River management and flood risk in Nepal

News and Press Release
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When the Koshi River which flows through the Eastern Terai region of Nepal flooded in summer 2008, it displaced more than 60,000 people, damaged the national highway, and destroyed crops. Since then, major concerns have been voiced that the fragile embankment will break in more places, flooding an even greater area.

The severity of risk is closely linked to the poor maintenance of dams and river barriers. Responsibility thus ultimately lies with the government.

These risks in the Terai are particularly sensitive because, despite the comprehensive peace accord of 2006 that ended the Maoist insurgency, there are now estimated to be 35 armed groups active in the Terai. The immediate legacy of the ten years of civil war includes bitter political rivalries between some of the political parties and a tendency to relatively low-level violence between their militant youth wings.

In 2008, an Indian firm was contracted to repair the Koshi barrage. The work was held up by labour disputes that the firm could not settle because of the rivalries between the unions, linked to rival political parties. Nor was it possible to get the district authorities to resolve the issues. And because the barrage was not repaired, it broke.

The challenge of managing the Koshi requires a framework of well functioning state regulation. Specifically, an effective river-management scheme would reduce the discontent caused by the massive socio-economic consequences of flooding.

This is only possible if the political parties cooperate, suspending rivalries in the name of the people's interest. This would increase confidence in the political process and in the possibility for state institutions to rise above party differences, which in turn could lubricate the crucial peacebuilding and state-building task of writing a new national constitution.