This is a feature article I wrote on the occasion of World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme was Water and Energy.
All passengers arriving at Kathmandu Airport are welcomed by small hoardings that showcase interesting facts about Nepal. Two that I notice every time I come in, I suppose because they are directly related to my work are; Nepal has the highest number of 8000 m plus peaks in the world and that its water resources endowments are second only to Brazil. It is then not surprising that Nepal also has a huge hydropower potential – a potential estimated at nearly 40,000 MW. Yet, those of us who live in Nepal know that the reality is that only 700 MW or so of that potential has been realized so far, leading to frequent load shedding and all other associated problems. Today is a good day to think about these issues because today is the World Water Day and this year’s Theme is Water and Energy – a very apt theme for a country as water rich and as energy scarce as Nepal.
It is obvious that water and energy are interconnected in ways more than one. The most obvious connection is hydropower – where water is used to produce energy. But an equally important aspect is use of energy to produce water. This is exemplified by the case of pumping of groundwater. Groundwater is now the most important source of irrigation in the region and South Asia has roughly 25 million or so wells and tubewells – all used for agriculture. Within Nepal, much of irrigation in the Tarai also depends on groundwater, which is often pumped with relatively expensive diesel fuel due to lack of electricity. Same holds true in neighboring India states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Thus, that there exists water and energy nexus is fairly clear and that the third dimension of this nexus is food is also very obvious. After all, both water and energy is needed to produce, process, and transport food. Indeed, this water-energy-food nexus approach is now widely accepted and used for understanding these inter-linkages at global, regional and local scales.
In this article, I want to highlight how this nexus plays out in a mountain context. The entry point of understanding this nexus from a mountain perspective begins with the fact that mountains are the water towers of the world. For instance, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is the source of ten large Asian river systems and provides water, energy and ecosystem services to more than 210 million people directly and to 1.3 billion people indirectly who live in downstream areas. From a mountain perspective, there are at least three different, yet interrelated ramifications of this nexus.
First issue is that of upstream-downstream linkages within a river basin context. Mountains, as the water towers, are the source of water which then flows downstream and is used for various purposes, the most important of which is for food production. Given scarcity of land and uneven and often inhospitable terrain in the mountains, mountains cannot grow enough food to meet its needs and sources its food from the plains. The plains, on the other hand, derive energy security from the hydro-electricity that is generated in mountain areas. This energy is used for various purposes, including for pumping groundwater to grow crops. Therefore, the key issue here is: how do we ensure that mountain communities are able to derive benefit from the services (water and energy) that they provide to downstream users? This calls for an integrated river basins approach where nexus principles have been internalized by all key decision makers. This also needs to be underpinned by a regional cooperation framework that ensures that energy services derived from the mountains are adequately paid for by the users downstream.
Second issue is that of seasonality of water and energy demand. How does one meet the energy needs, of say, dry season irrigation in plains, at a time when river water levels are running low? The obvious answer is hydropower dams with storage. While such dams are indeed needed, the inherent fragility of mountain ecosystems makes them environmentally problematic. Here again, the nexus approach provides a less obvious, but equally appealing solution. The transition zone between mountains and plains happens to be an active recharge zone for groundwater. In the plains just below this transition zone, say in parts of Nepal Tarai and in Indian Bihar, there is a large unmet irrigation demand in summer season – a demand that is unmet even though groundwater is available in plenty. This is due to lack of access to affordable energy. Electricity produced through hydropower schemes upstream can be used to exploit groundwater and bring down groundwater levels in the summer season and then, aquifer storage so created, can be effectively recharged using monsoon flow. Again, this requires an integrated approach where surface and groundwater are co-managed.
Finally, there is the issue of water, food and energy security at a local scale in the mountain regions. This calls for local solutions. Solar pumps are increasingly used in the mountains to transport water up from streams to the settlements, which are often located in the ridges, for household uses. Furthermore, there are examples of dedicated small hydropower plants being used to generate electricity locally to pump up surface water from rivers to irrigate farms in the flat lands, or tar, in the mountains.
To sum up, Himalayan systems play a significant role in downstream agriculture and food security in South Asia. The global community must look to mountains to resolve issues of energy, water and food security, and to help people cope. To date, the conservation efforts of mountain people remain unrewarded, yet the benefits are for all of us. Institutional mechanisms need to be established and strengthened to secure the payment and reward mechanisms for mountain ecosystems services including surface and ground water, water storage and others relating to energy and food security. What happens to mountains is of global concern – whether or not there will be enough food and energy for all will depend in part on what happens in mountain regions.
Thanks to my excellent media colleagues at ICIMOD, this was also published as an Op-Ed by a leading English newspaper in Nepal. It was also picked up by a few online media in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as the Bonn based Nexus platofrm. Here are the links.
Answer in the mountains
Don’t forget the mountains
Solutions to pressing issues must recognize mountains’ integral role in the water-energy-food nexus
The NEXUS RESOURCE PLATFORM
The Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus www.water-energy-food.org
Happy World Water Days folks. This time when you think water and energy, also think mountains.