Environment, Energy and Water in Nepal: A Key Note Address of Dwarika N. Dhungel delivered at an International Symposium on Environment, Energy and Water in Nepal: Recent Researches and Future Directions, organised in Himalaya Hotel, Kathmandu ( March 31 and April 1, 2009 ) by University of Yamanashi, Japan
1. All of you are aware that our world is facing an important environmental problem: climate change and global warming and their consequences. Nepal is not an exception to this global problem.
2. Climate change is now unequivocal. Recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointing to the recent studies announced that without decisive action, global warming in the 21st century is likely to accelerate at a much faster pace and cause more environmental damage than predicted. All sectors especially the socio-economically active sectors like water resources, agriculture, tourism, and health and areas such as biodiversity, natural disasters, extreme events etc are affected. Developed or developing, no country can escape from its impacts. Nepal is also strongly affected by the climate change, though her contribution in changing the climate is negligible.
3. Such changes are more pronounced in mountainous areas. This will accelerate the glacier melt in the Himalayas, which is projected to increase flooding, within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede. Freshwater availability not only in Nepal but also in the whole South Asia region is projected to decrease due to climate change.
4. In many years, there was practically no rainfall during the recently gone winter of 2008-009. We have observed the beginning of early warm season in the country. Japan's celebrated cherry blossomed early. If the trend continues, we may have to face a severe drought in the coming rainy season. Study by Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHoM) shows that the annual mean temperature of the country is increasing steadily at the linear rate of about 0.04oC/year. This rate is much higher than the mean global rate. The mean annual temperature has increased by 1.8°C between 1975 and 2006. Study shows that not only the mean annual temperature is increasing, but also all the seasons are warming. The rate of warming is also varied, which is higher in winter compared to the other seasons. Apart from change in mean state of climate, the changes in frequency and intensity of extreme climate events have profound impacts on nature and society.
- Cool days and cool nights have decreased.
- Warm nights and warm days have increased.
- Frequency of warm spells has increased and incidence of cold spells has decreased.
5. With the long dry period and unusually high temperature, this winter in Nepal has brought a lot of hardships to the public. Water level in most of the rivers has decreased. The wells, tube wells and ancient waterspouts (Dhunge Dharaa) have started drying in the Katmandu Valley. This has created drinking water scarcity in the valley. A 12,000 liter tanker water now costs Nrs. 2,600 up from Nrs. 1,200. After 2006 that was marked as one of the driest winters in Nepal, 2009 winter is another similar drier winter within a span of 3 years.
6. The rivers are not only getting dry day by day, but they are also getting polluted. Due to the lack of landfill sites facility, most of the urban rivers in the country have become west dumping sites. Almost all the rivers within the Kathmandu valley have turned into very dark pool of filths, dirt and wastewater - an open sewer. They could be easily called cesspools. The morning walkers along the river banks, which I also undertake along the Bagmati River with a senior colleague, have to use handkerchiefs in their noses to avoid very bad odor. If people like us cannot face or tolerate five to ten minutes in the dirty and filthy environment along the famous rivers banks of Kathmandu, one can imagine, in what hazardous conditions people must be living on the posh bungalows and shanty huts on the banks of this river. The Pashupati Aryaghat on the bank of the River Bagmati, where pauper and prince, both are normally cremated, may be the dirtiest place and whatever drop of water is available in it, is very hazardous and contaminated. But many after their cremation would like to get a piece of their bones buried underneath the clean water of the Bagmati River at Aryghat. Therefore, one of my friends wants me to answer his query, that is, Should we not have the respect for our sacred Bagmati River? He further thinks that 'we have for over a decade, environmental laws and regulations framed with the assistance of our friends (donors). Yet the will to implement those laws are totally lacking, why? I do not have the answers to these questions of my friend.
7. 53 percent of the total population (65 percent in the urban areas and 51 percent in the rural areas) is supposed to be enjoying the piped drinking water facility. Yet people face the drinking water problem. According to the ADB (2004), it is reported that nearly 50 percent of drinking water supply schemes are not functioning as designed due to the lack of proper maintenance in Kathmandu valley. Other urban drinking water schemes also suffer from this problem.
8. Water pollution is the most serious public health issue in Nepal. Water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera and skin diseases are among the top ten dreadful leading diseases. The quality of both surface and ground water sources used for drinking water purpose is deteriorating mainly due to both natural and anthropogenic contaminations. Discharge of untreated domestic sewers and industrial effluents into rivers, and landslides, soil erosion and floods pollute the river water. The ground water in the Katmandu valley is polluted with fecal contamination. Whereas, arsenic problem is rampant in the Terai (southern plains) area. This shows that the quality of drinking water in Nepal is miserably substandard.
9. Drinking water is the basic minimum requirement of all the human beings. Access to safe and adequate drinking water is the commitment of the government. Therefore, the government needs to raise the awareness of the people on sanitation and promote, operate and maintain domestic as well as industrial wastewater treatment plants to reduce the pollution of surface water and safeguard the public health. Studies have also recommended community wastewater management treatment plants and separate treatment plants for populated institutions such as hospitals, prisons and army camps. It may be recalled that wastewater management promotes water conservation by preventing pollution from untreated discharges to surface water, groundwater and soils.
10. The demand for water is increasing due to increase in population and industrialization and the rate of ground water recharge is decreasing with increase in pavement area due to rapid urbanization. As a result the ground water aquifer is vulnerable to drying of the wells, contamination of water and possible land subsidence. Among others, the depletion of ground water table is threatening agricultural development that is the main source of GDP in the region. But let me remind you that the people in Terai and the Kathmandu valley are very much dependant on ground water. Therefore a proper sustainable management of groundwater is urgently needed.
11. More than 30 year long study of glaciers in Nepal shows the alarming rate of glacier retreat from few meters to over 30 meters in a year. The most serious impact of climate change on glaciers is the expansion of these glacier lakes and formation of new ones, posing danger of glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF). Nepal has already observed 15 GLOF events. 20 glacier lakes in Nepal are potentially dangerous.
12. The fresh water resource of the Himalayas is depleting fast affecting the water resources of both Nepal and the populous Indo-Gangetic Plain. The mighty Ganges, whose 75 percent of the flow during the three lean months is fed from the rivers flowing from Nepal, supports 42 percent of the Indian population. There is going to be increasing demand for fresh water in our part of the world.
13. The heavy precipitation events show the increasing trend. This implies the occurrence of more extremely high rainfall in future and water induced disasters such as floods and landslides are expected to be more common. There may be high possibility of increased water induced disasters in the country. Moreover, the studies on observed trend in water-induced disasters also show the increasing trend in disaster (floods, landslides and droughts) events and damage. Nepal has; therefore, to develop a comprehensive disaster management strategies and frameworks for disasters risk reduction to adjust the sudden shocks.
14. It may be recalled that Nepal is known to be one of the richest countries in water resources. With her more than 6,000 rivers, having a combined run-off of more than 200 billion cubic meters (bcm), and contributing 46% (as high as 71% during the lean season) of the flow in the Ganges has immense potential for the development of hydropower, which, if developed to the maximum possible extent, would not only fulfill the total demand of the country but also some requirements of other countries of South Asia: India and Bangladesh. The theoretical hydropower potential of Nepal's rivers is estimated to be about 83,000 mega watts (MW) of which about 43,000 MW is considered to be financially and technically feasible for exploitation. However, Nepal’s per capita energy consumption is one of the lowest in the world reflecting the low level of development and prosperity. As of March 2008, the country had exploited only 556.4 MW of hydropower (public sector: 408.1 MW and private sector: 148.3 MW) of the hydropower potential. The country is undergoing 16 hours of reeling load shedding having serious consequences in the economy. It is most likely to increase in the days to come. Despite the fact that Nepal may organize programme to celebrate 100 years of the establishment of the first hydropower plant, 500 KW Pharping power plant, in two year's time, she seems to going back to the dark days. Thus one major question that needs to be raised: Why we are undergoing the worst load shedding in Nepal's history? Have the Initial Environmental Examination and Environmental Impact Assessment laws and regulations relating to hydropower development become a burden or, a constraint? The government's recent 35 Point Agenda that has been brought to deal with load shedding problem appears to indicate that.
15. The current energy consumption scenario shows that Nepal’s energy supply is primarily based on traditional, commercial and alternative energy of which the large portion of the energy consumption (over 85%) is dominated by the use of traditional non commercial forms of energy, the biomass fuels particularly fuel wood, agriculture residue and animal dung. As population increases, and economy expands, the energy demand would also increase. Coping the increasing demand and diversifying the sources of energy are the major challenges before the country.
16. The way the present and future demands are met affects not only the environment but also the overall development. Indiscriminate use of fossil fuel is leading to global warming and climate change. Nepal, therefore, has to pursue an energy policy that ensures energy for present and future use from sources that are dependable, affordable, safe and environmental friendly. Nepal’s energy development therefore got to be guided by the following principles:
Firstly, promotion of indigenous renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, hydro etc.
Secondly, energy diversification as no single source is likely to fulfill all types of energy needs and dependence on one source alone is not sustainable in the long run.
Last but not the least, efficient use of energy in the production, supply and consumption stages need to be maintained.
The key to a secure energy future is the efficient and effective use of a diverse mix of energy sources. But how sustainable, without the donor support, in solar, wind and biomass for a country like Nepal needs to be seriously analysed.
17. In the light of all the facts and realities, what I personally think is that friends of scholars working on Nepal, and professionals in the subject matters covered by this symposium, should in addition to undertaking studies and researches pay attention to the following matters and provide solid analytical basis to understand the problems and undertake the measures that would address the problems:
- Find out what has been done to deal with the issues related to climate change, measures undertaken, their success or hard realities and lapses?
- Successes and lapses in controlling river pollution and contamination and growing scarcity of drinking water especially in urban areas and arsenic problem related to the ground water.
- Warning system and alertness/preparedness to deal with the GLOF burst and glacier related issues.
- Development of more non-grid based hydro projects in isolated pockets and getting them hooked to the national grid.
- Concerted and sustained effort to develop different energy sources.
Above all, I want to urge all of you to make an analytical study and diagnose the chronicle disease that Nepal has been suffering for a long time, i.e. Nepal is good in plan preparation but in the water and energy: no drinking water, no power, and cesspools all around. What a paradox?
March 31, 2009