Saving our desert cities

December 9, 2014

The 20th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) is taking place in Lima this week, with Ecocity Builders in attendance. Lima is an obvious choice to host this gathering focused on solutions to climate change. Lima is the 2nd largest desert city, right behind Cairo, and Peru is estimated to be the third-worst affected country by climate change, after Honduras and Bangladesh, according to the  Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Lima lies in the great rain shadow of Peru, sandwiched between the Andes and the sea. The area receives less than a third of an inch of rainfall per year. The bulk of Lima’s municipal water comes from rivers fed by Andean glacier melt. But over the past decade the glaciers have all but disappeared and mountain rainfall has declined as well. Lima is poised on a precipice of a frightening future. Over the edge is imminent water shortage. City officials are looking for alternatives with increasing urgency.

We’re no stranger to drought here in California. Despite the plentiful early winter rain, cities, agriculture and industry in the lower half of the state are still threatened with running dry. While bad luck and climate change can be blamed for the shortages, there’s another human villain behind the misfortune: bad planning. Problems arise when cities don’t take into account the resource flows of the ecosystems they exist in. Problems arise when humans put their plans and values above the basic facts of the environment that needs to support them.

City bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Lima city bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Peru, with its mountains and rainforest, is rich in hydrological resources. But 98% of the Andes’ liquid bounty, including the source of the Amazon river, flows east into the Amazon basin. Why, then, does two-thirds of Peru’s 30 million inhabitants live on the arid Pacific coast?

“This mismatch began 500 years ago with the arrival of the Spaniards,” said José Salazar, president of urban water regulator, Sunass, in The Independent (2011). The massive empires of Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations built their major cities near water sources in the Andes. But because they wanted to be closer to Spain the conquistadors founded their capital on the coast: “Today, we are picking up the bill for this colonial legacy,” Salazar concluded.

Unfortunately we are left with the legacy of decisions–both deliberate and unintentional–made be previous generations. Lima, a city of 9 million, shouldn’t have been built in the 2nd driest desert in the world. But we have to work with what we’ve got.

Many cities are flocking to “smart” solutions to resource management and the scope of innovation in this area is truly exciting. However, smart solutions aren’t always the best. They can be expensive, resource depleting (rare metals used in computing are a source of devastating pollution), and not culturally appropriate. “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in the New York Times, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”
The best solutions are often the simplest. In that spirit, here are a few basic principles and tools that can help water-strapped cities survive the next decades.

1. Reduce. It comes before reuse and recycle for a reason! Reducing our need is the cheapest and easiest option. In fact, it requires you to do LESS, in some cases. Other investments such as removing thirsty vegetation, fixing leaks, and replacing old fixtures are cost saving in the long run. Responsibility isn’t all on the average citizen: big water users like industry and agriculture need to pitch in updating their processes to reduce water consumption, too.

The poorest population of the city can teach the rest of us valuable lessons. Residents of the slums, shanty towns, and other informal peripheries of cities like Lima use dramatically less resources than the more affluent areas. Materials are more efficiently used and better recycled, and water is treated as the precious resource it is.

One of Lima’s informal settlements on the outskirts of town. Photo by Håkan Svensson, Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the poorest of Lima (and elsewhere) don’t have a choice to conserve. One million of Lima’s 9 million residents don’t have access to treated water, instead paying for water delivered from privately owned trucks at enormous mark-up (watch this video to learn why the poor pay more for everything). The great challenge we face is elevating and equalizing the quality of life for all, while avoiding the adoption of upper-class waste and consumerism that often occurs with the process.

2. Decentralizing/diversifying water sources may have a great impact on conservation. Rain catchment and grey water systems at the parcel or neighborhood level reduce strain on city infrastructure and can take advantage of natural water (primarily rain and other atmospheric moisture).

David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley and author of “Water 4.0,” traces the expectation of controlled, centralized water distribution to the Roman era. The Roman’s aqueducts supplied their cities with abundant water carried from miles away. But the Roman model doesn’t make sense for large water-limited cities today (if it ever did, ecologically speaking). The millions of residents of today’s cities overburden single-source water systems, especially in times of drought.

Unlike Lima, Los Angeles (another desert city) does get a fair amount of rain in the winter. Elmer Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles called Sun Valley, is a prototype for noded smart water management. Rain catchment systems, drought tolerant landscaping, and permeable surfaces collect and redistribute precious water at a hyper-local level, preventing floods and providing water between rains.

3. Learn from the past. Indigenous architecture has often evolved over generations to respond precisely to local conditions. The flat roofed adobe of the Americas regulates ambient temperature (both inside and out) and can be adapted to collect rainwater. The pitched roofs of European-inspired houses don’t make sense here as they are designed for northern climates to shrug off snow. Rethinking native materials and processes often conserves materials and energy over a building’s lifetime.

4. Innovate “dumb”. Low-tech water solutions abound. Warka Water and other projects that use mesh to capture atmospheric moisture and could potentially generate 25 gallons of drinking water per day. Moisture farms are well suited to Lima which, while short on rainfall, is very humid. Improved techniques for passive desalinization greenhouses could reduce water need for this thirsty sector.

These ideas will likely be implemented in the places that need them most, like water-strapped Lima or California. But every settlement should take advantage of conserving technologies and approaches. It is too easy to compartmentalize climate change, to see it happening as “elsewhere”. That is, until your city feels the impact. The truth is we are all living in ecosystems of resource limitations. We’re all stuck on this resilient, yet delicate, closed system of Mother Earth.

Rio Aladago – The Flooded City

December 12, 2013

How well does your city move people? Chances are complaints about the inefficiencies of public transit pop up daily. After all, you interact with cars, roads, buses, and light rail constantly. At the same time, other systems of movement that go more unnoticed are essential to the functioning of the city organism. How well does your city move waste and energy? How well does it move water?

Here in Rio de Janeiro water is a constant of life. Whether flocking to the ocean, complaining of the clouds (or lack of cloud cover), or wondering when it will rain, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are surrounded by water. It doesn’t rain here as often as you might imagine, as in, say, the daily downpours of Singapore, but it is tropical. Unfortunately when the rain comes the saturated ground turns anything more than few hour’s drizzle into a potential disaster.

Tuesday night it rained as much in one night as it normally does in a month. Rio is a huge city filled with micro-climates due to the dramatic mountains that corral it. In Barra da Tijuca, a new area in the south, it seemed like a sprinkle. For the residents of the North, it was a downpour. Those living in this predominantly poor area awoke to find several feet of muddy water in their streets and homes. The extend of the flooding is astonishing. Entire neighborhoods are underwater.

Read the rest of this entry »

Floating cities becoming a reality

April 16, 2013

Building on water eliminates flood risk and enables expansion

For thousands of years, human settlements have clustered around flood planes, from the banks of the Amazon River to lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, to the marshes of the Netherlands. These settlements are designed to account for the seasonal ebb and flow of sea and fresh water, often by constructing buildings on raised platforms and/or building dykes, dams and canals. Yet as global climate change leads to increasing sea levels, almost every coastal city will face the challenge of encroaching waters.

Presenters at the Global Town Hall for infrastructure solutions held last week in Germany introduced innovative solutions for cities on the brink. “13 out of the world’s 21 megacities are harbor cities, of which Shanghai is most vulnerable to flood and related hazards,” said Professor Markus Quante at the town hall.

Instead of holding back the flood, several presenters suggested ways to completely re-imagine a city on the water. Rutger de Graaf from DeltaSync, a design firm that specializes in sustainable flood-proof urban development in delta areas, says cities can float on water and yet stay dry and resilient. Floating structures on water eliminate the threat of flood damage and can be a viable option for city expansion. In addition, city waste such as carbon dioxide and biowaste can be used to farm algae and in turn raise fish in urban areas.

“Urbanization in delta areas has caused increasingly severe flood. It has also added pressure on space, food, energy and other resources,” said de Graaf, adding that by 2025 the world will run short of at least 22 million km2 of land – an area equivalent to the North American continent.

Rijnhaven Pavijlioner. Images from DeltaSync

The city of Rotterdam is already experimenting with floating urbanization, building its first floating pavilion at the Rijnhaven harbor. Designed by DeltaSync, the three domed structures cover the area of four tennis courts and are not only self-sufficient, relocatable structures that purify their own waste water, but also rise automatically according to rising water levels. The city plans to add many more floating buildings, including a park, as part of the Rijnhaven harbor redevelopment master plan.

Another 1,200 floating structures are planned to open in 2040 in Stadhavens – an area designated for sustainable housing development, floating communities, recreation, and research on energy generation such as tidal energy and cooling and heating from river water.

The city of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, and other coastal cities are working with the Dutch to implement their water management expertise in their own districts. Semarang has already lost 98.2 hectares of land between 1991 and 2009 due to land erosion accelerated by climate change.

Find out more about DeltaSync’s project at their website.

Topsoil: The World’s Urban Sponge

October 27, 2009

All those urbanites growing organic food in the city has a certain appeal for the media, but to the average person, it may feel like a temporary marginal fad at best.  So why are city governments around the world taking it so seriously?  As it turns out, this trend has the potential to solve some of the worst problems that cities face – namely, climate change and water shortages – with a simple element: Topsoil.

Over the last several decades, many of the rainforests that act as our “carbon sinks” have been slashed and burned to make way for agricultural production.  Likewise, grasslands and savannas in Africa and America are routinely burned to make space for agriculture.  The farms that consequently inhabit those places feed the world’s cities – from Buenos Aires to Anchorage, Tokyo to Sydney, and everywhere in between.  Moreover, as cities expand to make room for sprawling communities, former farmlands are converted to suburbs because land-holders typically sell to the highest bidder – developers.  Consequently, more farmland must be created and more wild places (habitat) destroyed to make room for more farms.

The global market for agricultural products has obvious implications for climate change, as carbon-sequestering forests are cleared and products are shipped long distances using vast amounts of fossil fuels.  However, what may be less obvious is the solution to feeding the world’s cities without encroaching on our wild lands and carbon sinks.

Most people know by now that forests pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, helping to fight climate change.  What might be less apparent is that soil sequesters carbon with far less risk than forests.  As temperatures rise due to climate change, bark beetles have begun to infest many of North America’s forests, killing off thousands of acres of forest and priming these vast swaths of land for massive forest fires.  Once the trees are dead, one lighting strike or one match will be all it takes to send all that sequestered carbon back up into the atmosphere.  If sequestering carbon in forests is our plan, this is quite a gamble.

Healthy topsoil, on the other hand, can soak up carbon with a remarkable rate of absorption and no risk of loss to the atmosphere during forest fires.  Collectively, tillage management and cropping systems in the U.S. are estimated to have the potential to sequester 30–105 million metric tons of carbon per year, says R. F. Follett in an abstract on ScienceDirect.  Unfortunately, we are losing topsoil around the world at an alarming rate. According to Allan Savory and Christopher Peck of Natural Investment Services, LLC, it is estimated today that our crop and range lands lose 4 tons of soil every year for every person alive. That’s 21 gigatons of soil lost to the sea, lost to productive use on land and releasing vast amounts of carbon (New Scientist, December 2006).  Thus, the problem with our current practices lies not only in deforestation, but also in our astronomical loss of topsoil to the world’s ocean because of overgrazing, poor farming practices, resulting erosion, and urban runoff.

Topsoil is not the only thing we are giving away to the world’s oceans.  Fresh water is systematically being diverted from our aquifers in an attempt to avoid flooding.  The unintended consequence of our diversion strategy is that we are depleting our aquifers and causing severe water shortages for ourselves and for species that rely on fresh water.  The water wars that happen every year in communities around the U.S. have as much to do with our ecological illiteracy as with a drought in any given year.  Our cities’ lack of permeable surfaces and topsoil to store the water mean that it’s not sinking into the ground and reaching our aquifers, nor is it being caught and stored for use in the dry season.  Instead, this fresh, drinkable rainwater is often contaminated by chemical lawn fertilizers, motor oil, and other products before hitting the asphalt and concrete gutters that will carry it to storm drains and ultimately, to the ocean.

Although the system may seem too set in asphalt and concrete to change, cities are catching on and, along with community-based organizations, pioneering a new pathway to solve many of their woes at once.   They are addressing climate change and water shortages (and epidemic obesity) simultaneously by building sustainable local agricultural systems that feed their residents on-site while acting as a giant sponge for both water (to recharge the aquifers) and carbon.

One example of such a city is Petaluma, CA.  On October 24th of this year, the City of Petaluma, along with nonprofits Daily Acts, Rebuilding Together Petaluma, and Petaluma Bounty, came together with over 200 citizens to sheet mulch 25,000 square feet of unused lawn at City Hall and install edible landscaping, community gardens, and a rooftop water catchment system.  Leaders at the event spoke about carbon sequestration in the soil, replenishing the aquifer, and providing a source of local organic food for city residents.  Large-scale private-public partnerships include the City of Detroit and Hantz Farm, which together may soon create the world’s largest urban farm, although it’s unclear what their plans are as far as sustainable farming practices go.

According to a U.N. climate change paper on agriculture last year, by 2030 an estimated 5.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year could be avoided by agriculture with about 89% achieved by soil carbon sequestration.  Cities have an opportunity to build carbon sequestering capacity, thus potentially qualifying for carbon credits while also reaping the benefits of tax revenues from the sale of agricultural products within their borders.  By creating permeable surfaces and building topsoil, cities will also begin to recharge their aquifers, avoiding the water wars with farmers that are so common in today’s system.  Perhaps those urban farmers are really onto something.

To learn more about urban agriculture around the world, consider attending the Eighth Annual International EcoCity World Summit.   A highly influential community of architects, planners, designers, policy makers, green businesses, political and nonprofit leaders, with the added participation of international experts and delegates will be convening for the conference to present papers and ideas on the EcoCity and its role in the escape from dangerous climate change.  Participants from Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Israel, France, Senegal, Egypt, Singapore, India, Nepal and more will join together in the discussion in Istanbul this December.  In addition, more than 100 papers will be presented in concurrent sessions from more than 40 countries representing young emerging and pioneering talent from around the world.

For more information, go to:

Stacey Meinzen

Water, Power, Planning and Carbon

October 5, 2009

Recent disputes over water use in deserts that are well suited for solar thermal power plants have illustrated the need for a holistic approach to urban needs. Solar thermal plants use cheaper technology than photovoltaics (solar panels), but require substantial water because mirrors heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Similar to a fossil fuel power plant, the steam must be condensed back to water and cooled for reuse.  Typically this happens in a cooling tower and requires constant replenishment of water as the excess heat and water evaporates.  Alternatively, dry cooling can be used, but requires fans and heat exchangers and is much more expensive.

The American Southwest is currently the site of plans for dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants on thousands of acres of desert.  In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to give up water. Furthermore, some large solar projects are currently tangled in conflicts with state regulators over water consumption.

Considering the effects of power generation on the ability to provide water for a community will be crucial as water becomes even scarcer and renewable power projects burgeon to replace fossil fuel production.

Using low-carbon technologies that are not water-intensive combined with smart city planning and sound water use policies will help cities to avoid water disputes among stakeholders.  Cities around the world have already implemented rainwater harvesting policies to help address water shortages by simply catching and using the rainwater that is currently diverted into storm drains – and ultimately, into the ocean.  Moreover, California implemented a new policy at the beginning of 2009 to allow the installation or alteration of a clothes washer greywater system to be exempt from a construction permit that was previously required.  Greywater systems allow a household to irrigate a landscape with recycled water.

Employing green rooftops and community gardens in dense cities and maintaining substantial surrounding open space is a strategy for water conservation as well because the less paved or impermeable surfaces exist, the less urban runoff occurs and the more ground water can be recharged. Furthermore, water use intensity is greatly affected by population density.  According to the Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl, three households per residential acre (typical suburban sprawl) on average equates to 1,032 gallons of water used per household per day.  Conversely, 100 households per residential acre on average equates to 192 gallons of water used per household per day

Such policies will relieve pressure when citizens take advantage of them to conserve and they mean greater efficiency in the use of resources. Policies that force vital human services (such as power production and delivery of water) to compete for the same resources are unlikely to succeed.  Moreover, the monetary and environmental cost of water projects like desalinization is substantially higher than simply allowing citizens to catch rainwater or irrigate with recycled water.  Thus, tax payer dollars are better spent when policies support sound urban design and resource conservation.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of water use in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.

Stacey Meinzen

Excerpt from The Kathmandu Post

September 6, 2008

The eastern part of the Tarai (plain) area of Nepal and northern part of Bihar State of India have been badly affected by the Sapta Koshi flood. Hundred of thousands people are now homeless, thousands of acres of land are submerged. Many people lost their lives. Since this, being a man made disaster, one country blames another. In view of this is an excerpt from Deepak Gyawali’s interview with The Kathmandu Post.

Dipak Gyawali, former Minister for Water Resources, heads Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and is a hydropower expert.


Q: Why did the Koshi breach its embankment? Who was responsible for the repair work– India or Nepal?

DipakG: It is important to step back a bit to realize that this catastrophe happened because of the unholy confluence of three things: wrong technological choice for this kind of a hydro-ecological regime, wrong institutional arrangements resulting from the Koshi Treaty that are not right for managing this kind of a trans-boundary river system, and wrong conduct in public service over the last half-century, which includes aspects of corruption … But let us start with the technological aspect, when the lateral, left-bank embankment (not the barrage across the river) collapsed on 18th August: it was not a natural disaster, but a man-made tragedy. The river flow at the time was lower than the minimum average flow for the month of August, and hence not even close to a normal flood, which had not even begun during this monsoon. In the Koshi, it generally occurs from mid-August to mid-September, and when this natural stress is added to a man-made tragedy, together they have all the potential to become a major calamity of a generation.

Q: Why is this project the wrong technological choice?

DipakG: Koshi is one of the most violent rivers in the world because it is not just a river with water in it but also a massive conveyor belt of sediment from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal. This is a natural geological process that is responsible for creating not just Bangladesh but also much of Bihar out of the ancient Tethys Sea. Some one hundred million cubic meters of gravel, sand and mud flow out of Chatara every year. Lest we forget, all the collected water and matter brought by Tamor, Arun and Sun Kosi rivers, all the way from Kanchenjunga in the east, through Makalu and Everest to Langtang in the west have to pass through this one gorge at Chatara. And as the river slows down in the flat Tarai plains, the sediment settles down raising the river bed and forcing the river to overflow its bank before finding a new course.

This process has essentially created the inland delta over which the Koshi has swung from Supaul in the west to Katihar in the east, like a pendulum suspended at Chatara. In the last half century, this process has been arrested by “jacketing” the Koshi within embankments at the western extreme of the delta; but this has only forced the river to deposit all the sediment within this narrow “jacket”, raised the river bed, perching the river some four meters above the surrounding land. It was a recipe ripe for this kind of catastrophe to eventually happen, as it has now.

You have to be extremely careful when you start fooling around with such awesome forces of nature. What happens when you do so without proper understanding can be easily studied on the Tinau, south of Butwal: in 1961, India built the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau’s inland delta to supply irrigation water to Marchawar in the south, but the river changed course in the following year and the barrage has been standing high and dry since then, a tribute to man’s stupidity, and an equally great tribute to his incapacity to learn from mistakes. You don’t build such hydro-technical structures on an unstable delta fan, and the Koshi today is just Tinau repeated at a more massive scale.

Q: What do we know of the science behind these things?

DipakG: We have been studying the Tinau and its problems since the mid-1990s, which is just the same as the Koshi except at a much smaller scale. For the Koshi, the best example is the comparison of current river flow conditions of the lower Ganga with the map prepared in 1779 by Colonel Rennel for Governor General Warren Hastings. His map shows us that the Koshi actually joined the Mechi-Mahananda, which joined the Teesta. While the Koshi has swung west, the Teesta itself has swung east to meet the Brahmaputra, while the Brahmaputra has swung from meeting the Megna to meeting the Ganga. This shows how extremely volatile the dynamically shifting pattern of this region’s hydro-ecological is.

This disaster was waiting to happen because the intervention into the natural regime through the Koshi project was bad science that ignored the problem of sediment in the river. As regards science, we should also remember that deforestation has really no significant linkage with Koshi sedimentation: we have more forest cover in the Koshi catchment today, thanks also to community forestry, than we ever did in our past history; and the Myth of Himalayan Degradation (that floods in Bangladesh are due to poor farmers in Nepal cutting trees) has been scientifically debunked over two decades ago. It is Himalayan geo-tectonics coupled with the monsoon regime that is the cause of Koshi sedimentation and floods, and that cannot be battled against with bad science and even worse policy prescriptions of indiscriminate embankment building following from such bad science.

Q: Can we repair the breach once the monsoon is over?

DipakG: I doubt it, simply because the breach now is no longer a rupture in the side embankment that can be plugged once the water level goes down and the Koshi starts flowing along its original main channel. What we are seeing is the main stem of the river itself flowing through it, capturing centuries’ old channel and changing its course. To change it back is like damming the Koshi anew with a new barrage, in addition to making the river do a “high jump” of at least four meters to flow along its recently abandoned bed.

Believe me, it won’t be too happy doing that now or in the coming years, and will find some way to continuously breach the embankment in other weak spots, and no engineer can guarantee that this won’t happen, although they will have lots of fun playing with all kinds of expensive toys “to tame the Koshi”.
The problem now is no longer just the breach at Kusaha in Nepal: it is totally uncertain where the new Koshi channel will be in the middle and lower delta in Bihar. Currently, satellite pictures show that it might be moving along the Supaul channel; but I think this might just be a massive ponding that is occurring with Koshi filling every depression, canal, old oxbow lake or the space between the indiscriminately built embankments. Since the land naturally slopes eastwards, depending upon whether the coming September floods are a four lakh cusecs flood or a nine lakh one (as happened in 1968) the new Koshi could be as far east as Katihar. Even if it does not go that far this year, it is inevitable it will do so in the years to come. This river morphology dynamics has to be looked at before any new embankments or repairs of old ones can be considered.

Q: What might be correct technology then?

DipakG: First, let us put to rest another wrong technology, a high dam on the Koshi. It is wrong because it would take two or more decades to construct, thus failing to address problems of current and immediate future concerns, is extremely expensive, does not address the primary problem of sedimentation (the reservoir will fill up too soon with Himalayan muck), has no convincing answer regarding the cost of attending to high seismicity in the region as well as diversion of peak instantaneous flood during construction (it is a major engineering challenge with no easy solution), and will create more social problems when indigenous population in Nepal have to be evicted from their ancestral homes. A Koshi high dam would be tantamount to Nepal importing downstream seasonal floods as permanent features of its landscape for questionable benefits to it. I think neither India nor Nepal is in a position to afford the technical, economic and social costs associated with it.

The immediate requirements of Nepal and Bihar (and by immediate I mean from now till ten or so years) will have to be met by new and alternative technologies suited to an unstable but very fertile flood plain. Such adaptive technologies with strong social components have been traditionally used by people in the form of houses on stilts and building villages with raised plinth levels that keep life and property safe but allow the flood to easily pass by leaving fertile silt behind. It will also call into serious question the current design practices in the transportation, housing, agriculture and other sectors, forcing the adopting of new approaches that look not so much to the watershed but to the ‘problemshed’ for answers. There is nothing called a permanent solution (how ‘permanent’ is a permanent concrete dam, after all?); but building houses on stilts is a cheaper, more ‘doable’ and thus a better solution.

Q: Why do you say that the current management setup of the Koshi barrage and embankments was a wrong institutional arrangement?

DipakG: The answer to that question can come from looking at the highly undiplomatic and breathtakingly ill-informed statement that came out from the Indian embassy in the immediate aftermath of the breach by blaming Nepal for it. When forcing the Koshi Treaty on Nepal in the 1950s, India took upon itself all responsibility for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the Koshi project, leaving Nepal absolutely no room to do anything except allow India to quarry all the boulders they like (which incidentally are rarely used in the Koshi but find themselves black marketed to all the aggregate crushers from Muzzafferpur to Siliguri!!)

The Koshi Treaty has been criticized very often for many reasons, but the reason some of us from the socio-environmental solidarity to criticize it is because of the neo-colonial mode that is built into its institutional make-up. Instead of a proper bi-national management arrangement, Nepal can only be a by-stander even for matters within its own territory: it can’t order the opening of gates during floods or the supply of irrigation waters to its fields during the dry season. Everything is in the hands of the Delhi hydrocracy, which has conveniently (and to my mind, illegitimately) washed its hands off it by hiving it off to the Bihar hydrocracy. There is institutional irresponsibility built into the treaty at every level, which was seen at the time of its signing as a “construction” treaty rather than a management one, hence you can never get sustainable and scientific management out of it. In a tragic and perverse way, the current catastrophe has washed away the very foundations of that treaty and calls for revisiting the management of the Koshi in a more sane and equitable manner.

Q: What exactly did you mean by “bad conduct”, then?

DipakG: Even if you had a wrong institutional arrangement, right conduct could have still got things done more than semi-right. What happened here was that the entire Koshi project has become a synonym for the corruption that goes by the name of Bihari politics, which “New Nepal” seems to be importing with glee.

Consider the following quote  from an Indian scholar studying the problem.
Such is the racket of breaches that out of the 2.5 to 3 billion rupees spent annually by the Bihar government on construction and repair works, as much as 60 percent used to be pocketed by the politician-contractors-engineers nexus. There is a perfect system of percentages in which there is a share for everyone who matters, right from the minister to the junior engineer. The actual expenditure never exceeds 30 percent of the budgeted cost and after doling out the fixed percentages, the contractors are able to pocket as much as 25 percent of the sanctioned amount. A part of this they use to finance the political activities of their pet politicians and to get further projects sanctioned. Thus the cycle goes on. [The result is that…] the contractor’s bills are paid without verifying them. The same lot for boulders and craters are shown as freshly purchased year after year and the government exchequer is duped of tens of millions. Many of the desiltation and repair and maintenance works shown to have been completed are never done at all and yet payments are made….So much is the income of the engineers from the percentages that the engineers do not bother to collect their salaries.

(Fighting the Irrigation Mafia in Bihar, by Indu Bharati in the Economic and Political Weekly from Bombay in 1991, quoted by Dipak Gyawali in his book Water in Nepal/Rivers, Technology and Society, Zed Books, London and Himal Books, Kathmandu, 2001.)

This is what I mean by “wrong conduct”. My understanding, based on information filtering out of Saptari and Sunsari and on local FM channels, is that local cadres of ruling political parties got wise to the corruption practiced from across the border and began to demand a share, which was difficult for the Bihari contractors to agree to because of the high rake-in demanded by their traditional political and civil servant bosses in Patna and higher up. There were, it seems, tough negotiations going on before the start of the monsoon season, but no agreement could be reached. No formal approach was made by the Koshi officials to the most India-friendly government in power in Nepal because the issue to be resolved was not doing the work but sharing the booty. Which is why the complaint that the contractors had come on August 8 to strengthen the embankment but were not allowed to, itself begs the question: how come you come to do the repair works (if that is what you wanted to do) in the middle of the monsoon and not in January?

Q: What should be the priority now?

DipakG:  There are three things needed to be done on a war footing in order of priority:
First, this is a major humanitarian tragedy of global proportions, and it should be attended to with an open heart, generous pockets and caring hands. If Biharis are coming into Nepal because that is where the only high ground is, they should be welcomed, all relief should be provided to them too, but a record should be kept and they must be handed over to the Indian government soon after the monsoon. It must be recognized that the displaced fifty thousand or so Nepalis are in all probability permanently displaced (over their village, the new Koshi probably runs and will do so for the forseeable future) and need to be housed in camps before a permanent settlement is found. Perhaps the now emptying Bhutanese refugee camps should be used for the purpose.

Second, a bridge should be constructed over the Koshi at Chatara on a war footing and the traffic along the Mahendra highway restored to connect east Nepal with the rest of the country as soon as possible. The current Kosi barrage bridge will in all probability remain as the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau, a defunct monument of interest to future archaeologists; but even if restored, we will need a ferry system over the new Koshi channel before we can get to it.

Third, a serious public review and debate must ensue over the Koshi project and the treaty that brought about this catastrophe. The investigations and debate must be conducted jointly by civic movements in Nepal and India so that a sane path forward can be charted. Hydrocracies of both countries can contribute to this exercise, but their judgment and legitimacy are now in question, as is their hitherto unchallenged policy hegemony.

Featured Presenter: Betsy Damon

March 5, 2008

Betsy DamonBetsy Damon is an internationally known, award winning artist/ecologist who has spent the past thirty years pioneering a collaborative form of ecological art resulting in large-scale functional works that inspire, motivate, and educate. Since 1985 the focus and passion of her work has been water.

“Water is the foundation of life, the connective might of the universe. Therefore sustaining the water systems must be the foundation of planning and development.” – Betsy Damon

Betsy Damon founded Keepers of the Waters in 1991 with the support of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Since then, she has been active in projects across the globe, including multiple sites in China and the U.S.

In 1995, she conceptualized the Living Water Garden in Chengdu, Sichuan, China while directing Chengdu’s first environmental public event. From 1996–1998 she directed a Chinese and US team in designing the six acre bio-remediation park, which is now a worldwide model for urban ecological solutions. She continues to work on large-scale innovative projects in China and the US, such as an award winning plan for Beijing Olympic Park. From 2002–2005, she directed projects for the Beijing planning bureau, three of which won awards. Damon has inspired such community efforts as Portland Urban Water Works, The Edwards Aquifer National Park in San Antonio, Texas—the first and only aquifer park in the US—and CURA, Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, which developed a model village project in Ping Yi county, Sichuan to clean upstream watersheds. Among her current commissions is the Trinity Lakes project in Dallas, Texas, which is a plan to create a 23-mile long, ecologically sound corridor on the Trinity River.

Damon is the recipient of numerous grants, among them the Bush Individual Artist Grant, and was most recently nominated for the Swedish Water Prize. Betsy believes that since water is the foundation of living systems, it must be the foundation of sustainable design and planning. For an upcoming book, she is researching the 1,000 year old culture that has sustained rural water sources in Tibet as a basis for watershed planning and economic development.