Archive | March, 2014

Water, Energy and the Mountains

23 Mar

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 Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus

Happy World Water Days folks. This time when you think water and energy, also think mountains.

Let’s inspire each other

22 Mar

A month or so ago, a friend sent me a somewhat unusual email. The subject was ‘Let’s inspire each other’.  It had a list of two names – the second name being that of my friend (sender) and the first being that of one of her friends. It requested me to send an inspirational quote/poem/song/verse of my choice to the first person on the list. After doing so, it required that I send the original email to about 20 of my friends in Bcc – after modifying the name list so that my friend’s name (from whom I had received it initially) would occur first while mine would be the second. The idea was that the friends I forwarded this email to would in turn send an inspirational quote to my friend and their friends in turn will send their quotes to me. Well, I did not quite know what to expect, but it did seem like fun and I did as I was told. Here’s a poem that has inspired me. Well, it’s written by Kipling (yes, yes, I know, he did hold terrible racist views, but this poem is good, so I forgive him).


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling
Well, I am not finished yet. Surprisingly, after a week or so, my inbox started filling up with lovely inspirational quotes. A young man (who is a friend of a friend, but I don’t really know whose friend) sent me Invictus (another of my favourites). He said, this is the poem which helped him keep focus while he was preparing for his exams.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley
Then a lady sent me this: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi
And another this:
“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you areAll my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the insideIn your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
The heat I see in your eyesLove, I don’t like to see so much pain
So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and aliveAnd all my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light,
The heat I see in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes

And there were many many more. Even after a month has elapsed, I was pleasantly surprised to find another email in my inbox this morning. It said: “Solutions come to you when you are calm, centred, when you use your intelligence, when you are active and have strong faith in the divine law”.
Let me be honest and say that when I got that email, I hesitated a bit before forwarding it. I hesitated because I did not know what to expect and found it a little weird to send email to someone I did not know. But looking back, I am glad that I overcame my initial reluctance and did as my friend asked me to do. And because I did this, fascinating inspirational quotes, poems and songs pop up in my inbox every other day. It was indeed a good way to start 2014. So what inspires you?