Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal: <br /> Print This
Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Talking Water, Not Arms Management

If arms management is hot, water management is perpetually cool in Nepal, write RABIN BASTOLA, DEEPTI KHAKUREL and NIRAJ KHANAL. We need a more participatory approach, they say.

When everyone is talking about arms management these days, water resources management may not sound like a hot topic. But we would like to reassure you that it is perpetually a cool topic for a country endowed with immense water resources and many water management challenges.

One way to start meeting or confronting those challenges is to examine the prospects and the need for Environment Governance (EG) in the country. This is a common administrative or academic term used to describe water resource management.

EG is an interdisciplinary approach to water management. It attempts to make sense of governance in an environmental context. We believe we can adapt far-reaching environmental governance in the new Nepal.

To begin with, we need to address seven key elements of EG in combination with area-specific context. These key elements include: 1) Institutions and laws, 2) Participation, rights and representation, 3) Authority level, 4) Accountability and transparency, 5) Property rights and tenure, 6) Markets and financial flows, and 7) Science and risk.

In this essay, we also try to signify the need of environmental governance for sustainable management and consumption of resources focusing on water resource sector of Nepal. We further attempt to explore the issue of governance considering it as a root of social transformation that helps to structure a well-to-do society.

Defining Governance
Governance is traditionally understood to mean control, regulation, or administration by a state over society. The state exercises its power to direct, manage, and regulate citizens’ activities in the best interest of the country. Many believe that Good Governance is participatory; people-oriented, and in the process involves government bodies, private sector agencies, social groups, communities, and the civil society at large. It is transparent and accountable and honors rights of the people to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.

Since the traditional term “government” is restrictive, “governance” offers a good alternative. It conveys an all-embracing meaning, and accommodates special needs of economics (as regards corporate governance) and political science (as regards State governance) [See Reference; EUROPAa]

According to political scientist Roderick Rhodes, the concept of governance is currently used in contemporary social sciences with at least six different meanings: the minimal State, corporate governance, new public management, good governance, social-cybernetic systems and self-organized networks.

The European Commission (EC) established its own concept of governance in the White Paper on European Governance, in which the term "European governance" refers to the rules, processes and behavior that affect the way in which powers are exercised at European level, particularly as regards openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence. These five "principles of good governance" reinforce those of subsidiarity and proportionality [See Reference; EUROPAa]

So What’s EG?
“Who let this happen? Who is responsible for this mess?”

These are the typical questions people ask themselves when local environmental disasters happen or when steady deterioration of the global environment makes the news. For most people, it is obvious who is “in charge” of the environment, and how decisions are made about developing, using, or managing ecosystems.

Governance is about decisions and how we make them. It is about the exercise of authority; about being “in charge.” In short, it deals with who is responsible, how they wield their power, and how they are held accountable. [See Reference; EUROPAb]

Environmental Governance is interested in how people and the government manage the environment for socio-economic development that is sustainable. Appropriate national policies, legal, regulatory and institutional framework must create linkages between various aspects of good governance and this can only be done when strategic environmental issues are integrated with economic and social development programs.

EG is effective in making the best use of resources and it is equitable and inclusive. Environmental governance controls the misuse of natural resources and promotes their sustainable management and use. It encourages local leadership and decentralization of power to the grassroots level and builds local capabilities. It promotes sustainable economic development that is linked with the sustainability of the natural environment, and promoting conservation and sustainable use of natural resources to meet present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. It includes implementation and evaluation of a country’s commitments to different international environmental conventions, treaties, and protocols it has signed. It includes mobilization of requisite resources from different sources.

EG traces its roots in Europe. It basically concerns rules, processes and behavior that affect the way powers are exercised at European level in the field of environmental policies, particularly as regards openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence.

As an example, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus (Århus) at the Fourth Ministerial Conference as part of the "Environment for Europe" process.

The Aarhus Convention is an environmental treaty that turns the 1992 Rio Declaration’s vague commitments to the principles of access into specific legal obligations. The Convention not only recognizes the basic right of every person of present and future generations to a healthy environment but also specifies how the authorities at all levels will provide fair and transparent decision-making processes, access to information, and access to redress (TAC).

Elements of Environmental Governance
At least seven key elements have a bearing on EG.

First, there are institutions and laws that outline responsibilities and limitations of power. Questions such as these are relevant: Who makes and enforces the rules for using natural resources? What are the rules and the penalties for breaking them? Who resolves disputes?

Second, how do participation, rights and representation look like? How can the public influence or contest the rules over natural resources? Who represents those who use or depend on natural resources when decisions on these resources are made?

Third, there is the authority level. At what level or scale – local, regional, national, international – does the authority over resources reside?

Fourth, accountability and transparency are critical. How do those who control and manage natural resources answer for their decisions, and to whom? How open to scrutiny is the decision-making process?

Fifth, the nature of property rights and tenure affect EG. Who owns a natural resource or has the legal right to control it?

Sixth, markets and financial flows can be powerful. How do financial practices, economic policies, and market behavior influence authority over natural resources?

And seven, the delicate relationship between science and risk also has a bearing on EG. How are ecological and social science incorporated into decisions on natural resource use to reduce risks to people and ecosystems and identify new opportunities? According to a report (How we decide and who gets to decide often determines what we decide) by World Resources Institute, “poor communities are particularly vulnerable to failed governance, because they rely more heavily on natural resources for subsistence and income.” (WRI 2004)

The Nepali Experience
According to World Conservation Union (IUCN), environmental governance in Nepal includes key elements of environmental policy and strategy planning; development and implementation of plans and programs at national and local level. It also includes the development and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, norms, and standards; and establishment and operation of environmental institutions that supervise, execute, and monitor all aspects of the process. The judiciary imparts environmental justice to the citizens and safeguards those rights.

Environmental Governance in context of Water Resources Management (WRM)

Water is essential to our survival. Nonetheless, over 1 billion people today cannot obtain enough clean water to meet their basic human needs (UNESCO-WWAP 2003). Water scarcity plagues 27 nations, and an additional 16 nations are considered water stressed (WRI 2004). The United Nations has also identified rising demand for water as one of four major factors that will threaten human and ecological health over the next generation (UNESCO-WWAP 2003). As public health, development, economy and nature suffer, ensuring access to clean water is rising towards the top of government agendas.

In Nepal, water management assumed an institutional form in 1981 when created its Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) in 1981 as the coordinating arm of the Water and Energy Commission. Today, UNDP reports, there are as many as 13 ministries (including the assigned ministry) and several more and agencies that have a stake in the landlocked country's water sector-its policy formulations, programming, utilities, resource management, and more.

In its natural potential, Nepal is considered to be rich in water resources. The country’s fifteen Himalayan peaks, which feed into the five river basins of Nepal, which in turn drain into the Ganges, are a major source of the country’s water. The landlocked country is divided into five river basins, which include the Mahakali River basin, the Karnali River basin, the Gandaki River basin, the Kosi River basin, and the southern river basins. It covers only 4,000 sq km in area in terms of water.

According to AQUASTAT Country Profiles, ongoing studies suggest that groundwater resource is roughly equivalent to ten percent of surface water, i.e. approximately 20 cubic km per year. The total internal water resources amounts to 198.2 cubic km per year. Total natural renewable water resources is estimated to be 210.2 cubic km per year. The mean annual rainfall is 1 500 mm. Precipitation falls as snow at elevations above 5100 m in summer and 3000 m in winter. The energy implications are big: The country’s hydropower potential are roughly 83000 MW, half of could be harnessed economically.

Despite being one of the richest in Asia in water resources, the country has not been able to fully exploit those resources. According to one estimate, only 10 percent of the of the country’s groundwater potential is utilized and so far less then 1 percent of hydropower capacity (only 550 megawatts) has been developed. This constitutes 84% of the nation’s total electricity. More than 30 percent population has no access to portable, clean drinking water. Out of total 1427000 hectares of irrigated area, only 41 percent of irrigated land enjoys regular irrigation facilities. Similarly, around 53% of the population has no toilet or running water for sanitary facilities.

The challenge in terms of governance, is then to effectively address the growing water crisis, to manage water in ways that are efficient, equitable and environmentally sound. Improvements in water efficiency often demand significant capital investment and legal and economic reforms – means generally beyond the capacity of members of the public directly impacted by lack of clean water. Equitable allocation and stewardship of water resources also require detailed understanding of interrelated hydrodynamic, socio-economic and ecological systems.

Water plays a fundamental role for sustainable development, including poverty reduction. The use and abuse of and competition for increasingly precious water resources have intensified dramatically over the past decades, reaching a point where water shortages, water quality degradation and aquatic ecosystem destruction are seriously affecting prospects for economic and social development, political stability, as well as ecosystem integrity. As Deepak Gyawali has eloquently explained in his book Water in Nepal (Himal Books, 2002), neither centralization, nor privatization are answers to an equitable management of waters. We need a more pluralistic approach to it, embracing ideas that work in the local contexts. Such varied and contextual knowledge is often sorely lacking among those responsible for water decisions at the local, provincial and national scales.

The crisis is water has resulted not from the natural limitations of the water supply or lack of financing and appropriate technologies, even though these are important factors, but rather from profound failures in water governance. Consequently, resolving the challenges through integrated approach and effective environmental governance approach must be a key priority if we are to achieve sustainable water resources development and management.

In the context of Nepal, EG refers to the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems that are in place to develop and manage water resources and the delivery of water services at different levels of society. It compromises the mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which all involved stakeholders, including citizens and interest groups, articulate their priorities, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.

The major sub-sectors of Water Resources that need to be discussed in Nepali context are drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, pollution and conservation

Addressing EG in the context of WRM
At least four questions can be raised regarding how Environmental Governance (EG) in context of Water Resources Management (WRM) can be better addressed in today’s Nepal. These questions are:

1. Do existing environmental policies and regulations facilitate good environmental governance?
2. Are various stakeholders aware of the essentials of environmental governance?
3. Are we prepared to implement the required changes?
4. What changes shall bring expected results?

While assessing the key aspects of Environmental Governance we should consider three established rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. They include:

First, the right of everyone to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities ("access to environmental information") is critical for an open and democratic decision making process. This can include information on the state of the environment, but also on policies or measures taken, or on the state of human health and safety where this can be affected by the state of the environment.

Second, the right to participate in environmental decision-making is also very important. Arrangements are to be made by public authorities to enable the public affected and environmental non-governmental organizations to comment on, for example, proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programs relating to the environment. These comments should be taken into due account in decision-making, and information should be provided on the final decisions and the reasons for it ("public participation in environmental decision-making").

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) describes public participation as ‘‘any process that involves the public in problem solving or decision making and uses public input to make better decisions’’ (IAP2 n.d.). Public participation aims actively to increase attention to and inclusion of the interests of those usually marginalized, e.g. politically disenfranchised minorities or poor people indirectly affected by water management. Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UNCED 1992) emphasizes that environmental issues such as water management ‘‘are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens.’’ The Declaration urges nations to facilitate public participation through methods that increase (a) transparency, (b) participatory decision-making and (c) accountability.

Third, and equally important is the right to review procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting the two aforementioned rights or environmental law in general ("access to justice").

All the above are essential because Nepal needs a transparent system of the management or governance of water by the widest possible public and various stakeholders. Many of the past problems and shortcomings can be attributed to the lack of such a system.

Environmental governance is responsible for shaping the context in which a local people shall make decisions about where and when to invest time and resources in prescribing new development plans to accrue maximum benefits through services rendered by using water. To achieve sustainable water resources development and management, constrains and challenges in this area must be addressed as a key priority. In the context of Nepal where basic need as an access to safe drinking water has been an outcry; we thus need to take an integrated approach to address the issue.

Bastola is coordinator of Friends of the Bagmati; Faculty Member, Department of Environmental Sciences, Amrit Campus, Tribhuvan University, E-mail: Khakurel is president of, YATRA; Member Executive Committee Association of Youth Organizations Nepal (AYON); Member Management Committee Youth Telecentre (YTC) SAP-Nepal, E-mail: Khanal is general secretary, YATRA; Member Management Committee Youth Telecentre (YTC) SAP-Nepal, E-mail: This is a revised version of a paper they presented at the Youth Social Forum in Kathmandu on 30 December 2006.

EUROPAa. Governance – What is Governance? (23 Dec. 2006) Available at

WR 2003. World Resources 2002-2004, Chapter 1: Environmental Governance (22 De. 2006). Available at

EUROPAb. What is environmental governance? (23 Dec. 2006) Available at

TAC. The Aarhus Convention (22 Dec. 2006). Available at

UNESCO-WWAP [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Water Assessment Programme] (2003). Water for People, Water for Life. The United Nations World Water Development Report. Barcelona: UNESCO and Berghahn Books.

WRI, 2004. Water Resources and Freshwater Ecosystems – Actual Renewable Water Resources: Per Capita, (accessed 17 June 2005).

WRI, 2002-04. World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth: Balance, voice, and power (27 Dec. 2006). Available at

Posted by Editor on February 3, 2007 4:48 AM