Nepal is highly exposed to geomorphological extremes due to sharp geographic variation, ranging from the high Himalayas to the densely populated mid-hills and lowland Tarai areas. The risk intensifies when there are infrastructure development activities with gross negligence. Infrastructure projects are important assets that stimulate the economy and quality of life. For example, the significance of dam projects cannot be denied in meeting the water, food and (green) energy demands in countries with strong seasonal variation and poor water availability.
However, such interventions in a natural system for the sake of economic and social benefits have disadvantages as well. Their negative impacts can also be attributed to poor planning, improper design and execution, mismanagement, lack of monitoring, and improper consideration of mitigative and adaptive measures.
Safeguarding the natural system, development needs and human safety are strongly linked and mutually influence one another. The benefits and impacts shall be objectively weighed based on the status and priorities of a nation.
Geomorphological phenomena and extremes often occur in the Himalayan region, such as Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), Landslide Dam-break Outburst Flood (LDOF), landslides, debris/mud flows, snow/ice/rock avalanche, flashfloods, river shifting, land erosion and accretion.
Such hazards and risks have become a key issue in our region, particularly with the rapid development of infrastructure and settlements.
There are fatal examples of geomorphological extremes that occurred in the recent past in our region. A recent disaster in Chamoli, Uttarakhand in India, associated with a debris-induced flashflood caused by a rock avalanche, similar disasters in Nepal in Upper Barun Valley in 2017 and in the Seti River in 2012, Jure landslides and LDOF in 2014, and debris-induced flashflood in the Bhote Koshi in 2016 are only a few of them.
We associate the well-being of our nation with the development of water and energy infrastructure projects.
However, such development efforts should consider the risks and vulnerability to our river basins. At the same time, managing and mitigating adverse impacts of geomorphological extremes on the people and critical infrastructures should be given high priority. It is necessary to enhance non-structural measures, such as establishing regular monitoring and inspections, water information, forecasting, early warning, emergency action/response planning, decision support, landscape management, asset management, disaster preparedness and management systems.
Proper monitoring of the compliances with the rules and regulations is required to avoid negligence leading to adverse impacts and risks. These efforts must be based on a sound knowledge of river science, geomorphology, ecology and other relevant disciplines, and complemented by local experience and indigenous knowledge.
Most of the requisites could already be in place, but they need to be enhanced and strengthened based on an appropriate river-basin governance system.
The emphasis must be on strengthening the institutional set-up as a backbone for the effective governance of river basins in Nepal. The development and management of water infrastructure in conjunction with environmental protection and disaster management should be institutionalised as an integral part of the Integrated and Participatory River Basin Management Authorities (IPRBMA).
In Nepal, the problems associated with the management of water resources and infrastructure development can be attributed to institutional pitfalls in river basin governance, fragmented sectorial development leading to suboptimal utilisation and exploitation of river basins, and lack of cooperation and coordination between relevant authorities and institutions, resulting in ineffective disaster preparedness.
The establishment of a strong IPRBMA is inevitable to improve governance, management and regulatory aspects of river basins, considering human interventions.
The two crucial footings of river-basin governance are (i) integration of multiple sectors and disciplines (water supply, irrigation, hydropower, ground water, environment, tourism) for optimal use of a river basin; and (ii) participation of river-basin users, authorities (federal, provincial and local), communities and all other stakeholders for effective management of a river basin.
The rationale for establishing IPRBMAs in Nepal is to provide an effective river basin governance and management system with science- and community-based policy and decision-making processes.
This will also function asa conflict resolution mechanism, particularly under a federal and decentralised system where political boundaries do not match river basin boundaries.
This will facilitate (i) cooperation and coordination between federal, provincial and local authorities, public and private developers and river-basin users, communities, technical support departments, knowledge institutions and other stakeholders; (ii) establishment of a unified and efficient monitoring and regulatory mechanism; (iii) the enhancement of disaster preparedness, management and response system to ensure the safety of people, environment and critical infrastructures; and (iv) an effective transboundary river basin management in cooperation with our neighboring country.
In Nepal, three major river-basin authorities can be established, viz. Eastern, Central and Western RB- MAs (with four basins shared by three provinces in each of them). The strong RBMAs could play a key role to create a balance between exploitation of natural resources, infrastructure development, environmental safeguarding and the safety of the populace in our river basins.
We associate the well-being of our nation with the development of water and energy infrastructure projects. However, such development efforts should consider the risks and vulnerability to our river basins. Managing and mitigating adverse impacts of geomorphological extremes on the people and critical infrastructures should be given high priority
A version of this article appears in the print on June 23 2021, of The Himalayan Times.