Resisting for the River
Communities in southeastern Nepal are fighting against a proposed big dam project
“Ensure the rights of indigenous people to water, forest, and land.” The words are painted in thick pink Nepali script on a rock above the Saptakoshi River. A narrow path below leads to the proposed Saptakoshi Multipurpose High Dam site. It is April, the air thick with the heat of the mid-morning sun in the Eastern Hills of Nepal, and the distant figures of sari-clad women squatting by the river’s edge are made hazy with the dust. A few miles from this point, in the riverside village of Barahkshetra, Maya Pariyar sits outside her shop, selling colored threads and orange plastic jugs to the people who come to pray by the holy river and the temple at the water’s edge.
photo by Janika Oza
Barahkshetra is one of the first villages that will be flooded if the 882.5 foot-high Saptakoshi Dam is constructed here as a joint project between India and Nepal. It is in this village that local residents opposed to the dam, prevented government representatives from performing a Detailed Project Report assessing the potential impacts of the dam back in 2008. And this is where, according to Pariyar, all the people of the surrounding communities will gather to oppose the dam project if and when the construction begins.
“To have this river, this temple, is a natural gift for our community, so it should not be destroyed in the name of the high dam,” Pariyar says.
The Saptakoshi River, as the largest river basin in Nepal, is viewed as a source of life and death: it has been mentioned in various Hindu scriptures as Kausiki and is home to many ancient settlements and temples. The temple of Barahkshetra, just downstream of the proposed dam site, is said to be the place where Ganesh the elephant god descended to bathe, and is also the confluence of all seven river tributaries, making it one of the holiest places and a major pilgrimage site for Hindus.
Like Pariyar, many residents of Barahkshetra and the surrounding villages feel that their perspectives are being excluded from negotiations about the dam, which was initially proposed back in 1953 as a means of controlling the annual floods downstream in the state of Bihar, India. The proposal was dropped due to high costs, with the Indian government choosing instead to build a series of embankments and barrages along the river. And yet, after the main barrage breached in 2008, submerging several districts in Nepal and India, killing hundreds, and displacing millions of people, the dam proposal – with its promise of providing flood control, irrigation, and hydropower – began to be seen again as desirable. In 2012, the two countries agreed to complete the unfinished Detailed Project Report on the dam’s feasibility by 2013. However, due to widespread local opposition and protests, the Detailed Project Report has still yet to be finished.
According to the Nepalese and Indian governments, the Saptakoshi Dam will provide 3,300 megawatts of power and irrigation to farmlands in both India and Nepal, while also controlling the floods in Bihar. However, due to a history of failed water treaties between the Indian and Nepalese governments, many locals have little trust that they will receive their fair share of benefits from the project.
“If they construct the dam, we can guess that most of the rights will go to India, and Nepali people will be exploited,” says Mohan Katwal, a resident of a nearby village who was a victim of the 2008 Koshi Barrage breachthat destroyed his land and home. Six years later, Katwal has still not received the promised compensation from the Indian government. He fears officials will continue to deny their responsibilities to the Nepali people, leaving them powerless.
Although it is a small landlocked nation, Nepal has a great wealth of natural freshwater resources originating in the Himalayas. Current estimates state that the country has a total hydroelectric potential of 83,000 MW, of which only 1 percent is being used. Neighboring countries like India, which have greater financial and technological resources, are eager to tap into these resources. However, a lack of transparency about proposed hydropower projects, combined with a failure to initiate discussions with local communities, has led to increased local resistance to such projects.
To the government officials behind the project, the dam represents development and progress in a nation of untapped resources. To the people of the Saptakoshi River, it represents displacement from ancestral land, loss of culture and traditions, destruction of religious sites, and desecrating a sacred river by changing its course. It represents fear –of flooding, landslides, forced resettlement, and disaster, as the dam site is on an immature hillside in a high-earthquake zone. It represents the loss of a way of life that has revolved around the river for centuries. This is why, in the riverside villages, local community members are joining together to resist the project and demand that their voices be included in discussion.
photo by Janika Oza
“First, the government should always think of the people’s benefits versus losses,” says Bharat Mukhya, who lives downstream of the dam site and has been an active opponent of the dam. He fears that the governments will not adequately compensate the impacted communities for the loss of their lands and homes, and wants local residents to be included in the decision-making process. “If the two [officials and citizens] can jointly decide, there will be no conflict.”
If constructed, the Saptakoshi Dam will displace thousands of people in over 80 villages from above the dam site all the way down into India. The land upstream of the dam will be flooded due to rising water levels once the dam begins to hold back the waters of the Koshi River. It will submerge many riverside villages and cause soil erosion and landslides, experts say. The land downstream, which contains some of the most fertile farmland in Nepal, will not receive enough water due to the reduction of the river flow, which is causing great concern to the communities whose livelihood is based entirely around agriculture. “Corn will not grow, soil will be dry, our income will suffer,” says Devi Rai, a farmer in the downstream village of Prakaspur.
According to Ajaya Dixit, a leading water rights expert in Nepal, the physical characteristics of the Koshi River make the construction of a high dam at this site potentially dangerous, as the large change in altitude, wide catchment area during the monsoon season, and high sediment load imply a major risk of flooding. He argues that large-scale water development projects are often modeled after those in other regions, but that they cannot necessarily be applied to the extreme climatic and geographic variations in South Asia. Rather, he says that the Saptakoshi Dam would provide little benefit of flood protection in the short and long term while costing Nepal and its residents a great deal.
Many of the affected districts have formed “struggle committees”, starting with the Saptakoshi People’s Committee, which was formed nine years ago to spread awareness about the project and its impacts at the community level and build a network of support for the anti-dam movement. These committees have organized dialogues with government representatives in an attempt to share the local people’s perspectives. Still, activists such as Rabin Rai of Dhankuta district believe that, while their plea has reached the officials, the government is not responding to their demands. Their complaint is supported by the fact that the government has not shared a comprehensive plan or timeline about the dam project with the people who will be most affected by it.
Rai recounts the days when local residents obstructed drilling work, destroyed construction equipment, and forced work on the dam to be postponed for several years. While he hopes the issues can be resolved peacefully, he says that people cannot be forced to leave. “If the communities do not support it, it is quite impossible for the construction to happen. We will not give them a chance to construct the dam,” he says.
Under the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on the rights of Indigenous peoples in the development process, the government must take into account the impact of the dam on the lives, institutions, culture, land, and beliefs of Indigenous communities. As a result, a Joint Commissions Office was established to conduct DPR studies for the dam – the very studies that were protested in 2008 and have yet to be completed.
Let alone a consensus among local communities, political instability in Nepal means that even the country’s various political parties can’t agree about the dam project. In 2008, Communist-affiliated organizations pressured the government to postpone the Detailed Project Report until they revised the Koshi Dam treaty with the Indian government–which has yet to occur.
As of yet, the government has not discussed the issue of compensation with the affected communities. Some residents say they would consider resettlement elsewhere if their demands were met, including full compensation for land, crops, homes, water facilities, and support for their children’s education. Still, some feel that the losses caused by the dam cannot be compensated by money or land. They fear that their spiritual connection to the river, and their indigenous history and culture, cannot be replaced.
While some residents are willing to make the sacrifice if the project is to truly benefit the nation, there is little trust that Nepal will benefit due to the poorly enacted water treaties with India in the past. For instance, the controversial Mahakali Treaty of 1996 was signed by both governments to produce hydropower and irrigation for India and Nepal through the Pancheshwar Project. However, the treaty specified that Nepal would get 4 percent of the water supply without specifying India’s share, thus allowing India to reap greater benefits. Experts such as Ajaya Dixit caution against the conflicting priorities of hydropower versus flood control of the Koshi Treaty, as each requires a different level of water in the dam reservoir. This incongruity of interests, as well as the centralization of water management decisions in international hands, could lead to neglect of local needs in Nepal.
Back by the river, a group of 20 community leaders and residents crowd around a table for a Struggle Committee meeting, which they call the Saptakoshi People’s Rights gathering. For hours they sit and discuss, pausing only to drink cups of hot tea, stopping only when the sun begins to descend behind the mountains. “In our culture, river is mother, god, life,” says Deb Rai of Saptari district towards the end of the meeting. “She has sustained us, allowed us to live, protected us. So for her, we must do the same.”