The Water Emergency

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in 1992 to deal with the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. In 1992, carbon dioxide concentrations had reached 356 parts per million (ppm) compared to 286 ppm in the 1850s. Today, with 411 ppm of CO2, the world faces a climate emergency. Despite advances in renewable energy technology, fossil fuel use has continued to rise and emissions are still growing. Meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, agreed to in 2015, appears increasingly hard.

Higher heat in the atmosphere due to increasing concentration of CO2 has made the global hydrological cycle erratic, including over the Himalaya region. Seasonal rainfall patterns are significantly different than in the past. Local farmers already speak of having to adjust to rainfall regimes that differ completely from their past experiences. And this is only part of the story complicating water management.

Over the last 150 years, reservoirs, dams and barrages that divert water to farms, cities and industries have significantly altered the natural hydrological cycle. High-capacity pumps also increasingly bring water from very deep aquifers to the surface. Untreated human waste from cities and effluent from industries are dumped into rivers and water bodies. Embankments already constrain the natural flow in many rural areas.

Photo: Alton C Byers

But flooding is no longer a rural phenomenon. Haphazard urbanisation blocks streams and rivers. Floods caused by short duration, intense rainfall inundate new areas because existing drainage paths cannot safely discharge them. With 70% of South Asians expected to live in urban areas by 2050, urban flood risks will increase manifold.

Climate change-induced impacts exacerbate these development challenges and create a bleak scenario for the future of water. The Himalayan ice and glacier system is a case in point. Examination of satellite images suggests that between 2000 and 2016, eight billion tonnes of ice storage was lost, twice the amount lost between 1975 and 2000.

Snowmelt sustains the low flows of the Kosi, Gandaki, Karnali and Mahakali rivers, all of which feed the Ganga. Changes in snowmelt dynamics and the hydrology of the Himalayan system will not only affect downstream water users but also significantly stress existing water-sharing treaties between Nepal and India.

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Each of these four rivers has a barrage at the Nepal-India border, and Nepal and India have signed river-water treaties that specify the water allocation regime for all of them, except the Karnali. Nonetheless, conflicts between Nepal and India still exist, and could escalate. In Bihar, complaints about the diversion of Ganga waters by upstream barrages are rife. The changes in low flows will extend to the treaty between India and Bangladesh on sharing of the Ganga’s waters.

Changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change over the Nepali midhills and Tarai will also change the hydrology of Nepal’s rain-fed rivers. Drying midhill springs and declines in groundwater tables across the Tarai and valleys due to excessive extraction beyond natural recharge rates will stress the provision of basic water services and make their management more difficult. Though it is unlikely that all Nepali rivers will run dry immediately, seasonal scarcity due to changes in the hydrological regime will significantly increase.

The prevailing water paradigm, which focuses on irrigation, hydropower and drinking water in separate silos, prevents the successful management of these developmental and climate-related challenges. The current response to flood management, for example, is not only siloed but also episodic. Once the monsoon departs in September, we forget about floods. We accord little priority to consideration of the bio-diversity in rivers or to water’s central role in our cultures.

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Hydropower development and inter-basin water transfer projects dominate the Nepali state’s imagination while ordinary people worry about when the next supply of water will be delivered. The beds and banks of rivers are unscrupulously mined to meet construction industry needs by a nexus of real estate promoters, truck cartels, politicians and bureaucrats.

These complex challenges around water will require structural changes and societal level solutions very different from business-as-usual practices. For management of water we need a new social charter that adheres to the following principles as sacrosanct:

  • Water has multiple meanings, uses and users
  • Rivers must have enough clean water in them to sustain biodiversity
  • Rivers need unconstrained space to safely discharge flood water, including in urban areas
  • Waste cycles and hydrological cycles must be different
  • Flowing water has holistic value and is not a waste.

Without upholding these principles in all economic and social development activities, it is unlikely that water problems will improve with time. A commitment to their implementation will only be the starting point for balancing competing needs of multiple users of freshwater, conserving its quality and quantity and adapting to the impacts of climate change. When water is scarce, successful adaptation to the climate emergency will be only a mere aspiration. Its realisation will be close to impossible.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal.        His monthly column Climate for Change in Nepali Times deals with the impact of global warming in Nepal.