcome privatisation, but of smaller projects upto 50 mw schemes which run better. The present scheme is too big and has been finalised within a month without any debate on the pros and cons. Such large storage projects mean not water for electricity alone but also for irrigation. Flood control is another aspect. All this ultimately for a so-called benefit to India.

I say so-called because I doubt whether India will actually benefit. Such a large storage implies sharing a lot of things. The private sector may effectively work out the sharing of benefits of run-of-the-river projects, where there's no storage system for smaller projects. In the absence of agreements, India might emerge as a free-rider. Electricity will benefit the urban middle class, while irrigation will benefit not only small farmers but sugar barons, too. These different classes have different requirements and different capacities to pay. You cannot simply have one set of people paying the most, while a few and a set of free-riders benefit. The major problem with water in South Asia is that water planners ignore the social issues.

Those of you who have worked in the government are highly technocratic and don't seem to have a humane side. And yet, you seem to be involved with social issues...
My baptism in social issues began when I was involved in a rural electrification project in western Nepal's Dadeldhura district. Most of Delhi's chowkidars come from there. I was very upset with many things, including the corruption among senior politicians. I'd given up physics because I wanted to do practical things but then wondered what I was doing there too.

Returning in 1987 from Berkeley to my government job, I was involved in every discussion between India, Bangladesh and Nepal on water and all the Indo-Nepal border talks. I was in a parliamentary committee investigating the failure of a World Bank water supply scheme for urban Nepal. Our recommendations were not accepted by the government. I resigned.

What happened to the project?
It was a disaster which cost Rs 1,200 crores. We had strongly recommended a decentralised water management. It is impossible to manage the water supply of 12 cities from Kathmandu. Of course the politico-economic reasons are crucial here. If everything is managed from Kathmandu, manipulation of tenders becomes much easier. But if every town manages its own supply, it means many tenders and therefore its dificult for one person to corner them all. The profits and the kickbacks get lowered. But who really cares for efficient water management? But if you want more water or for that matter any other environmental resource, decentralised management is a must.

How do you view the current environmental movement?
I don't support many of the things that the ardent conservationists say: for instance, connecting deforestation with soil erosion in a very simplistic manner. Although I am against big dams, I believe that the Narmada dam will be built, although not the 1,000 projects envisaged in the Narmada valley. But the protests have made sure that in future, the establishment is going to be extremely cautious before thinking of a big dam.

I have tremendous respect for many of these activists, but many points of disagreement, too. Extreme positions should not be taken because of the uncertainty about the projects' outcome, one way or the other. But despite all my differences with eco-fundamentalists, I support them because this is the only sociological tool we have to break down institutional hierarchy. The irrigation or the power department won't listen to anyone nor divulge any information. Fossilised bureaucracies have very effective information filters. Eco-fundamentalism at least shakes them, challenges them.

The classic example is that of the Arun iii project. We knew of its problems all along but couldn't do a thing about it. But now the Nepalese hierarchy and the World Bank have responded to international critcism. Half of the latest staff appraisal report of the World Bank on the Arun Project is devoted to answering questions raised by environmentalists. And that's why more environmental groups, which includes social groups, are needed in India and Nepal to weaken the bureacracy.

Nepal has often been accused of possessing a loosely framed environmental policy. Wasn't deforestation in Nepal blamed for the 1988 floods in Bangladesh?
I have major problems with this deforestation argument. As a Nepali, as someone who loves trees, let's think of preserving trees for the right reasons. It is wrong to say that trees have to be preserved in Nepal or the Himalayas because cutting them down will cause floods in Bangladesh. The pattern of rainfall in Nepal has to be considered -- 560 mm of rain in 20 hours, that too at the end of the monsoons. We have to stop thinking of trees as sponges. The rain washes away the trees, and along with them the soil. This kind of rainfall occurs once in 10 or 15 years. The 1988 floods in Bangladesh were not due to deforestation in Nepal. Only a small portion of the catchment area is in the Nepal Himalayas.

You seem to imply that floods are inevitable...
Well, is it wrong if I say so? In the past, people knew how to live with floods and they may have to be taught anew. For centuries, much before organic farming became a fad, agriculturists used the silt of rivers as fertiliser. Civilisations developed on that. Today, instead of importing dung from the West, don't you think silt would be a much better and cheaper source of fertiliser?

Earlier warning systems have already been developed to some extent. But major floods come in cycles. Take Bangladesh, where more than 60 per cent of the population is made up by poor marginal farmers. Once a major flood takes place, there's a big hullabaloo, but during normal years, people should be prevented from settling down in the flood prone areas and build big houses. Alternative architecture, like houses on stilts, can be adopted. But for this, you need institutions that have a futuristic vision spanning 15 to 50 years.

In 1991, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published similar arguments in Floods, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths. It faced a lot of flak. What was your response?
Thecse went in for scientific information, which can be tested empirically. But it was criticised for sociological reasons. In the egalitarian mode that most environmentalists live, alarm is what keeps the group together. The CSE had shattered a myth but this myth of having trees all over the Himalayas had sustained these groups. The moment you do that, you hit at a basic cosmology and naturally, retaliation occurs. Arguments are that you have sold out to the industrialist lobby, to the World Bank or you have got the facts wrong. But all good scientists, environmentalists and foresters accept these arguments.

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