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River basins need integrated solutions to face climate impacts

The ground floor of the modest Melamchi River Resort, that lies just northeast of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, lies buried beneath debris.
Published: 08 Nov, 2023
⏲ 5 minutes Read

The ground floor of the modest Melamchi River Resort, that lies just northeast of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, lies buried beneath debris.

Its ruins are a lasting testimony to a devastating flood that in June 2021 tore through Melamchi Bazaar, in Bagmati province.

Melamchi, in common with many mountain areas, is defined by the river that runs through it: in this case the Melamchi River, that stretches 41 kilometres, carrying glacial meltwater from the Jugal Himal and joins with the Indrawati River, a larger tributary of the Koshi River at Melamchi Bazaar. In common with many mountain areas, this small town finds itself frontline to devastating climate impacts.

At this point close to its origins, upstream, the Koshi’s river basin carries the scars of numerous floods and landslides. Downstream, in the floodplains of Nepal and India, communities face both extremes—not just of floods, but also of acute water scarcity.

With upstream landslides likely, the Koshi remains prone to disaster—and families here are braced for the next disaster. Crucially, in 2021, residents in upstream Helambu were able to give their downstream neighbours an hour and half lead time warning of the coming flood. Will they be so lucky next time?   

Timely warnings from Helambu communities played a crucial role in minimizing casualties during the Melamchi flood, according to Melamchi resident Iccharam Sapkota.

Political will

Preparing for disasters that cross national borders is a particular challenge for the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

Disasters don’t recognise political boundaries, and floods that start upstream often result in devastating impacts in regions and countries downstream. Countries, however, especially with water an issue of growing national security concern in this region, can be reluctant to share long-term data around flow and risk. Water governance and water diplomacy are already major issues in the region, further compounding complexities.

The science is certain: Hazards across these mountains will grow in frequency and ferocity due to changes in precipitation, thawing permafrost, and snow and ice melt.  To prevent loss of life, serious collaboration, trust, political will and finance in water basin management all need to grow.

ICIMOD’s role

This September, ICIMOD brought together 12 executives from across our regional member countries to start to build trust, networks of collaboration, and the arguments for greater investment and focus.

Participants were individuals from national organisations responsible for river management and academicians of six countries, travelled from upstream to the downstream of the Koshi river within Nepal to forge a better understanding of disasters and solutions using the ‘Integrated River Basin Management’ (IRBM) approach.

IRBM is a technique that brings water governance together with environmental security, and human wellbeing, to ensure rivers are managed in a more holistic way.

Across the Hindu Kush Himalayas, people have been moving to the banks of rivers for economic reasons in ever growing numbers – drawn by economic opportunities.

The rise in riverbank settlements, however, has not been accompanied by an uptick in the development or implementation of planning protocols for construction, environmental management or water governance, resulting in interventions that, in turn, often place greater pressure on the landscape, and water courses – increasing exposure to risk that climate change is already accelerating.

With so many in the mountains dependent on agriculture and already struggling with extremely high levels of poverty and malnutrition, managing the persistent water dichotomy, communities face – of “Too Much Too Little” water – has never been more urgent.

Srijana Shrestha, Undersecretary of the President Chure Terai-Madhesh Conservation Development Board, sheds light on the growing concern of haphazard sand mining and its impact on riverbeds.

The answers lie in Nature

In Mahottari and Dhunusha districts, both of which lie along the Ratu River of the lower Koshi Basin in Nepal, more and more communities are embracing rainwater harvesting ponds. This nature-based solution helps check sediment flow, minimise flood risk and provides continuous irrigation.

Also, along the Ratu, which is a seasonal river that flows in the sub-surface during dry seasons, harvesting seepage water has proven effective. During the dry months, sub-surface dams collect water, which is then channelled downstream for irrigation, reviving agriculture in the area. However, is this sustainable? What happens if all communities in the plains are interested in harvesting subsurface water without considering options for recharging? How does this impact water table on the basin scale?

Bibek Yadav, a local NGO member explains sub-surface dams constructed to trap seeping water, which is then channelled downstream. This has greatly revived agriculture in the area.

The big picture

With IRBM, we are looking at harvesting benefits from river while mitigating its downsides. The Melamchi disaster is a powerful reminder that a single disaster can erase decades of progress overnight, underlining the necessity of IRBM to strike a balance between immediate needs and the long-term health of our river basins.

There are no right solutions, only appropriate ones. We need to consider GESI, transboundary dialogue, good water governance among other things. Our individual local solutions must address local challenges but also need to align with larger comprehensive strategy because local fixes may provide short-term relief but can lead to more significant issues, both at the local level and for the entire river basin.

A basin perspective is non-negotiable for thriving communities and healthy rivers, as non-cooperation and short-sighted policies come at a dire cost of human lives and environmental degradation.


Communications Officer, ICIMOD

Flood Early Warning and Energy Analyst, ICIMOD


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