Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

9. Crisis, pseudo-crisis' or supercrisis?

What is the nature and extent of crisis in Nepal?
Some crisis indicators from the wider region



Any attempt to sum up the preceding chapters would necessarily include the following. The large literature that depicts the imminence of environmental catastrophe in the Himalayan region has tended to confuse cause and effect, has largely missed the essential historical depth, and has assumed the existence of dramatic upstream-downstream inter-relationships without requiring rigorous factual substantiation. The subsistence mountain farmer has frequently been perceived as a large part of the problem, rarely as part of the solution. The 'development' agency responses have tended to be a search for widely applicable panaceas, while the extreme complexity, and especially the uncertainty, that pervade our region at all levels, have not been taken into account.

We must emphasize again that this uncertainty is not merely technical; that is, it is not just the absence of certainty. Rather, it is structural in the sense that, without their realizing it, certain actors in the Himalayan debate have succeeded in imposing their desired uncertainties within it. It is these unwarranted uncertainties (the latter-day myths) that have evoked the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation that we wish to dismantle. Our aim in attempting this is twofold: first, to confront the full extent of the uncertainty; second, to get to grips with it, so to speak, both by reducing it, where this is possible, and by learning to live with and make the most of it, where this is not possible (Thompson, personal communication, February 1987).

Our success in achieving this ambitious goal is probably incomplete. Nevertheless, it is necessary, as part of the attempt, to face head-on the questions posed by the title of this chapter. The preceding chapters, while demanding a much deeper historical perspective, which forces a reassessment and reordering of the components of potential crisis, should leave the reader with the conviction that crisis indeed there is. Thus we cannot avoid asking, what is the scale and timetable of the crisis? What is its nature?

We have inferred repeatedly that the crisis is something to do with the growing pressure on resources, given the available technology and the pervading institutional and political situation. Or, as Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) term it, it is 'the pressure of production on resources.' The predominance of a rapidly expanding subsistence population in the face of a depleting natural resource base, extreme political uncertainty, if not widespread unrest, and actual warfare in limited areas, together with a lack of understanding of the uncertainty, are all interlinked. The timetable would appear to be urgent in the extreme as large sections of the population exist below, or close to, minimum living, or survival, standards, and the needed institutional framework is largely lacking. It is also necessary that we attempt to define what we mean by supercrisis and illustrate how we think it relates to the Himalayan situation.

As we have implied earlier, we define supercrisis rather loosely, as relating to a region or significantly large area of the world (in the present instance, the Himalayan region, sensu lato), rather than to a single country, and of such magnitude as to bring millions of human beings into a life-threatening situation as a consequence of a progressive, or abrupt, deterioration of the overall lifesupport system. In our case this refers to the Himalaya, Karakorum, HinduKush, and Hengduan mountain systems and their subjacent valleys, lowlands, and plains. This region provides the habitat for upward of 400 million people.

We use the example of sub-Sahara, Ethiopia, and East Africa as the epitome of supercrisis - a world-scale horror whereby many millions of people and their livestock are reduced to extreme poverty, starvation, forced migration, refugee status, and death. This human process is accompanied by ruination and desertification of vast areas of land, often submarginal land. The cause of the African supercrisis is multiple: in places, such as Ethiopia, many decades (indeed, many centuries - Hurni and Messerli, 1981; Hurni, 1983) of almost imperceptible over-use and abuse of land, leading to incremental soil losses; over most of the region, colonial disruptions of traditional societies and economies, and traditional land-management structures; these processes in turn are exacerbated by post-colonial centrist governmental abuse, developmental emphasis on commercial agriculture; guerrilla, civil, and international warfare, from struggles of liberation from colonial subjugation to post-colonial dictatorships. Rapid population growth resulting from reduction in the mortality rate without significant change in the fertility rate seems to be an essential component. Further pressures arise from misdirected development aid, and in some countries very large expenditures on armaments. The whole tinderbox is then torched by one of the more pronounced and prolonged, but nevertheless naturally recurring, droughts. The consequences of such a supercrisis have been too recently and too graphically illustrated in the news media to warrant detailed reference here. Nevertheless, we must emphasize again that the costs of a fire-brigade relief action, both in terms of the consumption of resources, further socioeconomic disruptions, and human misery, and, in the longer term, serious land degradation, are enormous.

Since, as we have illustrated in Chapter 1, the Himalayan region has been depicted for three decades as facing imminent environmental and socio-economic collapse, with the year AD 2000 as a kind of rapidly approaching doomsday, it would appear that we must face the stark moral necessity of assessing this situation. AD 2000 is little more than a decade away. Will Nepal indeed be washed down the Ganges to become new islands in the Bay of Bengal? If so, will this be necessarily bad? Will this be the moment for the Dutch polder engineers - but we are back to the myths! Will it be the result of human interference in the mountains or of the inexorable processes of nature, or a combination? Can anything be done about it? Or should we throw up our hands and despair? Alternatively, as may be assumed from our attempts to dismantle the myths, and to denigrate the intellectually satisfying Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation, are we, in effect, dealing with a pseudocrisis, something that has evolved in the minds of many people and institutions because of the mismanagement of the sea of uncertainty that laps against the highest ramparts of the world's most beautiful and massive mountains? Or are we merely witnessing a common-or-garden crisis, or better, a multiplicity of such crises, the likes of which the world is awash with, always has been, always will be?

It is our contention that, only one step down from the arms race and the threat of nuclear annihilation facing the entire world, lies a series of issues, one of which is the question of crisis, pseudo-crisis, or supercrisis in the Himalayan region. We believe that the extent of the uncertainty surrounding this question is so pervasive that it would be unwise to under-react by taking a laissez-faire attitude. In contrast, and again because of the uncertainty, immediate development of an emergency response as a top international and regional priority may be an over-reaction. From this it follows that a rational rather than an emotional response is required: it is vitally necessary to determine just what the problems really are; that is, a special kind of crisis response is needed, but in terms of seeking plural problem definitions and the enumeration of plural solutions. Multiple approaches and operational and institutional flexibility are seen as prerequisites leading to the management of uncertainty and complexity. But this will not just happen. Thus we recommend that some form of special United Nations and regional, international, initiative be called for so that a number of carefully defined tasks can be identified, and the necessary resources concentrated to lead into sustained action.

We believe that such an undertaking must be regarded from the beginning as something that is extremely ambitious in view of the existing political tensions, but that is also most urgently needed. In addition, a priority objective must be to improve the living conditions of the poor by providing them with enhanced access to natural resources and by incorporating them fully into the development process itself. This will require a major adjustment in access to and control of land, perhaps a total restructuring of land tenure and taxation systems, and ruling elites throughout the world have shown reluctance to face up to such reforms. We believe, however, that rapid and sustained progress along these lines will be essential if there is to be any hope of reversing the overall regional trend toward debilitating resource degradation, and rapid enlargement of the current level of socio-political unrest.

In this chapter we will attempt to justify our adherence to these rather draconian statements and the even more dire inferences that lay behind them. From there we will be able to move more directly into a discussion of a preliminary research strategy, adequate perhaps for future modification and refinement.

What is the nature and extent of crisis in Nepal?

As we have already indicated, we believe that the environmental deterioration in Nepal has been over-dramatized, that correlations have been represented as cause and effect that have often been confused, and that a perceived supercrisis has evolved in the popular press, the conservationist literature, and even in the mainstream scientific writings. We strongly support the contention of Thompson and Warburton (1985a and b) that the very uncertainty that has emerged from this discharge of emotion and latter-day myth has become part of the problem. Thus, our primary aim has been to challenge what we perceive as a series of ingenious but unsupportable linkages connecting massive landscape changes by the subsistence farmers with increased flooding and siltation on the Ganges Plain.

We think that while we have succeeded in this task, the real task lies ahead namely, to convince the vested interests that a broader, more holistic, more critical approach is needed, and that a better historical perspective is essential. On this premise we have concluded that the causes of the crisis are not environmental but relate to the social, economic, institutional, and political situation in which the Himalayan region finds itself. While the ultimate effects may be similar - that is, an environmental catastrophe - clarity on this point should result in more rational and more effective responses.

This does not mean that the environmental trends and constraints can be put aside. If two billion dollars are to be spent, for instance, on construction of a cascade of hydroelectric facilities along the River Arun in eastern Nepal without anything having been learned from the destruction of the Namche Small Hydel Project in adjacent Khumbu Himal, then Nepal and the entire region may be facing a critical wastage of resources. The large hydroelectric project solution that is in play throughout the region needs critical reexamination. For World Bank spokesmen to claim, for instance, that the Karnali high dam project has received positive feasibility assessments by three separate engineering studies is not an effective justification: these are narrowly focused,engineering assessments, not holistic studies, and it must be a very rare case for engineering consultants to proclaim that such vast projects (in this case multibillion dollar) are not feasible. The, at least temporary, blockage of the Tehri Dam project in Uttar Pradesh by the efforts of the Chipko Movement, is a ray of hope. Similarly, as Mahat et al. (1986a, 1986b, 1987a, 1987b) have demonstrated, continued deterioration of the forest resources of Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok districts will threaten the very basis of subsistence agriculture as it exists today. Even if we have been successful in demonstrating that loss of Middle Mountain forest area is not a simple post-1950 process, loss has undoubtedly occurred, but over a much longer time-span, and population has increased dramatically. But the longterm causes of this loss of forest resources have been primarily the direct result of government policies rather than high population densities (Griffin et al., 1988).

Population pressure on resources, as debated extensively by Blaikie and Brookfield (1987), is itself a conundrum. Land degradation can proceed as a result of reduced population just as it can arise from increasing population. Our own conviction is that, hypothetically, a reduction in the total population of the Middle Mountains, for instance, by large-scale abandonment, or by stateenforced out-migration, would induce far greater slope destabilization and soil erosion than a continuation of the present situation of population growth: an active viable agriculture augments slope stability in most instances. The lack of success of Nepal's strongly supported family planning programme must be seen, despite an unreliable data base, as a result of the villagers' perception that more children add to their capital resources. From this it follows that the real questions are: what are children? what do they provide? Then we must ask, can we seek other ways to accomplish the same ends and encourage changes in behaviour accordingly? If the need for children is a barrier to effective population control, then it is necessary that we understand the character of the original barrier. In this context, recent years have witnessed the publication of a number of detailed treatises on the social anthropology of individual villages in the Nepalese mountains. These lead to the general conclusion that one of the major factors behind large families is that it is a risk-avoiding strategy (Goldstein, 1977, Goldstein et al., 1983; Manzardo et al., 1975; Messerschmidt, 1976b, 1982, 1987; Fisher, 1986; Fricke, 1986). Studies of this kind are especially interesting in terms of our discussion because they bring out a number of important points derived from a strong, if strictly local, data base. Mountain villagers are responding to a clearly perceived dangerous increase in production pressure on available resources. Part of this response is to have as many children as possible. Fricke's description of this apparent dilemma is quite graphic:

The organization of Timling's economy-household as the primary economic unit, kinship as the nexus of exchange, diversified pursuits as the key to survival and avoiding risks - reinforces the desire to have as many children as possible [which in turn] become important resources in themselves for expanding and diversifying the domestic economy. (Fricke, 1986:190)

Whether conclusions such as these, apparently valid for a number of individual villages, can be extended to embrace all of Nepal or the wider Himalayan region, defies a firm answer at present. Thus we must inevitably turn to the national census-based data and larger-scale studies, such as those of the Asian Development Bank, Nepal Agriculture Sector Strategy Study (HMG Nepal and ADB, 1982), of Shah and Schreier (1985), and of Hrabovszky and Miyan (1987, and see Chapter 8) for wider insights.

The Asian Development Bank study, hereinafter referred to as ADB (1982), indicated that between 1975 and 1980 the cultivated area of Nepal expanded by 34 percent. This was accompanied by a decline in total area under forest, mainly in the Terai, of 15 percent (while we are not necessarily accepting these data as accurate the trends are most likely reasonable), yet total agricultural productivity has actually declined slightly between 1960 and 1980 (this more or less corroborates the findings of Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987). Thus substantial investments, both domestic and external, have failed to increase productivity while population has grown from 9.4 million in 1961 to 16 million in 1981. As Hrabovszky and Miyan have shown (pp. 191-206, above), the increase in area under cultivation derives primarily from a combination of the conversion of Terai forest land to agriculture and the progressive spread of intercropping and double- and triple-cropping with the expansion of irrigation, and intensification in the more favoured parts of the Middle Mountains. Further progress in this direction, however, appears to be inhibited, or at least restricted, by institutional break-down (see pp. 261-67). But it is also significant that in 1966 yields, especially of rice, in Nepal were amongst the highest in South Asia whereas by 1982 they had dropped to be amongst the lowest (ADB, 1982 (2): 34). This poor showing, despite the considerable investments, is assumed to result from use of more marginal lands for cultivation together with a decline in soil-nutrient status.

There are other underlying factors. First, in those areas where it is feasible to use chemical fertilizers, mainly the more accessible parts of the Terai, applications appear to be limited to only about one-fifth to one-quarter of the amounts used in other South Asian countries. Again the real problems appear to be organizational and institutional, although we are omitting for the moment the negative aspects of the introduction of artificial products. Thus, there is little co-ordination in target fixing and monitoring, in achieving correct timing of application, and in linking availability of irrigation water to cropping cycle requirements.

The potential for increased irrigation and the failure to realize it rapidly enough have been used to illustrate the problem of institutional break-down. Because most of the existing cultivation in Nepal is maintained under rainfed conditions, the usefulness of supplemental water to produce higher yields and increased cropping intensities is well recognized. An assured supply of irrigation water and the provision of drainage, where necessary, could conceivably permit the planting of a second, or even a third, crop, thus increasing cropping intensities to well over 200 percent independent of rainfall. Because of the ensuing reduced risk of crop losses due to drought, farmers can safely enhance the level and quality of inputs, such as seed, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and labour, with resultant higher yields, production, and net income. The Terai offers by far the greatest opportunity for such development, although the Middle Mountains should not be ignored. This, once again, is the Hrabovszky and Miyan solution, which has its own limitations.

It has been pointed out by Messerschmidt (personal communication, February 1987) that expanded irrigation increases the breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and applications of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, in addition to their direct negative aspects, also tend to enable the relatively rich farmer to prosper and the larger number of poorer farmers to suffer additional privation. Of course, a more holistic approach is needed; there are no simple solutions. Our argument nevertheless can be supported best by a discussion of the situation in the Terai, borrowing extensively from the Asian Development Bank study (ADB, 1982 (2): 74-92).

The introduction of most forms of irrigation is a relatively high-cost exercise. In the general context of Nepal, however, and of much of the wider Himalayan region, declining land/man ratios, increasing population and food imports, and plentiful water resources, it would appear that irrigation can contribute to enhanced agricultural production if it is fully integrated as part of an agricultural development package.

While data availability and reliability places constraints on any discussion of the potential for agricultural enhancement by irrigation, nevertheless, it would appear that there is considerable room for improvement. Estimates, regardless of accuracy, would indicate that in 1980 irrigation on a year-round basis was only practiced on about one-third of the potential command area in the mountains and on about one-fifth of the potential area in the Terai. In the Terai the area under year-round irrigation is estimated at 65,000 ha, of which 40,000 ha have been developed by the government. An additional 194,000 ha for irrigation are under design or construction by the government, leaving a potential of I million ha for future development.

Given the considerable potential and the high cost of infrastructural development it is obvious that massive expansion of areas under irrigation will depend upon effective government and foreign aid organization. The current situation, in view of the critical need for such progress, is depressing. Irrigation developments in Nepal are under the responsibilities of three Ministries: Water Resources, Agriculture, and Panchayat and Local Development. However, the division of responsibility is loosely defined and co-ordination between the three Ministries is not well established. Thus there is frequent duplication of effort and a serious loss of effectiveness. A direct quotation from the ADB (1982) study will serve to illustrate the fragile nature of the prevailing situation.

A number of problems are evident in DIHM's operations [Department of Irrigation, Hydrology, and Meteorology]. An apparent shortage of overall manpower may be less related to numbers than to questionable deployment of available staff among head and regional or project field offices. Also, specific staff are not always given assignments for which they are best suited. There are unquestionably areas of expertise which are under-represented among DIHM's staff vis-ā-vis the role required of DIHM.

Among these, lack of ground-water development and construction-related specialties are noted. There is also in DIHM an apparent lack of basic management skills, particularly at field levels. Coordination of activities and paper flow within DIHM, particularly between head and field, or regional, offices is slow and problematic. External coordination, particularly with Ministry of Agriculture agencies which supply agricultural support services essential to the success of DIHM projects is inadequate. Probably because of the difficulties which arise in such coordination, too few of DIHM's projects incorporate provision for assured supporting services, and for tertiary and/ or farm-level irrigation and drainage facilities necessary to achieve success. Many of DIHM's projects have badly deteriorated because of inadequate or faulty operation and maintenance due to both manpower and budget limitations. (ADB, 1982 (2):87)

There follows a depressing account of incomplete projects, poor maintenance, large short-falls of budgeted targets, unsound planning. Even the once-constructed irrigation systems that had been deficient from their initiation have experienced accelerated deterioration because of inadequate operation and maintenance. This has led to lack of water distribution at the farm level with a serious loss in confidence by the intended 'beneficiaries' end consequently low collection rates of irrigation service fees. The message introduced here is that if the large-scale technological 'fix' is to be applied, either on its own, or as part of a broader 'package,' at least it should be undertaken efficiently.

This tale of discouragement must be set against the Hrabovszky and Miyan (see pp. 191 -206) projections for increased cropping intensity and production levels needed to match and offset projected population growth. The discussion of irrigation potential relates primarily to Terai commercial undertakings; but it must be remembered that the largest proportion of the population continues to live in the Middle Mountain belt and to depend upon subsistence agriculture. It is relevant therefore to look briefly at the mountain subsistence farmer's situation as perceived by the Asian Development Bank study.

The National Planning Commission defined poverty as below N. Rs 2/capita/day income in 1977 and stipulated that 41 percent of rural households were living below this level with the highest incidence occurring in the mountains (71.5 percent). These figures are corroborated by information on the land-tenure system. In 1971, 55 percent of the farmers owned less than 12 percent of the land with an average farm size of 0.21 ha. At the other end of the scale, 6 percent owned 44 percent of the land with an average holding of 6.8 ha. This group were mainly absentee landlords who organized sharecropping under which the sharecroppers have neither the motivation nor the resources to increase production. The critical nature of this situation has long been recognized and the 1964 Lands Act was an attempt to rectify it.

Ceilings on ownership of land and the distribution of excess land to tenants and landless farmers, award of tenancy rights to those who actually tilled specific holdings, security of tenancy, fixation of rents, scaling down of peasant debts, and so on, were features of this Act. However, the benefits were extremely limited in terms of the overall agrarian system and there were no tangible effects on the uneven distribution of land holdings. Successful evasion of the legal provisions regarding land-holding ceilings, for instance, resulted in redistribution being limited to 23,000 ha, or less than I percent of the total cultivated land. There was an improvement in tenancy conditions, however; about 1.8 million tenants were identified and issued temporary identification slips. Formal certificates of tenancy were issued to 300,000 tenants. Nevertheless an estimated 40 percent of the total were left out of the process and the drive for further identification rapidly dwindled away because of lack of firm political commitment.

Similar situations prevail in the areas of indebtedness, access to governmentsupported loans versus local usury, and rental. For instance, despite government attempts to make loans available through a variety of institutional arrangements, co-operatives and state banks, at interest rates of 6-15 percent, small farmers tend to rely on private loans at the village level at interest rates as high as 150 percent. In the same vein, despite government intervention to restrict excessive rentals, the traditional rate of 50 percent of the annual crop yield, and higher, is still widely extracted, if only because many farmers privately volunteer to carry the traditional burden simply because their forefathers had done so; this is a matter of generations of inherited tradition and pride, despite fairly widespread knowledge of the recent government attempts at reform.

The ADB (1982) study characterized the Nepal agricultural sector as follows:

1. a high man-land ratio
2. great disparity in land ownership
3. high, debilitating rentals
4. large number of poorly fed livestock of low productivity and high level of disease
5. declining forage base
6. inadequate dissemination of new techniques
7. ineffective extension services
8. lack of timely availability of inputs
9. weak institutional support for small farmers
10. deteriorating environment
11. declining soil fertility and reduced yields
12. reduced availability of the full range of forest products.

To these must be added the increasing control of agricultural raw materials from across the open border with India, depriving Nepal of potential industrial growth, as well as an extensive loss of revenue due to smuggling and illegal transfer of products. This is further exacerbated by direct control by Indian entrepreneurs of small businesses, including retail enterprises, in the villages and towns of the Terai. To this general list one might add: lack of input of institutional support structures, and especially a lack of demonstrable encouragement to and sincere appreciation and understanding of farmer-based solutions (Messerschmidt, personal communication, February 1987). Also, as pointed out by Shrestha ( 1985), many of the mountain families are virtually held in place by the remittances of the Gurkha soldiers in the British and Indian armies. Both direct remittances and the benefits of pensions taken back to the home villages by retirees may merely serve to hold a deteriorating system in place rather than provide the capital for re-investement in farm productivity. Shrestha ( 1985) argues that, while the internal institutional policies were responsible for initiating under-development and external migration, British India's Gurkha recruitment policy contributed to their perpetuation. This leads to the stipulation that today Nepal's economy, in part at least, is trapped in a negative feedback cycle in which under-development fuels out-migration which, in turn, propagates under-development. Regardless of the nature of the socioeconomic effects of this additional vicious circle, with its highly localized impacts in terms of the selection of army recruits, out-migration from the hills is perceived as a major economic survival factor for many migrant households and local economies.

We have discussed earlier the unfortunate and destructive tendency of using the 'ignorant hill farmer' as a convenient scapegoat (Chapter 1). What is perhaps even more critical is the potential loss of a great wealth of traditional environmental knowledge that goes with this. Whiteman (1985) has demonstrated this problem most effectively and we suspect that it is a worldwide pervasive phenomenon that characterizes under-development. While international agency attitudes are changing in this respect, it is by no means universal to perceive the traditional subsistence farmer's actions as fundamentally rational and based upon generations of careful experimentation. There is still a long way to go before we can approach a solution to the difficulty of matching what is most valuable and vital from traditional practice with what is both technologically and institutionally appropriate from the 'modem' sector in terms of foreign aid.

Development of water resources as a perceived solution

Another extremely important potential for resource development is water. While we have discussed irrigation, here we will add a brief commentary about Nepal's much vaunted waterpower potential, set by some estimates as equalling the entire actual waterpower generation of North America. The current Five Year Plan is following the trend of the last two by placing increasing emphasis on this apparently ready solution to balance-of-payment problems. The Arun Cascade, with its allocation of almost two billion dollars, has been mentioned briefly already. There is also the truly giant Karnali High Dam project, and many more. The obvious objectives include increasing the proportion of hydroelectric power within the overall national energy consumption budget, and thereby reducing the dependency on fuelwood, and selling to India very large amounts of energy. It is estimated that only 2 percent of the national energy requirements were being met in 1975 by hydroelectricity and much less than I percent of the potential had been developed (Sharma, 1983). These large, even macro, engineering projects are the types of undertakings that, throughout the world, have attracted vast sums of international money relatively easily.

We need only make a passing reference to what may be regarded as India's atrocious record of ill-conceived waterpower development in terms of the unanticipated siltation rates of reservoirs (Chapter 6). Even so, at a recent conference on the environmental problems of water resources development in the Himalayan region, the chairman of India's Central Water Commission made the revealing statement:

with our circumstances and needs we cannot cry halt to the development of water resources merely for the fear of impinging on the environmental balance. A large segment of our population, which resides in the Indo-Gangetic plains, is dependent on the Himalayan resources for its survival. For any programme aimed at bettering the lot of these people, the exploitation of the resources of the Himalayas is a primary requirement. We, therefore, cannot afford the luxury of totally stopping development with a view to preserving the environment. (our emphasis) (Y. K. Murthy, 1982:67-8)

In this general context, recent hydroelectric developments in Nepal deserve attention. The following remarks, based in part on Bjonness's (1982-83-84, 1987) investigations of the Kulekhani Project, are, by comparison with the projected Karnali high dam, a second-order undertaking with a generating capacity of 600,000 kwh. Delivery of power began in March 1982.

The Kulekhani River is a tributary of the Bagmati which, lower down, flows through Kathmandu. The extent of the Kulekhani watershed above the dam is 212 kmē which had a 1971 population of 30,000, growing to about 36,000 by 1979. Kathmandu is the primary market. The upper Kulekhani River has been diverted by tunnel into the Rapti River, giving a hydraulic head of 600 m. The study by Bjonness concentrated on the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the power project and her main findings are itemized here:

1. 1,200 people in 235 houses had to be removed from land that was subsequently submerged by the reservoir. Compensation was offered in cash or by provision of land in the Terai. More than 80 percent accepted the cash option. However, payment was not completed until two years after dispossession, during which time land values had risen sharply and much of the cash had been spent on subsistence; this led to pauperizatio and landlessness;

2. No consideration was given to the possible downstream effects, yet, below the dam, villages and households were presented with a dry river channel resulting in a loss of irrigation water, and the rendering useless of many water mills;

3. Above the dam the reservoir severed many households from access to markets and water mills, or enforced a long detour;

4. No account was taken of the importance of communal facilities, nor compensation paid where they were destroyed;

5. Progressive deforestation of the adjacent upper watershed and landsliding into the reservoir is projected to reduce the design life of the project through accelerated siltation (electricity outages in Kathmandu during our visit in October 1987 were explained as the result of reduced Kulekhani capacity due to serious slope instability above the dam which necessitated the lowering of the level of water in the reservoir).

During the summer monsoon of 1986 one of us (JDI) was able to make a brief visit to the Kulekhani reservoir. Certainly the fears of excessive siltation of the reservoir by landsliding directly into the water had not so far been fully borne out, and the inconvenience (or economic annihilation?) of families stranded on the far side has been mitigated by provision of a motor boat service (yet even in this instance questions must be raised: who pays? and, is this an appropriate solution?). But also apparent was the augmentation of soil erosion and siltation from the mining of clays and silts in upstream tributary valleys that had been undertaken during construction for the purpose of sealing the bottom of the reservoir. This flagrant violation of good practice (and actual defiance of contractual agreement) could hardly have gone unnoticed by the government inspectors; it must be concluded that it was undertaken to augment the profit margin of the contractors.

The implications of this discussion for the Karnali and Arun Cascade projects are significant, especially since they have been declared technically and economically feasible with the prospects for the expenditure of 6-7 billion dollars and massive environmental and socio-economic adjustments. In particular, the problem of the regular sale of large volumes of electricity outside of Nepal and the usual disassociation between a major power supply and the incremental and minute needs of scattered mountain people, not to speak of the potential release of violent natural hazards, need attention. It is remarkable, despite all the lessons of past failures, or of only partial successes, that hydroelectricity, and other macro-engineering works are rarely viewed holistically, nor are real costs assessed against real benefits.

Institutional problems

An answer to the question: what is the nature and extent of the crisis in Nepal? clearly takes us out of the realm of the physical environment and into that of politics at various levels. Increased foreign aid, rising population numbers, falling agricultural output in an overwhelmingly subsistence rural economy, deteriorating environment, and institutional maladaptions, if not actual break-downs, would seem to combine into a set of rapidly blinking warning lights. We then must add the uncertainty issue and the confusion of competing foreign-aid agencies that renders effective government doubly difficult. Thus we must raise the spectre of Hrabovszky and Miyan's attempts to balance food production through further conversions of land and cropping intensification against rising population as falling short of requirements. Does this constitute Nepal's contribution to regional supercrisis? A degree of insight is provided by the proceedings of a recent conference held in Kathmandu on Foreign Aid and Development in Nepal (IDS, 1983).

We shall use the substantial and thought-provoking 340-page proceedings of this conference simply by introducing a number of direct quotations. Before doing so, however, we wish to emphasize that encouragement should be derived from the very fact that such a meeting could be held in Kathmandu and the proceedings published there. The participants included present and former high government officials, representatives of the major aid agencies, and Nepalese intellectuals. The severe institutional criticism that was provoked should perhaps be regarded as a sign that change and progress can occur.

'Foreign Aid and Women', by Bina Pradhan and Indira Shrestha:

By adopting and using such concepts and terms [the western concepts of 'housewife', 'economic activity', and 'household head' with which the authors charge the foreign-aid agencies] without looking into the realities of the rural household production system in Nepal, the productive roles of women have been completely ignored and distorted which has led to women being bypassed in development. This in turn has meant that both women and the development process have suffered.

Women simply do not appear in the agricultural component of IRDPs [Integrated Rural Development Projects]. What is even more disturbing is that they seem to have been deliberately excluded at times.

It is well worth mentioning an exchange of words that occurred on this huge trade school layout. In response to a query about why there was no provision for girls in the envisaged training scheme, the (foreign) expert said, 'Do you think that a 60 year old farmer (by implication: male farmer) would listen to a young female JTA [Junior Technical Assistant]?' It is difficult to find any other explanation for this than that the expert was unaware of the existence, even prevalence, of female farmers in Nepal.

This obviously undermines women but perhaps less obviously, may unbalance the delicately balanced unit of the economic-system, the family farm households. Further, it seems highly probable that development itself is hindered by this incorrect focus, or non-focus, of omitting women from all development activities in agriculture.

'Technical Assistance and the Growth of Administrative Capability in Nepal', by Bihari K. Shrestha:

How much does an expatriate really cost? ... one man-year is roughly budgeted at one million rupees (excluding agency overhead), depending on the grade, of course. On the other hand an average gazetted HMG official costs . . . 20,000-30,000 rupees per year which gives a ratio of one expatriate for 30 to 50 of our counterparts. An informed source has it that currently there are a total of 334 expatriates working in Nepal for several bilateral and multilateral projects covering almost all the development sectors in the country. This list, however, excludes those free-lance expatriates who, because of the lenient immigration policy of the country, stick around until they land a job (paid at international rates mostly) directly with a donor or indirectly through a local consulting firm. Everyone of them included, it is a mammoth population of expatriate advisors. It is probably this phenomenon that prompted a UN expert to lament as long ago as 1970 that Nepal was over-advised and under-nourished.

Administrative capability, however, remains a relative concept. Is the administration capable of performing to a degree sufficient to meet the challenges of the situation? The answer to this question in Nepal is clearly in the negative. The economy is considered to be in a shambles, environmental deterioration is rapid and rampant ... agricultural production is declining. If some authors chose to call Nepal a country in crisis they are no more too wrong.

In sum, what one encounters in Nepal is a potentially competent bureaucracy that does not perform except in extraordinary circumstances.

'Foreign Aid in Nepal's Development: An Overview', by Devandra Raj Panday:

Why, in spite of these major accomplishments in the infrastructural field and increasing investment even in the productive sectors of the economy, should there be almost a consensus that overall poverty is increasing. . . ? This is the principal issue which all the five accompanying papers have tried to address. Their assessment is that agriculture has not benefitted; the poor have been bypassed; the women have not even been understood; the relations of production and distribution of power have gotten worse and the technical assistance has not contributed to the improvement of administrative capability.

One of the primary functions of foreign aid assistance is to buy time time enough to mobilize and manage an internally generated momentum of growth. What may have sustained us, or even saved us from total disaster in the past, will not have played its proper role if it is eventually going to ruin us in the future.... To what extent does excessive dependence on foreign aid financing transform, co-opt or even obviate the need for fashioning a rational, workable and committed development strategy for Nepal?

I am, therefore, inclined to submit that it is in its role as the purveyor of changing concepts that foreign aid has been most counter-productive in Nepal.

How one is to provide for 'basic needs' without diversifying away from agriculture in a country where the man-arable land ratio is about to reach or cross the threshold of disaster is not even discussed seriously.

It is understood and agreed that aid to Nepal is for the socio-economic upliftment of its people.... With the record of foreign aid's performance having been what it is, there is no alternative to taking steps in the direction suggested above; and the proposals are far from being radical. If the status quo is maintained any further, it will reinforce the arguments of Mishra and Sharma that foreign aid has been only an instrument of collusion between the urban elite and their rural counterparts and the country's ruling class and donors.... From the point of view of the needs and problems of the Nepali people, such aid might as well be stopped altogether. The advantage would be that the contradictions can be settled internally, however painful a process that might be for some of us.

While certainly a minority voice amongst the conference participants, the recommendation that foreign aid be terminated is interesting if only because it was actually proposed, and the proposal subsequently published. A less radical, but still highly significant issue relates to the apparent claim that it would be inappropriate for donors (foreign-aid agencies) to seek to influence government policy because that would amount to interference in the internal affairs of an independent state. This was countered by the statement that the very fact of non-interference while continuing to supply aid was in fact interference - in favour of the status quo.

Nevertheless, as indicated repeatedly throughout our presentation, there is another side, or many other perspectives, to most elements of the Himalayan debate - the very essence of uncertainty! The points of view quoted above are no exception and it is our concern that we make some effort to counter the accusation of insincerity on the part of the government, and the'donors'- the UN and bilateral government-aid agencies and their personnel based in Kathmandu. It is possible, as one example, to counter Bina Pradhan's criticisms. The United States-funded RCUP project (US Resource Conservation and Utilization Project), under the guidance of a social scientist with assistance from a host of Nepalese male staff, worked overtime to instigate not only a quota for women to study forestry (to become Junior Technicians and Junior Technical Assistants) at both the Institute of Forestry and the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, but also to make sure that those quotas were filled with the best possible candidates. And there was no trouble in finding qualified candidates once it was understood that a sincere effort was underway to attract, train, and employ Nepalese women. (Messerschmidt [personal communication, February 1987] explains that Bina Pradhan missed this point in her presentation, probably because she did not believe it could happen - in the sense that it has not worked elsewhere in Nepal is partial justification for her attack.) Similarly, it must be emphasized that many millions of dollars are provided by donor agencies for the training of young Nepalese in appropriate fields for the development problems of their country, both in other Asian institutions as well as in western countries. The objective of these extensive and varied training schemes (and the scholarly results of some of them can be inferred, if only in a very small way, from the authorships of papers published in Mountain Research and Development) is eventually to replace the expatriate workers with qualified and well-trained Nepalese. The development, or 'donor,' agencies have been at least partially successful in attaining this objective. Nevertheless, one of the obstacles facing greater success is the system within Nepal itself. Many of the recipients of training assistance face great difficulty in getting down to work when they return due to lack of resources, low pay, frustration with a complex bureaucracy. The point can be made that the 'donors' are sincere enough about training, a large part of the onus is on the Nepalese system to produce. Nevertheless, the government's Decentralization Act of 1983 is a very important and promising initiative. But despite this partial counterweight, it can be argued that there are probably too many expatriates in Nepal, and that their presence, together with the large, and often competing array of their agencies, does complicate the business of governing.

Contents - Previous - Next