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Water access in the Kathmandu Valley: Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

The lack of certainty about future access to water is deeply troubling for those who have resided in the area for generations.

Water access in the Kathmandu Valley: Robbing Peter to pay Paul?
Published 17 Mar 2017 

By Rachael Buckland, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Migration and Border Policy project.

As Nepal urbanises with haste, there is increasing pressure on the government to deliver an array of services. Of those services, none has generated more attention than access to water in the Kathmandu Valley. Yet the landmark project that was expected to address this challenge is inequitable, favouring one group at the expense of another.   

According to The World Bank, the Kathmandu Valley's population, estimated at 2.5 million people, is growing at a rate of 4% per annum. Almost 20 years ago, the Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) was designed to address the rapidly growing demand for water in the Valley. On paper at least, the project offers to significantly improve water supply consistent with the government of Nepal’s commitments to water-related sustainable development goals. The Asian Development Bank is the project’s biggest financier, providing a US$145 million loan to the Nepalese government.

Despite ambitious promises, 19 years after it was announced the MWSP is incomplete. To many this is unsurprising in the face of ongoing political instability, constitutional debates, ineffective government institutions, corruption allegations, and the devastating 2015 quake which left some 2.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. As time passes, the Kathmandu Valley continues to struggle, facing declining water quality, increasing water scarcity, and the troubling emergence and expansion of groundwater entrepreneurs. Statistics speak: in Kathmandu, one in every five households has no access to a domestic water source and two-thirds of urban households live with an inadequate water supply.

MWSP and the right to water

In 2003 the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) set out the norms, standards and obligations inherent to the right to water in General Comment No.15. Following this, the legal right to water was solidified in a 2010 UNGA resolution. The right to water now holds the position of a legally binding derivative right with norms and standards (implicit in pre-existing instruments including Article 3 and 25 of the UDHR, and Article 3, 11 and 12 of CESCR) dictating entitlements and freedoms.

CESCR has not provided any guidance on issues relating to the prioritisation and best use of water. This has left the negotiation of competing water rights and uses to communities, not-for-profits, governments, and development and human rights practitioners with no guidance beyond the duty of governments to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water for all.

Decisions made by the Nepalese government, with ADB’s financial support, undermine principles recognised by CESCR as inherent to the right to water. Of particular importance for those residing in the Melamchi region is the right to non-interference with access to existing water supplies.

The original environmental impact assessments indicate that in areas below the diversion weir, water flows would drop to 30% of existing levels during the dry season. While this dramatic reduction was predicted to be 'non-detrimental' on the fulfilment of the right to water, many remain sceptical. Locals have also expressed concern about the disproportionate impact this has had on the Indigenous Majhi (traditional fishermen and women) and Tamang communities who make up 58% of the local population. Also of note are the economic impacts of diversion on agriculture industries; cultural impacts on Hindu and Indigenous religious protocols and practices connected to the river; and issues of desertification and continued access to clean water for sanitation and drinking.

The MWSP has failed to ensure participation in water related decision-making at the national and community levels for those affected, a key requirement recognised by CESCR. While reports from the government of Nepal and the ADB indicate consultation plans were developed, the execution of these has been impacted by top-down programming, ongoing political instability both regionally and nationally, and ineffective accountability mechanisms. Specifically, the lack of information on literacy rates and language abilities in the Melamchi district and on vulnerable group representation in decision making processes has been problematic, undermining the realisation of international human rights standards relevant to the right to water.

Where to now?

While the MWSP has slipped off the international radar, it is a key concern for many Nepalese people. On the one hand, those residing in the Kathmandu Valley are faced with worsening air quality and traffic congestion as a result of MWSP pipe-laying works and post-earthquake construction. With the right to water seemingly close to being realised, this is bearable. In contrast, families in the Melamchi region are becoming increasingly despondent. With compensation and levying for water diversion yet to be discussed with any certainty, and ineffective MWSP social upliftment schemes to mitigate potential damage, rural families are worried about their future.

Locals say they only found out about the MWSP when construction began. Economically and culturally dependent on the Melamchi River, the lack of certainty about future access to water is deeply troubling for those who have resided in the area for generations. They feel their concerns have not been heard. As one man who declined to be named told me on a recent trip to the region: 'If you stand up and say something, the wind will blow you away. If you sit down, no one will hear you'.

Local family from the outskirts of Kiul, Nepal, an area impacted by the MWSP

It’s time for the government of Nepal to step up

It’s not too late to change this. While earlier assurances about community consultation and participation appear not to filtered down to the people they were meant for, both the ADB and the government can provide redress for those in the Melamchi district in line with international human rights standards inherent to the right to water. Suggested actions include discussing the future with those affected, developing an Equitable Access Score-card, and designing and implementing equitable compensation schemes that acknowledge the impact of delayed construction, land acquisition and imminent water diversion.

With the State Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation indicating he wants the project complete before September, there is no time to be lost if the MWSP is to deliver on its aim to benefit all of those living in the Kathmandu Valley.

All photos by the author

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