Without a paradigm shift in river conservation, the sustainable development of a nation that is striving to achieve a mid-income status by 2030 might become a far cry
‘Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to spare’ depicts the infamous status of our water bodies today. The picture of gurgling rivers that originate from the lofty mountains, reflecting the summer sun is perhaps becoming limited to our imagination. On World Wetlands day today, it has become more important now than ever to draw the attention of people and concerned stakeholders to our rivers, critical habitat for freshwater species. Despite the diverse values and the ecological services rivers provide to sustain life on earth, their conservation often remains a low priority.
WWF’s Living Planet Report shows that the freshwater population declined by an average of 83 percent from 1970 to 2014. Meanwhile, another study by Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany, shows that freshwater megafauna populations declined by 88 percent worldwide from 1970 to 2012, with the highest declines in the Indomalayan and Palearctic realms (−99 percent and −97 percent respectively). Although the scenario remains grim, there are some examples that ignite hope for our rivers. Over the years, countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and Ecuador have taken solid legislative measures for river conservation whereas countries like Columbia and New Zealand have provided legal entity status to Atrato River and Whanganui River, respectively. Similarly, the high court of Bangladesh also declared Turag River as a “legal person” or “living entity” in 2019, stating that killing a river was virtually collective suicide. Even in the neighboring state of Bhutan, a hydropower committee set by the cabinet has sanctioned a shift in hydropower development, suggesting that Bhutan go slow and smart on new hydropower projects and recommended that at least two river basins remain free of hydropower projects.
Rivers in Nepal
Rivers in Nepal face a range of threats—from pollution, intensive sand and gravel mining to haphazard roads and dam construction—not to forget climate change that further aggravates the situation. Meanwhile, consumptive water use, solid waste deposits including municipal sewage, industrial effluents, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, haphazard riverbed sand and gravel mining practices continue to kill our rivers. Policy and institutional gaps are one of the most important causes of river health degradation in our country. Failure to change how we manage and regulate our water resources might make the mass fish kill incident of May 2018 in Andhikhola and the case of biologically dead rivers in Kathmandu, a sad reality elsewhere.
Construction of dams continues to pose a serious threat to river ecology. After years of development failures and energy scarcity, the government of Nepal is celebrating this decade as a “Hydropower Decade”. To materialize this, the government has prepared a white paper on energy, water resources and irrigation sector that aims to develop 15,000 MW of electricity in ten years. Nepal currently produces about 1,117 MW of hydroelectricity which has relieved the outrageous 18 hours of a daily power outage. But, with the increase in power generation capacity, the government also needs to strategically plan hydropower development that prioritizes dams in carefully chosen sites, rather than the existing first-come-first-serve basis that only looks at individual projects.
According to the Department of Electricity Development, 712 hydro projects with a capacity of 40,855 MW have either already received a generation license and survey license or are in the waiting. The possible fragmentation of rivers this scale of hydropower development could cause is scary. Although the development of the energy sector is necessary for Nepal, it appears that the repercussions of such development on the aquatic biodiversity and local communities dependent on these rivers have not been taken into serious consideration.
Ray of Hope
Despite the state of things, there are some upcoming plans and guidelines that cast a ray of hope for river conservation in Nepal. For instance, the recently developed Hydropower Environmental Impact Assessment Manual by the Ministry of Forests and Environment aims to help concerned stakeholders streamline, identify and manage better, the environmental and social risks that could arise from such development. The Department of Electricity Development is also preparing Guidelines for Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) Study in major river basins and its Integration into the Regulatory Framework. The guideline hopes to improve and strengthen CIA process and achieve more holistic and sustainable development of our river basins. Preparations are also underway at the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) to develop a River Basin Plan, Hydropower Master Plan, and Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment Plan for all the major river basins of Nepal all of which seek to promote sustainable development and management of water resources in each river basin with due consideration to social and environmental impacts. Furthermore, the National Planning Commission (NPC) and the Ministry of Forests and Environment are also preparing National River Basin Strategy and Action Plan to define the roles and responsibilities of the restructured Government organizations and promote smooth coordination at the river basin level.
Although preparations are being made, only the implementation of these plans will ensure the successful conservation of our rivers. While rivers fall under the purview of the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation, it is focused primarily on using water for hydropower and irrigation. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Forests and Environment responsible for the protection of rivers is mainly focused on conserving forests and protected areas. While the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation protects rivers within Protected Areas (PA), there is no government institution in place to oversee river systems outside protected areas. This raises the question of who the custodian of these rivers is. Furthermore, assessing the health of the rivers to strategically identify rivers that need protection measures should become a top priority. Efforts also need to be made to determine and declare rivers with the highest conservation value as protected areas. Without a paradigm shift in river conservation, the sustainable development of a nation that is striving to achieve a mid-income status by 2030 might become a far cry.