Lessons from Melamchi Project

Published On: December 11, 2022 07:50 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

The Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) has resumed distribution of drinking water to the households in Kathmandu starting from Friday. Landslides and flooding in the Melamchi River earlier had caused severe damage to the headworks at Ambathan as well as the sedimentation pond and other structures of the project, making it difficult to resume the water supply immediately. This is a matter of relief to the people living in the Kathmandu Valley, which is facing acute shortage of drinking water with the onset of winter season again this year. Although the water is now being distributed to only a limited number of places, the MWSP officials have said that the water will be gradually distributed to most parts of the Kathmandu Valley. Since the water supply has been resumed after developing temporary structures in the headworks area at a cost of Rs 50 million, there are already concerns as to how long this water supply will continue. As a matter of fact, the water supply from Melamchi was earlier inaugurated by President Bidya Devi Bhandari amidst a special function in April, 2021. But this could not last long as the floods triggered by incessant rainfall and subsequent landslides inundated key structures of the project in June. The supply of water was resumed in April, 2022 only to be closed a month later due to threats of flood in the Melamchi River. The resumption of the water from the Melamchi River after a hiatus of several months now is certainly good news for the people in the KathmanduValley.   

But water supplied from the Melamchi River alone won’t help address the problem of water scarcity in the Kathmandu Valley. This will only ease the existing water crisis. The construction of this project began in 1999. Melamchi was one of the 22 potential sources of water identified by a survey conducted back in 2029 BS to address the growing water crisis in the Kathmandu Valley. Later, late Nepali Congress (NC) leader and former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had publicly announced to bring water from Melamchi to address the chronic water crisis in the Kathmandu Valley. Back then, the water from the Melamchi River was enough to meet the demand of water in Kathmandu Valley. However, the population of the Kathmandu Valley has grown significantly over the years. Thus, it is necessary to look for other alternative sources of water to supply adequate drinking water in Kathmandu. The erstwhile KP Oli-led government had initiated works to bring water from Yangri and Larke rivers into Melamchi and then supply water to the Kathmandu Valley to meet the growing demand for water. The elections have just concluded and major parties have initiated talks to form a new government. No matter who comes into power, the new government must work towards that end while ensuring that the water from Melamchi can now be supplied without any further disruption to the denizens of the Kathmandu Valley.

However, there is so much to learn from the experience of developing the MWSP. Although the project has started distributing water in the Kathmandu Valley, there are questions about its sustainability. It seems that the project was initiated without making proper geological study and environmental impact assessment. The source of water of this project is located in a geographically difficult area, which geologists have said is highly-prone to earthquakes and landslides. The authorities concerned do not seem to have taken into consideration these aspects while developing its infrastructures. The project would not have experienced such large-scale damage as a result of flooding and landslides if these aspects were taken into account while building the infrastructures. Similarly, the project itself was completed much later, making the project too expensive. The role of various interest groups including politicians behind this delay is not hidden. In that sense, the Melamchi Water Supply Project can be taken as an epic example of a failed project that Nepal executed so far. We have already spent more than Rs 62 billion to develop this project. Yet, there is no guarantee that the MWSP will be able to reliably supply drinking water in Kathmandu Valley in the days ahead. As the country is preparing for various mega infrastructure projects of government undertakings, the experience of the MWSP can serve as good lessons for any future project of similar nature. The experience of the Melamchi project clearly shows that there must be adequate research including geological one to make sure that the construction site of the project is feasible. This highlights the need for adequate research and necessary homework while conceptualizing and implementing the project of this kind. Such considerations even before the start of the project will not only make sure that the project is completed within the estimated time and cost, but also makes sure that the project is not hampered by floods, landslides and even earthquakes. All policy makers concerned need to pay heed to these aspects before any new mega projects are initiated. 

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