Karnali (Chisapani) in Retrospect
Is the Karnali Project feasible? Does Nepal need it? The answer to the first question does not necessarily lead to the second.
More than a year has passed since the Feasibility Study of the Karnali (Chisapani) Multi-purpose Project was completed by Himalayan Power Consultants (HPC) for Nepal. HPC was a joint venture of Acres International, Shawinigan, and SNC (all of Canada), and EBASCO engineering company of the United States. Since the completion of the feasibility study, Nepal has been occupied with more weighty issues than confronting the advice of the study. However, the day will come when Nepal and India will approach the issues surrounding the development of the multi-purpose potential of the Karnali River. Now that good technical work has been completed, it is approriate that some thought be given to aspects of development that are not easily quantified in a feasibility study.
The decision to study the feasibility of harnessing the river in the Chisapani Gorge was made about thirty years ago. Once set in motion, feasibility studies tend to crank out numbers to prove the desirability of the project in question. Sometimes the cart comes before the horse, and from the outset we stop questioning whether the development is a correct line of investigation.
This is not to imply that the recently completed study is somehow flawed. It is technically correct and of high quality. However, that some U$ 11 million of study money have been spent does not necessarily mean that all the pertinent questions have been asked, or that the methodlogy of analysis covered all alternatives in comparable detail. Let us take a quick look at the situation obtaining in Nepal as it relates to the Karnali Project.
The Karnali River has plenty of water. The monsoon, although variable in annual intensity, provides a reliable source of precipitation over the long term. The groundwater, snow pack and glaciers of the Himals provide storage which produces, even in the dry season, a substantial base flow. Thus, even at its lowest flow, the Karnali can irrigate the entire command area of the Tarai, from the Mohana River in the west to the West Rapti in the east.
The low and high flows of Nepali rivers are some of the most extreme in the world. This hydrologic extreme is an over-riding factor in the cost of spillways, necessary freeboard on dams, capacity factor of installed generating systems, the basic concept of irrigation headworks, and the scope of flood control works.
Because the Himalaya is a young mountain range, still being uplifted and eroded, the sediment load of its rivers is also among the highest in the world. The Karnali is estimated to carry 260 million tonnes of sediment per year.
Except for short expanses of the Tarai, Himalayan river systems flow in deeply incised channels with steep gradients. This characteristic presents a conundrum to a would-be harnesser of water power. There are many good dam sites, in the sense of high dams with small structural volume, but few good reservoir sites, in the sense of large storage volumes with small dams.
The major concern in building hydro darns is tectonics. The Himals are seismically active and although this does not preclude building large dams, it certainly requires stringent design criteria, and the resulting structures may become relatively expensive. In case of the Chisapani Gorge, the structural geological problems do not limit developing an economical project design, even for a dam 270 meters high.
When you think of “land” as a “used by people” commodity, Nepal doesn’t have too much of it. Snow-fields and glaciers are not habitable, and much of the country is too steep and mountainous for terracing by the hill farmer. The only resource guaranteed to increase is the human population. The land is increasingly crowded even as the country struggles for self-sufficiency in food.
These essential factors about land and people present a dilemma to the hydro developer. On the one hand, reservoir space is needed to harness the water; on the other, land covered by the most economic reservoirs, in terms of large storage volume for small volume of dam, is the same precious flat land needed for agriculture. In considering the trade-offs, the land used by the reservoir and taken away from agriculture must be offset by the increased productivity of land that the reservoir irrigates as well as protects from floods. While we cannot create land, we can destroy or enhance its agricultural productivity.
As conceived, the Karnali Project would serve several purposes: enhancing agricultural production, and providing power, flood control and environmental benefits. These, together with the secondary benefits, are what give planners the incentive for embarking on large scale projects. Sonic benefits may fall beyond the pocketbook and are, therefore, difficult to weigh.
The market for agricultural production is first within Nepal, with surplus for export. Given that Nepal is struggling to be self-sufficient in agricultural production, serving this market is vital. The increased dry season flows released to generate power from the large storage reservoir would … productivity in India. This capacity would be a marketable commodity.
The power market is in India, because the Karnali Project’s output would be far beyond Nepal’s ability to absorb. The Project is projected at 10,800 MW of peaking energy (operating four to five hours per day). This level of energy can only be absorbed by heavy industry with concentrated load requirements, conditions not existing in Nepal’s industrial sector.
The economies of scale favours the large hydro project. For example, the economic cost of power at Karnali is estimated to be U$ 630 per KW and the cost of energy US .033 per KWh. At such costs, it should be possible to entice the potential buyer into negotiating a power purchase contract. For Karnali, the net economic benefits, including irrigation in India, is estimated to be US$ 10 billion.
As for flood control, both Nepal and India would benefit. The control of floods allows more intensive development of agriculture and the permanent reclamation of flood-prone agricultural lands. It also protects the investment in infrastructure (and encourages additional infrastructure development). Such benefits can make flood control a “marketable product” of the Karnali Project.
Environmental benefit might be considered another such marketable product. Generation of hydro-power at Karnali would eliminate the need to burn about 10 million tonnes of coal per annum, thus reducing the load of carbon dioxide, sulfur, and particulates from the atmosphere and releasing coal reserves for higher petro-chemical uses. The enviromental benefit to India from not burning coal would be attributable to the Karnali Project — hence, its marketability.
A coin has two sides. In planning projects or in considering which projects to plan, we have to be careful that we don’t forget to turn the coin over. We must do so with the Karnali Project as well, and the points to ponder refer to relocation, the environment, natural and man-made hazards, the threat to sovereignty, and what I call “the general fear of the unknown.”
It is impossible to create a reservoir in Nepal without inundating people’s homes and taking away their agricultural livelihood. The magnitude of the problem varies with the reservoir site but does not vary much with the dam height. People farm the flatter land, which lies lowest in any river valley. Even a low dam, at any site, will flood most of the upstream agricultural land.
While we know something about the problems of relocating people, the data base in Nepal is very sparse on the distribution and enumeration of flora and fauna. Without question, a hydro dam changes the environment. It is not possible to bring steeply rushing water into a flat lake without profoundly affecting the flora, fauna and the micro-climate of the area. The Karnali Project would inundate about 100 km of streambed and 340 sq km of land. Its dam would also constitute a 270 m high “fence” against migratory fish life.
The larger a project, the greater are its potential hazards. Firstly, there are the natural hazards deriving from earthquakes, floods and drought. All of these hazards can be analysed and designs made to lessen their impact. However, we are not clever enough to make them go away. Man-made hazards derive from “mal-operation”, lack of maintenance and repair, lack of periodic inspections, and lack of continuing collection and analysis of data. These “institutional hazards” threaten the health of a large project but can be minimised by a healthy operating organisation.
“Threat to sovereignty”: On the one hand, there is the possible sale to India; on the other, the buyer will become somewhat dependent upon the product that is sold – energy, irrigation water, and flood control. This dependency may be perceived as a hazard to the buyer and certain guarantees … be needed for him to feel comfortable with that dependency. These guarantees may extend into the following areas, all of which may be perceived as threat to Nepal’s sovereignty.
Territorial — the buyer may want to exercise some control over the storage and power facilities, in order to be assured that the flow of benefits is not interrupted by events beyond his control.
Institutional — the buyer may want to have control over or participation in the institution that operates and maintains the project facilities.
As noted, the Karnali River can irrigate the command area of the Tarai without large storage. Irrigation headworks can be designed to pass the annual floods and still divert what is needed for irrigation.
As noted, the power Nepal needs would not come from Karnali. Other, smaller, hydro-electric projects that rely less on large storage and more on the minimum flow found in the Himalayan rivers continue to appear to be the best choice for Nepal’s own needs.
Where flood control is concerned, a combination of flood-plain zoning and levees could provide a relatively high degree of flood control to Nepal’s agricultural zone in the Tarai. Also, rather than flooding the flat land upstream of the Chisapani Gorge, it could be developed to sustain a higher level of agricultural productivity than now exists.
The following statements about the future of development in Nepal may inspire some thought and debate. These are my personal views and are not representative of either the Karnali Project Staff or my former employer, Overseas Bechtel Incorporated.
Nepal can decide NOT to build the Karnali Project, but Nepal alone cannot decide TO BUILD the Project. Not even the World Bank, which has been generous in loaning money to fund the feasibility study, can implement a decision to build the Project.
Although it is the undeniable owner of the resource base, Nepal cannot develop large projects without the co-operation and encouragement of the buyer of the products and of the international financial community. Both buyer and financiers, in turn, will have to answer to world opinion on environmental and ecological matters as to the desirability of the project. Nepal will thus only have a veto voice in the final decision as to whether the project should be built or not.
Nepal is not presently well-equipped for large project development, and will need to develop an institution to manage the development of a large export-oriented project. Such an institution does not presently exist and the personnel to manage and staff one are only beginning to gain the necessary experience and training.
Nepal should beware of unintentional “giveaways” in hydro development, and not rush to compromise the optimum development for the sake of a quick deal with the buyer. A less than optimum power dam on the Karnali River could preclude optimum development for all time. The present institutions should be wary of giving away Nepali children’s rightful inheritance.
Nepal is equipped to perform most of the work required to implement the self-sufficient alternatives mentioned in “On Balance” above. The technical institutions and private consulting engineers are in place in Nepal to perform most of this work, with minimal … guidance.
P.D. Terrell, Jr. was adviser to the Nepali Government on Karnali from 1984 to 1990. He now lives near San Francisco.