Water resources planning must enhance trade-offs between different water uses
Even though Nepal faces water management challenges as well as fund shortage for effective management, not much budget is allocated by the Nepal government for water management, be it for drinking water and sanitation, water energy (electricity) or for agriculture production (irrigation). Reports about incidents of deaths caused by diarrhoea owing to poor quality of drinking water supplies as well as problems related to load shedding and excessive dependence of agriculture on monsoon are just some examples of poor water management and governance in Nepal. However, management of water resources is not a concern for just developing countries like Nepal but also for the more developed world.
The approach within the water sector across the world has shifted from water resources development to integrated water resources management. During the 1960s and 1970s, the emphasis was on water resources development, and the dominant thinking was that water is a resource to be exploited; a greater stress was laid on infrastructure and individual projects. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, it was realised that we might reach a situation when water could be over exploited and hence, ecological and social constraints were taken into account in regional and national planning instead of a project-based approach. The focus on demand side measures was introduced and the paradigm was called water resources management. From the 1990s till now, the concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM) - encompassing overall policy for socio-economic development including physical planning and environment protection with public participation – as well as sustainability has been the emphasis.
Water has been accepted as a basic human right in some instances while in others, it is treated like an economic good in terms of competing uses. This leads to a debate on the extent of involvement of the government and private sector in water management. The school of thought that believes water is a basic human right seeks government involvement, whereas the other school that views water as an economic good associated with cost recovery of water projects seeks privatization. The Millennium development goals (MDGs) are also linked with water since it is vital for the development of individual life and civilization. Nepal, as a UN member, has also made certain commitments under MDGs. Identifying the existing and future use of water resources in a catchment can help us devise an integrated plan for use of water in a rational, equitable and sustainable way.
EFFECTIVE WATER MANAGEMENT
There are three types of area boundaries defined for the management of water resources - natural system boundaries, activity boundaries and juridical boundaries. Natural system boundaries encompass the area within which the natural system phenomenon (rainfall run off, soil erosions) is considered. Examples of the system are river basins and watershed. Activity boundaries are those within which human activities are considered and analysed with respect to their resource utilization. Juridical boundaries are the legal and political boundaries where certain institutions and legal arrangements are in place and which do not require the creation of special arrangements for the transfer of authority. Examples include states, regions, provinces, municipalities, districts and lower units like Village development committee (VDC) for the purpose of governance.
Water resources planning needs to be equitable and comprehensive and it should enhance trade-offs between different water uses for efficient and effective management. Priority should be on the use of water for drinking, irrigation, industry, and fishery.
River basin is considered as the natural unit of management in IWRM and equal participation is one of its principles. Water governance can be achieved at river basins through people’s participation. IWRM aims at better management, subsidiary (supplementary), and efficient allocation across competing uses but has failed to address the very questions related to authority, privatization, valuation and the role of state.
The problem with water allocation is how to deal with water scarcity while ensuring equity, efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability. The comparative advantage and shortcomings of different allocation principles are being used under different situations at the local, domestic and international levels. However, there continues to be a wide gap between prescription and practice in water policy.
Nepal is advocating a decentralised development of water resources. However, the decentralization of water policy requires not so much the transfer of authority or power but creation of power at new territorial levels - basin levels - which Nepal not been successful in implementing. Another constraint we face in Nepal is the problem of cost of recovery. Jaspers (2002) explains that one of the crucial tools of integrated river basin management is the system of cost recovery. This tool can only be successfully implemented when acceptable service levels are established and effective administrative arrangements are in place. For developing countries, it is not that easy to opt for water management on hydrological boundaries as it requires investments that all countries may not be able to afford to kick-start the process of implementation.
Nepal, with five river basins, has abundant water but it faces a fund crunch for water management and as a result, service levels related to water resources are not established to cover the population. The development and management of five river basins of Nepal has always been very low on the priority list of politicians. Politicians and policy makers should, to use a cliché, think globally but act locally in promoting awareness about the potential of water when used in a cooperative manner - meeting current demands without compromising on the needs for the future generations.
To conclude, IWRM in hydrological boundaries could be viewed from two perspectives. First, as a positive concept that can create opportunities of cooperation for the benefit of concerned parties. Second, as a conceptual blue print and institutionalized norm that has an ambiguous, complex and at times contradictory stance towards territoriality, authority and knowledge. Unlike legal political boundaries, hydrological boundaries do not coincide with institutions and legal arrangements. They, thus, require the creation of special arrangements for the transfer of authority. This lack of institutional fit is deemed as the drawback of hydrological boundary approach.
Some initiatives like the Water Resources Management Programme (WARM-P) of Helvetas (A Swiss NGO) and Rural Village Water Resources Management Programme (a programme supported by government of Finland) have considered IWRM in their development endeavours, in the form of Water Use Master Plan (WUMP) at Village development committee (VDC) level. A careful evaluation and study of these WUMPs will help us understand their various merits and shortcomings, allowing us to devise a well informed and researched policy that will help us manage water effectively, particularly in rural Nepal, even with small budgets.