Tuesday, 7 February, 2023

Another Setback In Melamchi Project

Uttam Maharjan


The Melamchi Water Supply Project has been running for the last twenty years. The project has faced one hurdle after another. Finally, a time came when the project reached the inflow testing phase. The government said that the Kathmanduites would soon get to drink water from the Melamchi River. As the testing was going on, adit tunnel gate No. 17 burst on July 14, sweeping away four persons. Two of them were rescued, while one was found dead and one another has since been missing. This untoward incident has raised the question mark over the quality of the works of the project itself and has further pushed back the deadline for supplying water to Kathmandu.
The Melamchi Project is a national pride project. It aims at quenching the thirst of the Kathmanduites as the current supply of drinking water is far and away below the demand. A British international institution, Binnie & Partners, identified the Malachi River as a potential source of drinking water way back in 1988 AD. Former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai said in 2047 BS that the Melamchi project would be completed in five years and that the water would be used not only for drinking purposes but also to wash the Kathmandu roads clean. The project formally got off the drawing board in 2000 AD. As the project was going on, it rather became the slogan of the political parties. The project has missed several deadlines for completion.

Lapse of time
The question of moment is why the Melamchi project has not been completed despite the lapse of two decades and despite knowing that it is of great significance as it will be instrumental in supplying one of the basic needs of the Kathmanduites. As a matter of fact, the project has been in dispute since the inception. From 2055 to 2077 BS, as many as 13 executive directors have been changed. There is a pathological practice of changing the executive director with a change of the concerned minister so that the minister and the executive director are on the same wavelength to facilitate the works of the project. But this has exacerbated the situation, hampering the project time and again. The other reasons for inordinate delays in the completion of the project are locals' protests, procrastination on the part of contractors and political interference.
The 27 kilometer-long tunnel construction was undertaken by China Railway 15 Bureau Group JV in 2009 AD on contract to finish the work by 2013 AD. The company dug just four kilometres of the tunnel in three years. Then Cooperativa Muratori Cementisti di Ravenna (CMC), an Italian construction company, took over the work in 2070 BS. But the company left the work midstream in December 2018, citing the bankruptcy of its parent company. All efforts made by the government to bring the company back to the site went up in smoke. This squandered about 10 months of work. In Aswin 2076 B.S., a Chinese construction company, Sinohydro, was selected to finish the works in 15 months. There is a reward clause in the contract, which allows the company to get bonuses for the work finished earlier than the stipulated deadline. This clause has been incorporated into the contract to encourage the company to complete the work as soon as possible.
The government has constituted an investigation team to probe the recent incident of the bursting of the adit tunnel gate. In addition to the burst gate, there are three other such gates. The gate burst when water was passed through just four kilometers of the tunnel. It is surmised that the tunnel could not bear the pressure of the water. Had the water been passed through the whole tunnel, what could have happened? It is also surmised that the walls of the tunnel might have been damaged by the force of the overflowing water due to the burst of the gate. However, after the investigation has been completed, the real picture of the tunnel will come out into the open.
The government needs to thoroughly check the tunnel, including the walls and adit tunnel gates. The incident has scared the people living around the project site out of their wits, which is natural. With the Melamchi project in uncertainty now, a pall of disappointment has descended on the Kathmanduites. The project has a target of bringing 170 million litres of water to Kathmandu on a daily basis. Even the supply of this much water will not be adequate. So the government is planning to bring water from Yangri and Larke rivers to Kathmandu in the second phase. With this, the supply of water to Kathmandu from these rivers will reach 510 million litres a day.

Gross irregularities
The Melamchi project is a glorious project. Billions of rupees have been spent on the project. It is nearing completion. It is reported that there are gross irregularities in the project. The recent report of the Financial Comptroller-General's Office has also confirmed it. When a project is used as a milch cow, then it is a no-brainer that it will get delayed times without number. Not only this project, but also other big projects are also-rans for lack of honesty on the part of the government and the operators of the projects. Such a tendency would delay the completion of projects unconscionably, give rise to cost overruns, provide space for more corruption and, more importantly, deprive the people of the services they desperately need. The Melamchi project should, however, be completed at any cost at least to restore faith of the people in the government, as only one or two per cent of the works remain to be completed.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000. uttam.maharjan1964@gmail.com)