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.


Water buffalo in the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve on the floodplain of the Sapta Koshi River in eastern Nepal (Photo courtesy DNPWC)
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 tributaries 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 centimeter 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.


The Sun Koshi has been rated as one of the top ten rafting trips in the world. (Photo courtesy Village Travel and Tours)
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."