Floods in north Bihar and the districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP), bordering Nepal, during the monsoon season, cause enormous losses in lives and property. Similarly, large parts of Nepal’s Tarai get submerged. This tragedy repeats on a loop every year. Heavy rains in the catchment areas of the major trans-boundary river systems — the Kosi, Gandak/Narayani and Karnali/Ghagra as well as Rapti and Mahakali/Sharda — lead to substantial run-offs as these rivers debouch into the plains, causing widespread flooding.So far, the two countries have adopted flood-control measures that largely comprise river-training works, including embankment construction. This approach comes with its problems. Due to soil erosion and landslides in the upper catchment area, particularly of the eastern rivers, the run-offs are heavily laden with silt. This results in a rise in the level of the river beds. In some places, the Kosi now flows above the surrounding territory. Embankments provide a temporary respite. In the long-run, if the banks are breached, as happened in 2008 to the east afflux bund, there are catastrophic consequences. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the Kosi has made significant oscillations in its course over the last 200 years.
Both countries blame each other for the floods. The chief ministers of UP and Bihar complain to the prime minister that Nepal was not providing full cooperation on embankment construction for these trans-boundary rivers and their tributaries, even though some of this activity is financed by India.
Nepal, on the other hand, blames India for the flooding of its Tarai plains. It argues that India has constructed roads all along the India-Nepal border without installing adequate drainage. The roads, it contends, act like an embankment and cause submergence of land and villages on Nepal’s side. A report of a joint India-Nepal technical team that did not find any evidence for this allegation has not been accepted by the Nepali authorities.
A longer term more sustainable approach is needed to address the root causes of the problem. India must cooperate with Nepal on the prevention of soil erosion and reforestation projects including in the Chure (Shiwalik) Hills under the Rashtrapati Chure Conservation Programme, a project under the patronage of the president of Nepal.
More importantly, we need to revive the many reservoir projects agreed upon in the past and whose implementation has been tardy. The Narendra Modi government provided a huge impetus to the Pancheshwar Hydro-Power Project on the Mahakali/Sharda River that had remained stalled for almost two decades since the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, six years down the road, it has got bogged down again, particularly over Nepal’s refusal to accept India’s proposal to include the waters of the Lower Sharda Barrage in the existing consumptive usage of the Mahakali waters.
If this issue is not sorted out at the political level, the project will be delayed again at a huge cost. The last time the project was delayed, the overall cost increased from ~12,000 crore to ~40,000 crore even as the total capacity has been reduced from 6,720 MW to 5,040 MW largely due to hydrological factors.
Another priority should be the revival of the Kosi high dam proposal. Though the Kosi Barrage was built several decades ago, and embankment works have proceeded apace, the high dam proposal has not made much progress since its conception in the 1950s. The joint project office has been unable to complete the survey-related work needed for the preparation of the detailed project report (DPR), even though it was set up in 2004, in part due to resistance from local communities. Considerable efforts are needed to address the concerns of the local population, especially in the area that will be submerged. The Nepali authorities are less than supportive on the grounds that the entire submergence will be in Nepal, while the bulk of the benefits in terms of irrigation and flood control will go to India. The Sun Kosi Storage-cum-Diversion Scheme has been made an integral part of the project keeping in mind Nepal’s interests. An objective and fair system for sharing the costs and benefits from the project will need to be worked out.
So far, India has opted for a bilateral approach. But Bangladesh too is an interested party as the project will regulate water flows into the Ganga and the Padma. Trilateral cooperation will make it easier politically for Nepal to pursue the project. If the project is implemented, an important benefit for Nepal will be the creation of inland waterways along the Ganga and Kosi, which will result in a significant reduction of logistics costs for trade. It will also significantly strengthen sub-regional cooperation. Though relations with Nepal are currently fraught and it is unlikely that solutions will be easily found, India needs to review joint reservoir projects strategically at the political level.