Re-engineering water systems
The way ahead is a more holistic approach to tackle the myriad issues involved in water infrastructure, be it flood control, irrigation or hydroelectricity. And this would necessarily involve investment in water storage capacity and the like upstream, in Nepal. Now, it is notable that corporate entities such as the GMR group is setting up the 300 mw Upper Karnali project there. Others, such as the state-owned Satlej Jal Vidyut Nigam is promoting the 402 mw Arun III project. Also PTC, which is into power trading, has reportedly inked agreement to evacuate hydropower from two other projects in Nepal.
But what’s desirable is a corporate body labelled, say, Nepal-India Water Authority (Niwa), that is able to co-ordinate, manage and refurbish hydraulic infrastructure in the region. The potential is huge. It could be argued that dam projects, especially in the plains, tend not to take into account such externalities as social costs. But the fact remains that the Himalayan hydropower sites, with high gradient, seen from an economic, social or environmental perspective, are among the “most benign in the world,” as is generally agreed.
It is true that negotiating the vexed political economy of water systems management can be daunting indeed, even pan-India, leave alone cross-border institutional arrangements. Note that sometime ago, the minister for water resources wryly remarked that he was really the minister for water conflicts! Still, given the huge hyro potential of Nepal, of which at least 40,000 MW capacity is estimated to be perfectly viable, the gains from electricity sales likely ought to be attractive enough to chalk out detailed plans for co-operation, including requisite institutional design and attendant investment.
In the past, Nepal has not been very forthcoming when it comes to jointly tapping its hydro potential. The prospect of being short-changed may have been very real in the past. But with multiple power exchanges in the offing, there is likely to be much more transparency in the very process of price discovery.
Also, since it makes perfect sense to use hydropower for peaking purposes — for supply during hours of peak load in the system — it is actually an alternative to natural gas-fired plants and much more sustainable too. Hence, for purposes of policy proactivity, the price of hydroelectricity can be likewise benchmarked. Besides, the idea of an entity like Niwa would be to unlock shareholder value and be very much business-like for routine operations.
The point is that a bureaucratic, business-as-usual approach can be woefully inadequate for managing water systems in the Indo-Nepal border, as the Kosi breach at Kusaha has shown. The site is close to the Bhimnagar barrage on the Kosi, which is itself on a 199-year lease to New Delhi. Reports say that the central water resources ministry did get into correspondence with the civil engineering authorities in north Bihar, instructing the latter to strengthen embankments for the flood season.
Along with routine maintenance of the civil works, what’s surely needed is silt removal in rivers, afforestation, and generally speaking, a more holistic approach to flood control. Which is why a more permanent institutional setting, Niwa, would better concretise matters.
The plain fact is that India needs a lot more water infrastructure. Take storage capacity, for instance. We can barely store 30 days of rainfall, which is only a small fraction of that in the major river basins abroad. It has meant lowly per capita water storage. Given the real possibility of increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, and heightened variability of rainfall in large parts of the subcontinent, greater focus on hydraulic infrastructure would pay rich dividends.
The idea ought to be to tap the capital market for funds, and not merely rely on budgetary resources. The prime minister has rightly called for a setup like the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Brahmaputra. In parallel, we do need similar major water infrastructure, complete with modern management approaches for natural resources in the Indo-Nepal region. The objective ought to be to make water very much a stimulus for growth.
Ultimately though, for the benefits of water development to gush down, not just storage capacity is required but also conveyance (read canals) and participatory management. Actually, overinvestment in storage and underinvestment in conveyance and management of water systems can be doubly distorting. It’s all the more reason for a more broad-based policy approach on water, specifically and including Indo-Nepal.
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