Tuesday, 7 February, 2023

Learning From Melamchi Project

Uttam Maharjan


At long last, the water from the Melamchi River in Sindhupalchowk arrived in Kathmandu on March 6. This has raised hopes that the long-awaited and long-delayed Melamchi Drinking Water Supply Project will come to fruition soon. The water has come to Kathmandu as a trial and it has succeeded. The first trial which was carried on in July 2020 went phut when one of the bulkhead gates could not support the pressure of the water and burst open, sweeping away four people. Two were rescued, one was found dead and another is still missing. This has delayed the completion of the project by at least nine months.
The history of the Melamchi project dates back to around three decades. With the success of the people's movement in the early 1990s, Nepal ushered in multiparty democracy system. One of the leaders, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, said that he would bring water to Kathmandu from the Melamchi river within five years in so great quantities that it would be enough to wash the roads of Kathmandu clean. Bhattarai made the Melmachi water his electioneering slogan in 2048, 2051 and 2056 elections. He, however, failed to understand the process of bringing water all the way from Melamchi to Kathmandu; otherwise, he would not have said that the project would be completed in five years.

Alternative sources
Kathmandu is the capital city and a melting pot for people from all districts. The density of population in Kathmandu is growing day by day. Water woes began to surface in Kathmandu in the 1970s. The Drinking Water and Sewerage Management Committee was formed to ensure the fair distribution of water. After studying the water situation in Kathmandu, the Committee suggested that alternative sources of water be explored so as to resolve the water problem in Kathmandu. In 1988, a British company was assigned the task of identifying alternative sources of water. Among many alternatives such as pumping water from rivers, the company selected the Melamchi option as the best option. The feasibility study and survey of the Melamchi project were conducted in 1998. In the same year, the Melamchi Drinking Water Development Committee was formed to look after the project. Two years after that, the Melamchi project got off the ground.
The Melamchi project aims at brining 170 million litres of water to Kathmandu on a daily basis. When the project was started, it was also planned to use two rivers, Larke and Yangri, to bring an additional 340 million litres of water to Kathmandu through the same tunnel. The Melamchi project was initially planned to be completed in 2007. But even preliminary works could not be completed during the target period. What is more, the agreement with the Asian Development Bank also expired, bringing the situation back to square one.
In 2008, the Melamchi project was restructured with a target of completing it by 2013. China Railway Bureau 15 was awarded the contract of digging the 26.5-kilometre-long tunnel in April 2009. The contractor could not work as per the contract. By 2012, it had dug just 6 kilometres of the tunnel. It then unilaterally annulled the contract. This proved to be a setback in the timely execution of the project. In 2013, an Italian company, Cooperativa Muratorie Cemestisti (CMC) di Ravenna, was roped in to execute the Melamchi project. Like its predecessor, the company also did not work well. It, however, made a breakthrough in the tunnel construction in April 2018. However, in December of the same year it abandoned the project, citing that its parent company had gone bankrupt.
In September 2019, a Chines company, Sinohydro, was appointed as the contractor of the Melamchi project for the completion of the remaining works- final finishing of the tunnel and construction of headworks. The tunnel has been completed and the construction of the headworks is nearing completion.
Water from Melamchi will not be adequate for quenching the thirst of Kathmanduites. However, it will contribute to mitigating the water woes to a great extent. The government has another phase of the project in the pipeline: bringing the water from Larke and Yangri rivers to Kathmandu. The combined supply of water from these two rivers will be 340 million litres a day. After this phase is completed, Kathmandu will receive 510 million litres of water from Sindhupalchowk, which will resolve the water problem in Kathmandu.

Successful trial
The Melamchi project is a lesson for the government. The project has aroused a debate on the modus operandi, capability and honesty of the government as far as project execution is concerned. It is reported that the Italian company left the project due to the commission factor and that the government was responsible for forcing the company to abandon the project mid-stream. Let bygones be bygones. As the Melamchi project is almost completed, the government should take the initiative in completing the second phase of the project. To divert the water from Larke and Yangri rivers to Ambathan, a 1.7 kilometre-long tunnel needs to be constructed from Larke, while a 9.7 kilometre-long tunnel is required digging from Yangri. While working on the second phase, the government should be alert that no unpleasant situation will crop up and the works will proceeds without let or hindrance.
Water is one of the basic rights of people. The successful trial of brining water from Melamchi to Kathmandu has elated Kathmanduites. The Melamchi project should be taken as a lesson that procrastination is undesirable; it not only pushes up cost overruns but also projects the image of the government in a bad light as it plays havoc with public aspirations expectations.

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