The importance of Environmental Flows and integrating it into Nepal’s water policy

The original version of this piece appeared in the Kathmandu Post on Dec. 15th 2017 under the title, What’s a river worth?

By: Sanita Dhaubanjar, Patrick Drown, and Emma Karki

A majority of us acknowledge that the rivers of Nepal play a key role in shaping livelihoods and ecosystems, but we do not give them the attention they deserve. Hydropower supplies 90 percent of the country’s electricity, for example, yet we have harnessed only 2 percent of the total capacity. Much of this untapped potential—for hydropower and other uses such as irrigation—resides in rivers of the Far West. As new development projects are underway in the region, now is the time to implement rigorous water policies that ensure the sustainable management and long-term health of these rivers. The cost of delays in taking action will be high. Look no further than the Bagmati River traversing Kathmandu, which has been seriously degraded by years of unsustainable development, resulting in the loss of valuable biodiversity.

A workshop on river health, held earlier this year in Kathmandu underlined the urgency of sustainable river management for Nepal. Jointly organised by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Program for Aquatic Natural Resources Improvement (PANI), the event brought together government officials, private sector stakeholders and scientists to discuss ways in which requirements for river health and development can be reconciled by the means of environmental or e-flows. E-flows are the quantity, quality and timing of water flows required to sustain river health in a specified condition. The workshop concluded that current water policies in Nepal do not adequately address the needs of sustainable river management and adoption of e-flows can help.

Towards a sustainable future

According to Luna Bharati, a scientist at IWMI, “setting e-flows is a compromise between river development and protection. It’s a way to navigate groups that advocate for or against dams as well as a way to negotiate between various water users, including fish and plant life thriving in rivers.” By focusing on e-flows, several countries, such as Australia and South Africa, have enhanced their ecosystems and done a better job in balancing different water uses. E-flows along with an approach that considers water quality can pave the way for a sustainable future of rivers in Nepal.

Maintaining a policy in Nepal that balances river health with development requires a three-fold strategy. First, various stakeholders of river health that include government agencies, the private sector, scientists, and farmers must convene to establish institutional frameworks and rigorous river health requirements for every river development project. Second, the central government must assign a ministry or other governing body the authority to monitor and punish non-compliance with requirements. Third, government bodies along with civil society groups that have a stake in river health must facilitate knowledge building and advocacy, so that citizens can be mobilised to hold private and public groups accountable to river health regulations.

Nepali government standards currently include scientifically negligible requirements for e-flows. The Hydropower Development Policy (2001), the Aquatic Animal Protection Act (1998), and the Water Resources Act (1992) contribute to a patchwork of water quality and quantity regulation for rivers that are both substandard and poorly enforced. The Hydropower Development Policy requires that only 10 percent of the minimum monthly downstream flow be discharged by a project, which is hardly sufficient for various water users in most rivers. Currently, it is not clear which Nepali government agency has the legal authority to either set e-flows or ensure compliance with e-flows. This means that developers see little need to consider river sustainability as more than a formality. Even where developers want to comply with e-flows, they find it challenging to understand which e-flows methods or laws to follow.

Multiple government ministries have a stake in this issue and should be keen on integrating e-flows policies. For instance, Nepal’s Department of Electricity Development (DoED) issues licenses for hydropower project development and requires various levels of environmental impact assessments. The Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE) is ostensibly responsible for environmental monitoring. Yet, these ministries, in addition to many others that overlap in their involvement with e-flows, have not collaborated. The river management policy in Nepal needs to be streamlined.

Policy changes

Policies and institutions must be in place to designate legal responsibilities and powers to specific actors. A possible way forward is to reinforce the influence of the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS). The secretariat was created as an autonomous body for facilitating multi-sectoral discussions on water and energy, but it lacks the legal authority to spur real collaboration between governing sectors. To improve compliance, WECS should have the authority to enforce e-flow requirements specified by the DoED’s licensing process and assign local government the responsibility for monitoring e-flows. Day-to-day monitoring can be further delegated to federations, which can report non-compliance to local bodies for legal action.

Civic bodies should also be educated, empowered and mobilised on the subject of e-flows and river health monitoring. Government ministries, such as the DoED and the MoPE, should offer workshops that stress the importance and meaning of e-flows for both government employees and private sector actors. School curriculums should include river health and e-flows for mainstreaming the concept in the long run.

Past development in Nepal has sacrificed too much of the environment, with serious consequences for people whose livelihoods depend on it. Nepal has the opportunity to move away from a classical approach to development and pursue sustainable pathways that ensure environmental and social justice. Creating frameworks for establishing e-flows, assigning legal authority for enforcement, and building local capacity to ensure accountability is crucial to creating a path to sustainable river management. As the country progresses in restructuring local governance, let us seize the moment to also restructure the ways in which we manage our rivers.

The above river borders Kuti village, a project site of the DJB project located in Kailali, Nepal. During monsoon season, the elevation of the river rises, washing away the bridge, and it is rebuilt every year.

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