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Progress despite political instability

A river-management project in Nepal demonstrates how to improve environmental conditions step by step. However, political instability still limits the scope of international cooperation, even though civil war is no longer raging.

[ By Ronjon Chakrabarti and Rainer Mutschler-Burghard ]

The political situation in Nepal has stabilised since democratic elections for a Constituent Assembly took place in April last year. Some western observers were worried by the victory of the former guerrillas, the Maoists. Experience shows, however, that despite difficult conditions, progress can happen in Nepal.

In February 2006, the German company Adelphi Research and the Netherlands-based International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) started a joint project with the Nepalese partner Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness (ECCA). The goal of KAPRIMO (Kathmandu Participatory River Monitoring) was to create a reliable base for urban infrastructure planning, and, most importantly, to improve the environmental situation through better water and garbage management.

Several state agencies helped with the project’s implementation, among them the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) and Lalitpur Sub-Metropolitan City (LSMC) administrations, the national Department for Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) as well as a number of local actors. Within two years, a river monitoring system was up and running, though it must be admitted that the online water-quality index still leaves something to be desired.

Poverty and population growth

The Kathmandu Valley lies at the centre of a rapidly changing country that is among the poorest in the world. Of Nepal’s people, 85 % live below the poverty line of two dollars a day. In recent decades, the river basin, which measures 25 by 30 kilometres, had to sustain tremendous population growth. The number of people living in the area is increasing by four percent a year, which leads to serious shortages in the water supply. The ground water table has dropped by 60 metres in the past 10 years.

The 100-year old sewage system and the biotopes, which had served as sewage-treatment schemes, can no longer cope with the ever-growing human population. Most wastewater, even industrial wastewater, is more or less released directly into the rivers. Informal garbage dumps along the shoreline pose an additional threat to the quality of the river water, residents have to make do with intolerable hygienic conditions and awful smells.

Due to lack of resources and expertise, a national monitoring system for Nepal’s waters was never developed, and it would have been impossible to maintain it in a sustainable fashion anyway. The KAPRIMO project, which is in part funded by the EU, has slowly changed the situation. First, the existing local monitoring system in Kathmandu-Lalitpur was overhauled. Next, water and sewage data were correlated with meteorological data to facilitate future planning.

Teams of volunteers take part in the data collection and analysis, and local administrative offices are involved too. The decentralised system was kept as simple as possible; thus reducing both the overall investment and the operating costs.

The project was completed in early 2007, despite Nepal’s unstable situation and frequently changing decisionmakers. Data have since been collected regularly.

Another important aspect is that local authorities can use the system to understand the root causes of pollution and enforce compliance with existing regulations. That is the base for higher environmental standards and, accordingly, a higher quality of life in Nepal’s cities.

In the meantime, the local administrations of Kathmandu and Lalitpur, along with the national Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, have taken over the funding and management of the monitoring programme. The entire valley should be monitored this way in the future, and ideally even the entire river system. The model would also suit other parts of Nepal or South Asia. The National Trust for Nature Conservation and the High Powered Governmental Committee for Implementation Monitoring of the Bagmati Area Sewage Construction/Rehabilitation Project (BASP) have, without any outside assistance, issued a call for tenders for a Bagmati river action plan. The plan would improve the stewardship and management of water resources for the Kathmandu Valley.

Ongoing tension

The project goals were met even though there were several challenges along the way. Blackouts, blockades and curfews repeatedly led delays. The ongoing tension in Nepal along with social unrest in Kathmandu and the southern Terai region made things particularly difficult. Information gathering and meetings for strategy planning had to be postponed early on because of political uncertainty. People were afraid to go to their offices because they might fall victim to violent attacks.

Changes in the government occasionally led to bizarre situations. For instance, from time to time the environment ministry had no one to oversee industries – so the trade and industry ministry assumed that duty. Overlapping jurisdictions also slowed down efficiency, with no less than five ministries being involved in water issues.

It proved useful to cooperate with lower-ranking civil servants who were in charge at the local level. These people stayed in office despite political unrest, and could assess challenges and opportunities on site.

The media were involved, and information was disseminated with flyers, other publications and Internet communication as well. An international symposium helped to boost trust in – and acceptance of – environmental projects. When official monitoring began in January 2007, however, tensions in the south of Nepal were so high that the local media hardly reported on the project at all.

Nepal is far from having an up-to-date, well-run government. The country still depends on foreign aid. That is problematic, as local-government offices have been spoiled by financial and technical assistance from abroad. The mindset of government staff has been affected.

Even though awareness has been raised over the need for a democratic civil society, Nepal is far from being a stable, fully operational state. A clear division of labour as well as open communication between international organisations and local agencies helped to implement KAPRIMO nonetheless. This project was manageable, as clearly defined goals were met step by step. Such progress convinced people that the desperate environmental situation could improve.


Development projects in trouble spots can only be planned in the short term. The hope for a democratic Nepal goes along with hope for more stability. The government especially needs help in reforming its public sector. Government projects that show how to measure the increased water quality of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers could boost trust in the state and a modern form of government.

The lessons from Nepal will probably apply to other crisis areas too. The civil war and the uprising of marginalised groups in the Terai region – along with the blockades in the capital – are comparable to what happens elsewhere in places of strife.

Fundamental political change has ta­ken place in Nepal. The potential for development cooperation is great, despite a difficult socio-political environment defined by endemic poverty.