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Sharing the natural resources in a federal Nepal

A woman walking along the main road connecting Jumla to nearby villages. Women here bear the brunt of physical tasks. Life expectancy is 50 years old.
Natalie Bailey/IRIN
Nepal’s politicians should give greater consideration to the distribution of natural resources in their ethnicity-based quarrels over how to federalize the fledging Himalayan democracy.

“If state restructuring is not properly planned, taking into account the distribution of Nepal’s natural resources, people will eventually be at each other’s throats,” Ratna Sansar Shrestha, a water analyst affiliated to Kathmandu University, warned. The geographically diverse and resource-rich but impoverished nation of 30 million wedged between China and India has been without an effective government since 2010.

Nepal’s road to democracy has not been easy, with much of the current debate now focusing on ethnic federalism and how to implement it. In late May 2012, the 600-member Constituent Assembly (CA) was dissolved after failing to draw up a constitution in its fourth and final attempt since the 10-year armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and security forces, which left over 13,000 people dead, ended in 2006. The next CA election will be held on 22 November 2012.

A 2012 World Bank outlook points out that 25 percent of Nepalese live below the international poverty line of less than US$1.25 per day, and two out of three live in rural areas, where they depend on agriculture for their livelihood. In the UN Human Development Index it is ranked at 157 out of 187 countries - among the poorest in the world. Only 16.7 percent of Nepal's land is arable, yet agriculture makes up one-third of its GDP.

Although the situation now is relatively calm, some experts believe that access to natural resources - specifically water, forests and land - could easily prove a flashpoint for future discontent. A report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional think-tank, noted that local-level conflicts, caused by scarcity and the multifunctional nature of resources, were an inevitable part of Nepalese society. Many believe Nepal’s most recent armed conflict, which devastated the country, was sparked in part by regressive policies regarding people’s rights to access natural resources.

Hari Roka, a member of the recently dissolved CA and its Committee for Natural Resources and Means (CNRM), said the uneven distribution of resources had been a factor in high rates of under- or unemployment, leading to growing dissatisfaction with the ruling elite.

Political parties have not paid enough attention to how the boundaries in a federalized Nepal would separate dependent communities from their access to resources, said Jailab Rai, a researcher at the local NGO, Forest Action, and a lecturer at Nepal's Tribhuvan University. “Our leaders have not yet meaningfully engaged on this issue and its implications - It seems they are not serious about the customary rights of indigenous communities.”

A few years ago, residents in mountainous Manang District fought with the villagers of neighbouring Gorkha District over the right to harvest "yartsa gunbu", a fungus found in Manang District, which resulted in seven deaths.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that dividing up this landlocked nation and keeping everyone happy won’t be easy. Nepal has 102 ethnic groups and 17 officially recognized languages. The four failed attempts to produce a constitution illustrate the impact of their competing demands.

There are five development regions - Eastern, Central, Western, Mid-Western, and Far-Western - and 75 districts. Once a new CA has been elected, critical talks on resource distribution in relation to federalism should be held as soon as possible. “No one state or ethnicity will be immune. For better or for worse, the redistributed access to resources will affect everyone,” said Shanta Chaudhary, another former CA member.

Water as a flashpoint

Everyone needs water - for irrigation, drinking, transportation, energy, and even to promote tourism. In an underdeveloped setting like Nepal, “Federalisation… could lead to conflicting claims on the shares of water for irrigation and drinking,” said Pitamber Sharma, chair of the Resources Himalaya Foundation, a think-tank based in Kathmandu, the capital.

The “increasing production and productivity of hill agriculture is contingent on the expansion of year-round irrigation facilities. Sharing of water in the case of inter-provincial rivers could be a very contested issue,” Sharma noted. Less than half the cultivable land - 47.5 percent - is irrigated

A girl drinks directly from a public tap in Nawalparasi installed
last year, promising arsenic-free water to users; education for proper use and maintenance of arsenic mitigation technologies remains a challenge for government and stakeholders
Photo: Marcus Benigno/IRIN
Water will play a key issue
The World Food Programme (WFP) lists Nepal as a food deficit state, with rates of chronic malnourishment in children aged under five estimated at 48 percent, and an average rate of 60 percent in mountain areas, which is comparable to the rate of 42 percent found in Somalia.

With a number of major international dam projects now in the works - including a $1.8 billion dam being built by the Chinese across Nepal’s West Seti River - provinces with high hydro-potential in the hill and mountain areas may have an edge on economic and developmental progress as opposed to the southern Terai region, which is known as the country’s bread basket but has traditionally been under-represented in national politics.

How much energy a province - many of which stand to make millions by selling electricity to neighbouring India and China - should make available to others is still being disputed. The former CNRM’s Roka said ways should be found to ensure that local inhabitants also benefit from hydropower.

Kathmandu University’s Shrestha warned of “resource colonization”, in which the demands of neighbouring countries for energy ignore the needs of the Nepalese people.

“Provinces formed on the basis of single ethnic identity are likely to divide hydro-potential watersheds between provinces, leading to possible conflicts over the location of dams, sharing of costs - economic and environmental - and benefits from power generation,” Sharma said.

The 1991 Water Resources Act prioritizes water usage, with drinking water followed by irrigation in the top two spots, and hydropower placed fourth.

What next?

Roka said the CNRM had discussed the distribution and protection of resources, as well as the economic and environmental impact on provinces - for example, how deforestation in the Terai would have an effect on mountain regions.

"To ensure users' rights, the CNRM proposed a federal act that gives the right to use forests, as well as the responsibility to protect them, to the locals." But there is no way of knowing what support such a bill would have once it is formally tabled in a newly elected CA.

Other experts have suggested that many of the members on the CNRM knew very little about natural resources, which hampered their progress. Rai cautioned that a driver of resource-fuelled conflict could be how politicians deal with communities, and whether they act with votes or economic and social development in mind. Chaudhary notes that ongoing water-sharing disputes in India have affected the way communities defend their user rights.

“Inter-provincial tensions may arise when upstream communities are unable to use their water source lest it affect the capacity of the hydro-project downstream,” Shrestha warned. Politicians should not buy into the stereotype that Nepal is a water-rich country. “We have a severe temporal problem - four months of the year we have too much water, resulting in destructive flooding, and during the other eight months we have effective droughts,” he pointed out.

Most farmers rely on rainwater, but water shortages, more extreme temperatures and poor crop yields are pushing rural villagers closer to the brink as climate change grips Nepal, according to Oxfam.

Meanwhile, questions such as what provisions for water resources should be included in the new constitution are still being asked, with many now requesting additional research.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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