To cure Kathmandu Valley´s self-induced drought, planners have often looked to fresh-water sources beyond the Valley rim. A “pre-feasibiliry study” of out-of-Valley water projects was completed by Binnie and Partners, a British consultancy firm, in 1988. The study recommended the Melamchi Khola of Helambu, north-east of Kathmandu, as the best source from among 20 possible alternatives. In 1989, the recommended project options were ranked in terms of their environmental impact The Melamchi scheme was considered to have the least impact among the selected alternatives.
The proposal is to divert the flow of the Melamchi to the Valley through a 27 km long tunnel of 2.5 m diameter. Upon entering the Valley, Melamchi water would fall into a 5 mi Hi on cubic meter-capacity storage reservoir at Sundarijal. A later “Modified Melamchi” proposal would enlarge the reservoir at Sundarija] to store the Bagmati´s flow as well.
The search is on for financing the project Confesses an editorial in the newsletter brought out by the Nepal Water Supply Corporation, “We at NWSC are still on the lookout for donors with 400 million dollars for this very ambitious, sure-to-co me-one-day mega-project!”
According to preliminary estimates, the Project would cost about NRs 10,000 per resident of Greater Kathmandu (Kathmandu and Paten), The calculation is projected to 2021 AD, when the project is expected to be completed, if implemented, and when the targeted urban population of the Valley will be a little over 1.6 million. Most other water projects in Nepal have far lower investment costs—in the inaccessible villages of the far west hills, the average investment cost is about NRs 1,600 per capita at the 1990 price level. The national average for “mechanised urban water supply systems” is a about NRs 4,500.
As is always the case with projects such as Melamchi, the preliminary estimate is bound to be revised upwards as and when construction begins and as the work struggles towards completion. One economist refers to Melamchi as a “vanity project” of the variety which allows governments to mislead the public into the belief that there is action where there is none.
The most significant problem with the Project as proposed, is the level of hydrological uncertainty. The Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation, an Australian consultancy which is now conducting the feasibility study for the project, has identified severe deficiencies in the quality of Melamchi River´s flow data. A flow-measurement station was installed in the river in ,1976 at about the point where the tunnel intake would be.
It is incredible, but true, that only eight meter gaugings were taken in the 15 intervening years. It seems that the gauge-reader up in Helambu was no t provided with wading overalls, and who could blame him from his unwillingness to venture into the rushing glacial waters of the Melamchi? That one minor bureaucratic oversight has had immense implications, for the Melamchi data is not complete — and cannot justify for such an expensive scheme.
Some experts argue that the lack of Melamchi-specific data need not stop the work, as river-flow readings of other watersheds with similar characteristics can be used. However, hydrologists know that, in the Himalaya at least, such an exercise would be unrepresentative and inappropriate. According to Kiran Shanker, Chief Hydrologist at the Department of Hydrology, “To get statistically significant stream flow data, you have to have at least 15 years worth of readings.”
Continuous flow-monitoring of the Melamchi was initiated only after the 1991 Monsoon. Observes a Western hydrologist who wishes to remain anonymous, “In Australia, United States or Germany, a project of this magnitude with less than three months of flow data would not be considered even for initial scrutiny.”
There are, indeed, arguments against Mellamchi which are based on questions of equity, economics, finance, geology and simple logic, but using them would be moot because the underlying hydrological factor itself has not been adequately studied. In other words, there is no guarantee that the Melamchi Khola can provide continuous flow in the volume contemplated by the Project,
The Melamchi Project represents nothing more than a child´s grasping for a lollipop held out by an indulgent international banker. Certainly, it has not been the product of responsible planning for the Valley´s, or the country´s, future. Rather than being the result of a long-term, rigorous planning process, it is a quick-fix response to Kathmandu Valley´s perceived water supply problems.