Tuesday, 7 February, 2023

Melamchi In Ruins

Uttam Maharjan

The much-touted Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) was finally inaugurated on March 28 this year. It is one of the most delayed projects in Nepal, which took over two decades to get completed at a cost of Rs. 31 billion. While under construction, the project underwent several procrastinations with the change in contractors. However, the project was completed in March with a few works remaining to be completed. With the completion of the project, the households in the Kathmandu Valley were supplied with water from the Melamchi River for two and a half months. The distribution of water was stopped from Asadh 1, citing that the tunnel would have to be inspected and it would take around 40 days for resumption of the distribution of water.

In the meantime, flash floods and landslides played havoc with the project. Sindhupalchowk fell victim to floods and landslides, causing loss of life and property. The adit at Ambathan to the headworks and the temporary dam, along with other infrastructure, were damaged by the natural disasters. The under-construction dam and the water treatment plant at the project also suffered considerable damage. As if it were not enough, the natural disasters struck the project again, causing further damage to the infrastructure.

The natural floods and landslides have accumulated silt, boulders, pebbles, gravel, sand, soil and other debris around the 200-metre square area of the headworks, covering the infrastructure with at least 10-metre thick silt. Several roads and bridges were swept away in the calamities. The preliminary estimate of damage to the project is put at Rs. 2 billion. The preliminary budget for repairing the infrastructure is put at Rs. 1.88 billion.
The government has invested a huge amount in the project. It has spent Rs. 31 billion for the completion of the project and another Rs. 20 billion for the development of infrastructure in the Kathmandu Valley for the distribution of water. The amount is at risk of going down the plughole. However, the government has made a plan for repairing the damaged infrastructure of the project. The headworks and other structures will be cleared in Aswin and if everything goes according to the plan, the supply of water can be resumed by Magh, i.e., six months from now.

The government has requested the Asian Development Bank, a major funding partner in the project, to make detailed research into the matter. Nepal is a geologically and geographically difficult terrain. The 2015 earthquake has weakened the land in several districts, including in Sindhupalchowk. As a result, landslides occurred upstream of the project site, trapping water beneath. When heavy rain lashed the area, the water trapped beneath burst forth and caused formidable flash floods.

The Melamchi project has offered a lesson. The project is based on riverbanks. When the project was designed, no attention was paid to the possible occurrence of floods and landslides around the project site. The project was proceeding in off-and-on fashion. The contractors selected for the project turned out to be shifty. That is why there was much delay and there were heavy cost overruns. Furthermore, the government’s attention was focused on how to complete the project soon. So the government miserably failed to assess the possible impacts of natural disasters on the project. As a result, the project has suffered damage to a considerable extent.
The Melamchi project should be a lesson for similar projects based on riverbanks. Before embarking upon such projects, geological and topographical studies must be made so that such future projects do not suffer the fate of the Melamchi project. Rather than complete a project at any cost, risk factors need to be taken into consideration. For this, detailed environmental, geological and topographical studies need to be made. If feasible from every angle, a project can be given the green light. After all, the quality of a project also matters. The bridge over the Bagmati River at Teku has remained unused for several years as the bridge cannot bear the load of vehicles. What is the use of such a bridge when it cannot be used even after completion? This is just one of the examples of low-quality projects.

Multiple factors
A report by the ICIMOD says that the Melamchi disaster was not caused by a single factor; multiple factors were at work. The factors as mentioned in the report included weather conditions; processes in the high-altitude glacial environment; processes at the Bremathang old landslide site; formation of a new landslide at Melamchigaon, river damming and outbursts of floods; and riverbank erosion and debris deposition. As per the report, these hazards escalated the disaster in downstream areas. The ICIMOD has suggested conducting a detailed survey of the affected areas and establishing an early-warning system so as to minimise such disasters in the future.

The residents of the Kathmandu Valley are now disappointed. In fact, they have got water from the Melamchi River for just two and a half months after waiting for years. When water from the Melamchi River comes to the Kathmandu Valley is up in the air although the government is planning to bring water to the Valley by Magh. It need not be reiterated that damage to the project is a huge blow to the government. It is fait accompli. However, the government should initiate repairs on the damaged project at the earliest and not let the Valley dwellers down.

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