It was a dream of late Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai to ‘flood’ Kathmandu with the water of Melamchi river in Sindhupalchowk district; quench the immense thirst of Valley residents forced to make do with once-a-week trickle from their drinking water faucets. If the project comes through, apparently all water needs of the Valley would be met. But Melamchi has run into trouble ever since Bhattarai inaugurated it in 1991, the progress of the ADB-funded project hindered, time and again, by turbulent post 1990 politics. The hope that the political situation would improve after 2006, allowing for smooth work, were soon dashed as well, as the project, once again, fell victim to political apathy and populist sloganeering. On Tuesday, the government closed this sorry chapter of stops and starts by terminating its contract with the Chinese firm tasked with the undertaking.
The contractor, China Railway 15 Bureau Group Corporation, had informed Melamchi Water Supply Development Board (MWSDB) last week that it would be withdrawing from the contract, citing problems over payment and lack of support from the board. But only three days later, the Chinese company had sought government support to resume its work, with the condition that its demand for ‘greater cooperation’ was fulfilled. Announcing the contract’s termination, MWSDB rejected all accusations against it, instead questioning the Chinese contractor’s motive behind repeated delays.
Granted, the government mechanisms might not have been very helpful, but the contractor can have little justification for finishing just 6.5 kms of water diversion tunnel over the last three years, when the contract clearly stipulated for the completion of the whole 26.3 km-length tunnel by 2013 end. Nonetheless, we also believe that the accusations of the contractor at government authorities should be looked into so that neither of the two sides can come up with an easy excuse when a new contractor is selected.
The relevant stakeholders in the Melamchi project have been monkeying around for far too long. Two decades into the project, it has barely taken off. Now to hope that selection of a new contractor alone will solve the problem is wishful thinking. The only way the project will come through in the foreseeable future is through a rigorous bidding process to pick a contractor with a solid reputation of timely and quality work, even if it means forking out an extra billion or two. There must be clear intermediate timelines to check for progress. On the government’s part, measures will have to be taken to assure the locals of the project area that new construction work will not harm their interests. That their traditional source of water for irrigation will not dry up. There are other smaller communities in the area that depend on fishing in Melamchi water for their livelihood.
How will their traditional lifestyle be preserved? All these things will have to be kept in mind before moving ahead anew. There is no point in restarting the project only to have it halted a fraction of the way through, by rioting locals when it’s not interrupted by the complaining contractor. We hope lessons have been learned from past failures and late PM Bhattarai’s big dream of flooding Kathmandu with water from Melamchi will come true, sooner rather than later