Can we take risk of Koshi high dam for waterways?

Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in a joint press conference after the meeting with PM KP Sharma Oli said the country of Mt Everest will now be connected to the sea.

He hinted toward providing access to the sea for Nepal through the waterways in India. The joint statement issued during the India visit of Oli also mentioned providing access to the sea for Nepal. “Taking cognizance of their geographies and noting the development of inland waterways in both countries, the two Prime Ministers took the landmark decision to develop the inland waterways for the movement of cargo, within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, providing additional access to sea for Nepal,” the joint statement on inland waterways states.

The two PMs have directed the respective officials to do homework to add even waterways in the trade and transit agreement between the two countries.

India, that has the ambitious plan of expanding waterways across India, has agreed to provide the access to that network for Nepal.

India has been studying about building transportation network through its rivers with assistance of Rs 80 billion from the World Bank. It has also put forward an ambitious plan of constructing 14,000-kilometer of waterways.

India is currently developing waterway in the Ganges from Haldia of West Bengal till Banaras of Uttar Pradesh. It plans to ferry cargo through small ships there.

Nepal currently uses the Haldia Port of Kolkata for trade with the third countries. Koshi river meets the Haldia-Banaras waterway at Katihar of Bihar which is over 100 kilometers down the Nepali border. Similarly, Narayani river meets the Ganges near Patna of Bihar.

Nepal in principle can use the waterway developed by India in the Ganges through the two rivers.

But there has been no credible study on feasibility of ferrying goods in Nepal by using Koshi and Narayani (Gandak in India) rivers. We have also yet to study how commercially beneficial the use of waterway will be along with technical aspects.

Is it really possible to bring cargos to Nepal from India through the rivers?

Former president of Nepal Freight Forwarders Association Rajan Sharma stated it is not possible to accurately say about the utility of waterways as technical and commercial studies have yet to be done.

“We cannot speak much about utility of waterways without study of technical aspects like the depth of water and breadth of river, construction of the canal necessary for that,” Sharma stated. He opined that commercial benefits of the use of waterways should also be studied even if it were technically possible.

The size of feeder ships that can be operated in our rivers can be adetermined only after technical study. Those who know about the issue say we can speak about commercial benefits only after determining the size and number of containers such feeder ships will carry.

Dhruba Shrestha, who worked in the waterways in Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh, opined that it will not be commercially beneficial to bring cargos by linking Nepali rivers to the Ganges. He argued that ferrying cargos through Nepali rivers far smaller than the Ganges will not be successful as questions have been raised about the use of Ganges even in India.

“India is planning to only operate smaller feeder ships in the Ganges in lack of commercial viability of operating the waterway in the Ganges,” he pointed. “It is only an illusion to say that we will ferry goods by using Nepali rivers that meet with the Ganges by using the same waterway.”

He stated that canals must be developed in the Nepali rivers by constructing dams through which ships will come, and that will be very difficult and costly.

Building dams to bring containers in ships is a controversial issue in itself. The issue of building Koshi High Dam has been vehemently opposed in Nepal as thousands of families have to be displaced to build such a dam and it can have huge risks for floods and landslides. Indian wish to develop Koshi multi-purpose project by building a high dam on Koshi has been denied due to that opposition.

Some estimate that India has enthusiastically supported the Nepali proposal for use of Indian waterways seeing the possibility of building the high dam on Koshi as it wishes.

Entrepreneur Avinash Bohara claimed that building a high dam on Koshi will be prerequisite for bringing ships through Koshi. “It will not be possible to build a canal that can be used by cargo vessels round the year with the current water volume in Koshi. A high dam on Koshi must be constructed to bring cargo vessels,” he added.

India has long been proposing a 250-meter dam on Koshi around 1.50 kilometers north of Barahakshetra in Sunsari.

The issue of stopping flow of rivers by building dams is being opposed even in India. The Ganges waterways project of the union Indian government is being opposed even in Bihar. Many lawmakers in Bihar are opposing the project pointing at the environmental risk, flood risks and other risks.

How easy and possible will use of waterways be in such a backdrop?

A senior official at the Commerce Ministry talking to Setopati attributed the current uncertainty to the fact that the issue of waterways was raised with India without basic study and domestic preparations.

“Are we ready to take the risk of a high dam? Can we operate ships in our rivers in a technically and commercially viable manner?” the official pointed. “The issue of use of waterways should have been raised with India only after domestic discussions and studies on these issues.”



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