Protection of the environment is essential, but environmental sentimentalism must not cloud the evaluation of development schemes.
When the Chitwan Valley was opened up as a frontier for settlement in the 1960s and 1970s, several alternative irrigation schemes were considered in order to convert the alluvial plain north of the Rapti river and east of the Narayani river into a bread basket. Two of these schemes were the Chitwan lift irrigation system and the Khageri irrigation scheme, both of which supply water to the western region of the Chitwan District, north of the Royal Chitwan National Park. The 1960s and 1970s were rather easy times for development planners, since projects then were simply a matter of how much went in and what came out. The question of environmental impact was underplayed, if not disregarded. Neither the lift irrigation project nor the Khageri project received the scrutiny that ERIP is receiving today.
EIA ON ERIP
The questions being raised about the environmental soundness of ERIP, especially in relation to Chitwan sanctuary are appropriate. However, the debate is characterised by more emotionalism and less science. Environmental impact assessments have a vital place in the scheme of development, but they should be used scientifically and not as polemical batons to push through a biased viewpoint.
The use of the Rapti river to irrigate the eastern section of Chitwan valley received greater impetus when the river flow was augmented as a result of the inter-basin transfer of water from the Kulekhani power system. This flow during the dry months amounted to almost one third of the natural flow of the Rapti.
ERIP, which proposes to divert 14.3 cubic meters/second of water from the Rapti to irrigate 9,500 hectares, backed by the Asian Development Bank, was designed by a Japanese consulting firm. The project was conceived in the mid-1980s and thus directly contravened the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1973.
Surprisingly, in its early stage, ERIP also drew little opposition on environmental grounds. The government, even after enunciating the requirement of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for major projects under the Sixth Plan and the Seventh Plan, did not deem it necessary to conduct an EIA on ERIP. Even more surprisingly, the Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management, which administers the national parks, had a full fledged Environmental Impact Assessment Project which never seemed even to have heard of ERIP. To top it all, the funding Bank in its 1986 appraisal report concluded that there would be no significant negative environmental impact, which was not believable.
Towards the middle of 1989, when the detailed engineering designs for ERIP were almost complete, several agencies which were involved in conservation activities within the national park suddenly discovered the ecological armageddon that was about to befall the sanctuary. Diversion of dry season flow, it was feared, would be catastrophic for the park’s flora and fauna, as would the “return flow” of fertiliser-polluted water from irrigated land.
Let us now address the question directly: Are the fears of ecological disaster in Chitwan justified? The answer is that it is not clear. There are too many variables, but too little study. It is not proper to reach conclusions based on little data and less-than-thorough understanding of hydrological and other questions. When there is inadequate data, the proper response should be to go out and collect it. Unfortunately, the tendency is to make scientific sounding conjectures, or extrapolate from unrelated and irrelevant studies conducted elsewhere. It is easy to make “soft” and unsubstantiated claims because the public is receptive to ecological disasters-in-making.
Turning to ERIP, there is a severe lack of data which makes it impossible at this stage to make predictions, good or bad. In the Rapti river, as is the case everywhere in Nepal, monitoring of river water quality is unheard of. The national park does not even maintain a rain gauge. If the park’s administrators had monitored rainfall, flow and water levels on the Rapti at its Sauraha headquarters over the past 17 years of its existence, by now there would have been adequate data with which to analyse ERIP’s impact more conclusively.
Similarly, even occasional monitoring of the quality of “return flow” from the Khageri irrigation system into the Rapti would have yielded information which would have helped cause-effect studies, including in relation to ERIP. Neither should we forget that the Khageri scheme did divert water from the Khageri, a tributary of the Rapti, without bringing unmitigated disaster to the downstream wildlife habitat.
At first it might seem logical to presume that diversion by the proposed ERIP weir would reduce water levels beyond acceptable limits in• the park. But is this entirely true? One study has shown that the Rapti river has significant recharge capacity both through surface and groundwater sources. Even with continued water extraction by the local farmers’ irrigation systems which are located around the proposed weir site, the study showed, there was significant recharge of the Rapti’s flow further downstream. Thus, if reduction in flow in the downstream reaches of the Rapti have been the basis for predicting ecological disaster inside the park, then existing conditions indicate that this cannot be entirely true. (About 10 cubic metres/second of water from the Rapti presently gets extracted by the existing local irrigation schemes.)
WATER OR WILDLIFE?
Obviously, there is a trade-off between how much water can be extracted and how much is needed in the river. And there is always the dilemma of selecting between two goods: development and environmental protection. We cannot let the one pristine Inner Tarai wildlife habitat be destroyed by a possibly ill-conceived irrigation project, just as we cannot deprive the local populace of ERIP’s possible benefits on the basis of fashionable pro-environmental posturing. Because there are a lot of ifs and buts regarding the natural processes of the Rapti river system and the wild world within the national park, what is required is diligent study.
If the Rapti river so intricately governs the ecology of the park, then its sustainable management is meaningless without proper understanding of the water regime. What kind of “micro-hydrology” exists within the park, what are the river’s recharge characteristics, what happens to the water extracted by the farmers’ systems, and what is the minimum flow that would be desirable in the Rapti?
These are some of the questions for which the park as well as government authorities will have to find answers to in the future, ERIP or no ERIP. And, only when such information is available can a definitive answer be given to whether the project will be disastrous or not. Sustaining the Royal Chitwan National Park requires much more than mere sentimental attachment to the-sanctuary.
Dixit is a water resource engineer and editor of the publication Water Nepal.