India, Nepal ignore climate crisis in river talks

Bilateral negotiations disregard impact of the climate crisis in new hydropower deals

A drone shot of Arughat Bazar, one of the biggest settlements on the Budi Gandaki River valley bordering Gorkha and Dhading districts. Photos: NABIN BARAL

This June, monsoon rains brought freak floods to the mountains of Nepal while parts of the plains reeled from a severe water shortage.

This has always been the story of the Himalaya: either too much water or too little. This contrast is now aggravated by the impact of the climate crisis.

While flash floods ravaged eastern Nepal, destroying hydropower plants, wells dried out in the Tarai on the border with India amidst a prolonged drought affecting rice planting.

The water table on both sides of the border has been going down due to over-extraction by deep tube wells as well as the destruction of the groundwater recharge areas of the Chure Range, the southernmost foothills of the Himalaya. The Chure is being ravaged by quarries, deforestation and population growth.

However, this transboundary water crisis is absent from bilateral negotiations on river sharing between India and Nepal.

Nepali Times columnist Chandra Kishore was the first to draw attention to the seriousness of the water crisis. He wrote in a page 1 report in this newspaper on 28 July: ‘The climate crisis is a water crisis, and access to water used to be determined by who bore deep wells for water. But even those with pumps do not have water, and the worst hit are the poorest families.’

Chandra Kishore has taken to social media to express his frustration that these important issues never seem to be on the political agenda in India or Nepal, and even less in conversations between the two governments.

Read also: Grain drain, Chandra Kishore

“Kathmandu listens a bit but doesn’t act, since the leadership is too busy dealing with India on how to stay on in power,” he says. “And Bihar’s voice rarely reaches Delhi.” The Indian state is currently governed by a party opposed to the BJP that rules India.

Chandra Kishore’s frustration speaks to a wider failure by the Nepali government to prioritise domestic problems — from changes in the Himalayan water cycle and ecological destruction to a shortage of electricity grids – if they complicate or threaten economic ties with India.

Up to 70% of the annual water flow in the Ganges River comes down from tributaries in Nepal — most of that in the four monsoon months. These Himalayan rivers are central to the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens in India and Nepal.

Poor water management in both countries with poorly designed flood control embankments and infrastructure, insufficient groundwater recharge, and over-pumping have worsened the effect of weather extremes due to the climate crisis.

Despite these factors, high-profile bilateral discussions between India and Nepal usually overlook climate change and other environmental concerns. In 2014, the countries jointly issued a 35-point press release on Narendra Modi’s first prime ministerial visit to Nepal that did not even mention climate change. During the next four visits Modi has made, the climate crisis has never come up. 

Rather than talking about the vulnerabilities of their shared river systems, India and Nepal use these meetings solely to explore the potential to generate hydropower. Hydro-electricity makes up 96% of Nepal’s installed electricity capacity, and exporting power to India could help Nepal reduce its trade deficit.

During Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India in June, a long-term energy trade agreement was finalised. Prime Minister Modi confirmed in a joint press conference that India would import 10,000MW of electricity in the next decade.

Read also: Balance of Power, Sonia Awale

Dam site of Upper Karnali hydropower
Dam site of Upper Karnali hydropower (900MW) in Daab in Dailekh district. The Indian company GMR is in the final stage to start construction of the project.

Experts say that India’s main concern is not electricity but water, and its planners are fully aware of the impact climate change will have on future water availability. But Indian officials hide the real agenda by talking only about electricity.

Nepal’s former water resources minister Dipak Gyawali told The Third Pole: “To India, climate change is a foreign agenda and for Nepal, it’s something to talk about to be nice, especially with western countries.”

While Nepal negotiates with India to try to export more hydroelectricity, many within Nepal do not have adequate or reliable supply of power. The Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) has been trying to unsuccessfully increase domestic consumption, and one reason is frequent power cuts even during the monsoon.

Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) spokesperson Suresh Bahadur Bhattarai says the installed hydropower generation in the rainy season is 2,800MW, while peak demand hovers at 1,800MW. There is surplus power, but there are not enough transmission lines to evacuate power.

Energy experts say there has been too much focus on electricity generation and not enough on transmission lines. Says former head of NEA Mukesh Kafle: “As a result, several hydro projects haven’t been able to dispatch generated energy to the grid and, with increasing demand, local distributions systems aren’t able to handle the load.” 

Most of Nepal’s hydropower is generated by private investors, and one such is the Super Dordi in Lamjung district. The Dordi River is in full spate because of heavy rains this month, but the scheme with an installed capacity of 54MW is only generating 10MW. 

Says Super Dordi’s Ganesh Karki: “If we had a transmission line, we could run at full capacity.”

The reason for power outages this monsoon is not because there is not enough electricity, but because inadequate transmission lines means the power generated cannot be distributed to the load centres, leading to frequent tripping.  

Read also: Nepal-India power play, Ramesh Kumar

Hydropower graph

Addition of vital transmission lines was held up because of the delays in the ratification of the US-funded MCC scheme, as well as local obstruction to putting up poles and obtaining necessary permits to clear forests.

“The outages are going to get worse if things remain the same,” the NEA’s Bhattarai warned. 

The Independent Power Producers Association of Nepal (IPPAN) would prefer to sell power domestically, but since it is difficult to increase power demand within Nepal and meet it with enough transmission lines, exporting to India is the only option.

Nepal’s Department of Electricity Development has issued 241 construction licenses for generating more than 8,820MW. And there are hydropower construction applications awaiting approval that would generate more than 8,680MW.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Water Resources, Energy and Irrigation is working on a 10-year national hydropower strategy, but says it is not yet ready to share details.

Not everybody is as excited about selling electricity to India. Gyawali thinks such interest in Nepali hydropower is being driven not by market forces, but by the Indian government’s wish to exercise strategic control over Nepal.

India only imports hydroelectricity from Nepal that does not have Chinese investment or involvement. Indian companies have replaced China as the country’s principal investors in the hydropower sector. India is now involved in projects generating 4,000MW and a further 1,100MW was signed off between Dahal and Modi in June.

Read also: The geopolitics of Nepal’s water and electricity, Ramesh Kumar

Hydropower graph

River conservationists are also worried about the domestic cost of developing hydroelectricity for India.

Megh Ale, president of the Nepal River Conservation Trust, says: “Imagine what will happen to these rivers if you just think about electricity. In the last two decades, we have dammed almost all our major river systems except the Karnali. We should also think about ecology and ecosystems while not undermining the need for electricity. The current madness will be costly.”

Several studies have warned that Nepal’s dams have already impacted aquatic biodiversity. A study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2018 says: ‘Damming of rivers has had huge environmental costs with serious and irreversible impacts, including a rapid decline in the population of many fish species.’

Basanta Raj Adhikari, the director of Tribhuvan University’s Centre for Disaster Studies says that Indian investment in Nepali hydropower is reason enough to take climate change into account: “It is going to impact India’s own investment. Extreme rainfall in June in the hills of eastern Nepal washed away several hydro projects.”

The Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) in Kathmandu released a report in June on transboundary rivers that originate in the Chure Range. It highlights that the various Nepali-Indian agreements governing these rivers are obsolete and do not cover sustainable water management, participation, or recognise emerging risks.

“It’s basically an underestimation of the scale of the problem,” says Ajaya Dixit of ISET. 

A June 2023 study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu says the availability of water in the Himalaya is expected to peak in mid-century, driven by accelerated glacial melt, after which it is projected to decline.

It is not just Nepal, where the impacts of the climate crisis are being felt. This month’s devastating floods in northern India could also be a sign of worse to come.

Climate change is going to have a geo-strategic impact because of how it will affect our rivers. But so far, the concern of experts and scientists is not reflected in bilateral and regional consultations on river sharing.  

Read also: Nepal’s precious electricity going waste, Anita Bhetwal

This version of the piece was originally published on The Third Pole under the Creative Commons license, and was written by Ramesh Bhushal, Nepal Editor at The Third Pole.

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