New Delhi: The friction in India-Nepal ties over the latter including three disputed areas in its new political map has cast a shadow on the future of the proposed Pancheshwar multipurpose dam project that the two countries are jointly planning to build on the border.
The Pancheshwar project will come up across the Mahakali river, where it forms an international boundary between the two countries. It straddles Uttarakhand in India and the Far Western Development Region of Nepal. According to India, the river draws its waters from the Mahakali river (known as Sarada in India), which originates at Kalapani, one of the disputed sites in Uttarakhand that Nepal has now claimed as its own.
Senior government officials familiar with the matter told ThePrint they are apprehensive that the latest round of border disputes could deal another setback to the project, which is already facing massive delays. Prior to the border dispute, the two countries have been deliberating to resolve issues related to water sharing.
“The last meeting of the Pancheshwar Development Authority was held in Nepal in November 2019. India’s water resources secretary U.P. Singh had visited Nepal,” a senior official of the Union water resources ministry, who did not want to be named, said. “But since then, no further meeting has taken place. Now, with the border issue cropping up, we are not hopeful of any forward movement.”
The Pancheshwar multipurpose project — first envisaged 24 years ago as part of the Mahakali treaty that India and Nepal signed in 1996 — includes setting up of two hydro-electric plants with a total installed capacity of 5,040 MW and a 315 metre-high dam to meet the power and irrigation requirements of the two countries.
The dam, once complete, can irrigate 1.7 lakh hectares of land in Nepal and 2.59 lakh hectares in India, besides meeting the electricity requirements of the two countries.
It was estimated to cost Rs 40,000 crore in 2017. The funding of the project is to be jointly shared between India and Nepal.
The project had come under a cloud after environmental experts questioned the viability of building a dam in a region considered to be highly seismic.
The project had received fresh impetus after the Narendra Modi-led NDA government came to power in 2014. Modi had, during his Nepal visit in 2014, talked about expediting the project.
Then during his visit to Nepal in May 2018, Modi had again pushed for expediting the project.
“The Pancheshwar Development Authority was set up to implement the project. India started preparatory work on the project in 2016. Since then several rounds of meetings have happened between India and Nepal,” a second water resources ministry official said.
The contentious water sharing issue
The first official quoted earlier said the discussion between two countries is now stuck around existing and future usage of water from the Mahakali River.
According to hydrological studies, the Mahakali has an average annual water availability of 18 billion cubic metres (bcm), of which 13 bcm is currently being used. India is drawing 12 bcm while Nepal is drawing 1 bcm.
India draws 7 bcm of its 12 bcm from the upper Sarada barrage located on the India-Nepal border, for irrigation purposes in Uttar Pradesh. The remaining 5 bcm comes from the lower Sarada barrage, which is 150 km downstream on the Indian side.
“Our contention is that this 5 bcm should be part of India’s existing usage. But Nepal wants this to be treated as part of India’s future usage (once the dam is built),” the first official quoted earlier said. “If the 5 bcm becomes part of future usage, India will effectively not get anything when the dam comes up.”
India’s stand is that when the dam comes up, of the remaining 5 bcm water available for use, Nepal’s share should be 3 bcm while the remaining 2 bcm should come to India.
“Nepal is objecting to this, saying the 5 bcm India is drawing from the lower Sharada barrage should be part of India’s future usage, taking its total to 12 bcm. While Nepal should get the remaining 5 bcm,” the official added.
“Nepal raised this issue at a very late stage. From the beginning, India had this understanding that the 5 bcm water it is using is part of existing usage,” the official said.
Water ministry officials said that until the water sharing dispute is resolved, they can’t move ahead and discuss issues related to project funding.
“It’s only after the water sharing issue is settled that we can move ahead and discuss issues like where to arrange funding for the project and the share of each country, etc.,” the ministry official added.