A flood inundated the Melamchi Water Supply Project’s under-construction dam and water treatment plant on June 15. The extent of the damage to the headwork has yet to be determined.
It took more than two decades for the Melamchi project, worth 31 billion rupees, to begin distributing water in Kathmandu. However, the flood has caused this project’s development to be pushed back. No one had anticipated a flood of this magnitude, according to project director Ram Kumar Shrestha. He describes the situation as a “unimaginable disaster.”
Experts say the damage caused should serve as a cautionary tale for other riverbank development projects.
Weak forecasts to blame
Dr. Narendra Man Shakya, a civil engineering expert, believes the Melamchi incident has demonstrated the need for a thorough review of development projects. Massive changes in the current system and working mechanisms for studying, forecasting, designing, and building large projects, he claims, are also required. Recent floods, he claims, were caused by more than just heavy rains.
After water trapped in the upper district due to a landslide was released and mixed with mud and rocks, the Melamchi flood became catastrophic, according to estimates. “The practice of considering the threat of landslides and floods, as well as how likely they are, had not even begun when designing the Melamchi project. They only took into account a typical flood.”
A study of landslides that can block rivers, according to Shakya, is required. People have recently begun to consider overhauls in the construction of large projects, but no comprehensive analysis has been completed.
Various projects began earthquake risk assessment after the 2015 earthquake. However, in projects near riverbanks, the risk of flooding has been overlooked. “A study on the risk of glaciers erupting in Nepal was conducted by ICIMOD. However, research into river landslides and their consequences for the surrounding area is critical. Such incidents will become more common in the future if nothing is done, resulting in significant loss of life and property.”
According to experts, the study should take into account the geological changes caused by the 2015 earthquake in the hilly region. Such research can help to reduce the risk of harm to downstream settlements, land, and projects. “We need to study when glaciers can erupt, the possibility of a cloudburst, landslides, and what part of rivers they can block in the future when we build projects near a river system. “In design and construction, we can save billions of rupees.”
No focus on quality or safety
The Melamchi project was conceived many years ago and is now defunct. However, he claims that labeling the project a “disaster” will not suffice as an excuse if it meets the same fate in the future. “Large-scale projects should consider flood risk for hundreds of years. They should not be destroyed in the future due to floods. The reorganization should now be based on scientific facts and reality, which will improve disaster risk management readiness.”
The Melamchi incident, according to a former secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure, has demonstrated that Nepal’s preparations for the project, from project design to construction, were inadequate.
Foreign consulting firms are capable of working on large projects, but they lack the experience of working in a remote location like Nepal. Many businesses have attempted to work solely with Nepalese workers who lacked expertise and research. “Nepali companies are moving forward with even bigger projects, yet the tendency to ignore the risk management gap is increasing,” the former secretary says, declining to give his name.
He believes that when constructing the Melamchi project’s headwork, a sufficient flow area was not allocated near the riverbank because the constructors were more concerned with finishing work than with the project’s safety. “It appears that the trend of thinking about quality and safety only after the work is completed has caused issues.”
An under-construction bridge in Baudikali was swept away by last week’s flood in Nawalparasi East’s Baudikhola. Another under-construction bridge in Pyuthan’s Amravati village was washed away by the Jhimruk river. Since mid-April, more than a dozen bridges under construction have collapsed.
Every year, floods and landslides threaten the Mid-Bhotekoshi Hydropower Project (102 MW), a subsidiary of Chilime Hydropower. Dams, powerhouses, switchyards, tunnels, and transmission line towers were recently damaged as part of the project. The Namarjung Madi Hydropower Project (12 MW) in Kaski, the Upper Madi Hydropower Project (25 MW), and the Sickles Hydropower Project were all severely damaged by the floods (13 MW). The dam and powerhouse at Namarjung Madi have deteriorated beyond repair.
However, the events of last week are sufficient to demonstrate the flaws. “Private-sector bridges are poorly designed and constructed, and they are not flood-resistant. In recent months, the Nepal Electricity Authority’s projects have also failed.”
Meanwhile, recent floods are estimated to have cost the Super Madi Hydropower Project Rs 1.20 billion. According to the project, the structure was designed to stop the flow of water at 1,500 cubic metres per second, but it could not withstand higher flows. When 85 percent of the 54 MW Super Dordi Hydropower Project ‘B’ was completed, floods destroyed the dam and tunnel. The nearly completed Dordi Khola Hydropower (27 MW) dam and powerhouse have also been severely damaged. The floods have also delayed the start of trial production at Upper Dordi ‘A’ (25 MW).
Consequences of cost-cutting tricks
As an underlying factor of such consequences, a former managing director of the Nepal Electricity Authority sees a tendency to build faster with less investment, ignoring quality and future risks. According to him, the problem will be solved to a large extent if the Electricity Development Department can control such negligence through strict monitoring.
According to him, the government’s agreement to take ownership of the hydropower project 35 years after it was licensed is also a contributing factor.
He claims that hydropower projects are experiencing difficulties as a result of a lack of expert consultants, skilled engineers, and managers. The involvement of different consultants in different segments of construction projects, as well as the requirement to submit reports, has added to the system’s complexity. Those who obtain study permits for the projects claim to prepare a report so that the project can be completed at a low cost and licenses can be sold quickly.
The design is then reviewed by another company that purchases the licenses in accordance with the power purchase agreement (PPA). There is more gameplay going into the construction phase to make the project economically cheaper and feasible.
The former director explains, “The geography of the project site, the flow of the river, the potential risks, and other aspects are obscured.”
However, due to a lack of data on the geology and flow of rivers in Nepal, forecasting has become more of a guessing game. Furthermore, the construction industry’s quality control is lacking.
“In an effort to cut costs, the projects are devolving into a shambles. We will continue to suffer the same consequences as Mechamchi as long as there is a tendency to build infrastructure without leaving space for high flood-affected areas,” he concludes.