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  High Dam Planned for Nepal's Sapta Koshi River
 
                                                                                                                                                                                            By Deepak Gajurel
    
 

 

 

KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 20, 2004 (ENS) - Nepal and India are speeding up the process 
leading to construction of what could be the world's highest dam on the Sapta Koshi River
 in eastern Nepal. A team of experts from both countries has begun work on a feasibility study of 
the Sapta Koshi multipurpose project.

A four member Indian team led by A. K. Jain, an official with the Central Water Commission, has 
set up a joint office in Nepal to carry out the feasibility study. The Detailed Project Report of
 the Koshi Multi-Purpose Project is due by June 2007.

"The Joint Office will start a full-fledged feasibility study soon," Arjun Prasad Shrestha, director 
general at Nepal's Department of Electricity Development, told reporters. Shrestha will lead 
the Nepali team of experts.

Nepal and India agreed in 1997 to set up a joint technical team of experts from both sides to 
carry out a study of the feasibility of developing the Koshi Dam to a height between 269 to 335 
meters.

If constructed, this structure could match the height of the current record holder for the world's
 highest dam - the Rogun Dam on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, which stands 335 meters
 (1,099 feet) tall.

 

The mega project is expected to generate 5,500 megawatts of electricity. The irrigation system 
under the proposed Koshi project will water 300,000 hectares of agricultural land in Nepal and 
more than that area in India's Bihar state.

A 165 kilometer (102 mile) long waterway from Nepal's Chatara in eastern Nepal, where the 
Koshi River flows out from the hills to enter the southern plains, to Kolkata Port in India is 
another vision for the huge project.

According to an agreement between Kathmandu and New Delhi, part of the overall project is 
to build a dam in Okhaldhunga district on the Sun-Koshi River - one of seven major t
ributaries of the Sapta Koshi.

In addition, Nepal is proposing a Sun-Koshi - Kalala diversion. This diversion will bring Sun 
Koshi river water through a canal into the Kamala River in central Nepal. This canal and 
other canals from Kamala River will make a network of irrigation facilities which is 
expected to water agricultural land from the Koshi River in the east to the Bagmati River 
in central Nepal.

The Sapta Koshi is the largest river in Nepal, with an average 150,000 cubic centim
eter per second (cucecs) of water flow in dry seasons. The river brings up to 400,000 
cubic centimeter per second of water during monsoons. The highest recorded flood in Koshi
 is 800,000 cucecs in early 1960s. The 2004 monsoon recorded up to 400,000 cucecs of water, 
according to official data.

His Majesty's Government of Nepal has shown its serious interest in speeding up the
 development of this mega project. "The government has given top priority to this project. 
We are very serious about it," Minister of State for Water Resources Thakur Prasad Sharma 
told reporters.

India has already allocated Indian Rs. 290 million (US$6.28 million) for preparation of the Detailed
 Project Report, which India alone will fund.

India's eagerness to carry out the Koshi multipurpose project was shown during Indian 
Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh's recent visit to areas in Bihar affected by the summer 
monsoon floods.

Singh announced that his government would urgently start work to develop the Koshi dam. 
"The high dam in Koshi is the only solution to floods in Bihar," he was quoted by local 
media as saying. "India, with cooperation from Nepal, would develop a high dam in 
Nepal to protect people in Bihar from the routinely occurring natural disasters."

One of the main tributaries of the Ganga River, the Sapta Koshi River is also called the 
Sorrow of Bihar. This is one of three major river systems in Nepal. This year, floods
 from Koshi killed over 500 people in India, leaving a trail of destruction in Nepal as well.

Proponents of the mega project hold that Nepal would reap tremendous economic
 benefits from development of the project. The Sun-Koshi Kamala diversion would
 irrigate 300,000 hectares of land in eastern Terai besides generating thousands 
of megawatts of electricity, they say.

Flooded Indian state of Bihar (Photo courtesy Government of India)

Bihar also stands to reap tremendous flood control and other economic benefits 
from the Koshi multipurpose project, supporters say.

Nepali experts do not agree. "Bihar is flooded every year not because of monsoon rains in 
Nepal," says water resources engineer N. K. Shrestha. "Rather, it is the mismanagement
 of the natural drainage systems in Bihar which is causing the problems."

Some experts in Nepal are against the massive dam. "The proposed high dam will be 
built in a seismic fault zone in the southern flank of the Himalayan range. Constructing 
a dam with more than 300 meters height in this area is to invite destruction," says 
geologist Ramesh Sharma.

"One can imagine what would happen if the dam is brought down by the jolt of an 
earthquake. Flow of millions of cubic meters of water per second will devastate a huge 
area in Nepal and in India," Sharma warns.

The issue of human displacement is another problem. According to preliminary estimates, 
hundreds of villages and several thousands of people in Nepal will have to be displaced to 
make way for the project.

"The world is experiencing problems in resettlement of the displaced. But we are heading 
towards this," says environmental journalist Bhairab Risal. "Nepal with its limited resources 
cannot cope with huge numbers of displaced people."

Loss of agricultural land and biodiversity caused by inundation is another issue raised by critics.

Nepali experts are against the proposed Koshi high dam not just on environmental grounds.
 They are skeptical that the long-conceived project will ever take off.

"I am not optimistic that the Koshi high dam would ever be constructed. It seems that Nepal
 is handing control over its huge water resources to India. Once we, in the name of joint 
venture, give all rights over Sapta Koshi to India, Nepal will not be able to develop any
 project in any of the major tributaries of this river," political analyst K. B. Pradhanang predicts.

There are valid reasons for the Nepali and Indian public to be skeptical. First, Nepali and
 Indian officials have been talking about harnessing the Koshi Rivers just like the 
Mahakali and the Karnali for decades.

 

Second and more important, in 1996, the two Himalayan neighbors entered into an agreement
 to develop the Mahakali-Pancheshwor Multipurpose Project and prepare its 
Detailed Project Report within six months. Eight years later, the joint team of experts is still 
"working on" the it. Only government officials are still optimistic that the Mahakali project
 report will be prepared and the project constructed.

Water resources experts in Nepal ask, "What happened to the promises and the 
commitments they made before signing the Mahakali Treaty? Where is the bonanza 
they promised they would provide to the poor people of Nepal and India?"

At a time when Nepal and India are speeding up the process of developing the 
Sapta Koshi project, Bangladesh too has demanded a share in it. "We are not 
opposing the project. But we must be involved in any activity affecting the 
water flow in the Ganga River," Bangladeshi Minister for Water Resources Hafiz 
Uddin Ahamed told the "Nepal" weekly magazine.

India, in the Farakka Agreement of 1996 with Bangladesh, has agreed that Bangladesh's
 consent is a must on any activity affecting water flow of the Ganga. "Since Koshi is 
one of the major tributaries of the Ganga and a high dam in Koshi in Nepal would 
remarkably affect its water flow, Bangladesh cannot be ignored while developing such
 project," Ahamed said.

"We have not so far been consulted from either Nepal or India on the matters of
 the Koshi multipurpose project," the Bangladeshi minister said.

The Ganga River, known as The Ganges, is an international river, which starts in the
 Tibet Autonomous Region of China and flows through India and Bangladesh to
 drain into the Bay of Bengal.

Nepal's Supreme Court advocate Madhab Koirala, said, "The international laws 
governing international rivers demand that Bangladesh must have say and share
 in the Koshi project."

                                                                          

 
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