Nepal’s plentiful water resources require careful management to ensure fair distribution to meet the social, economic and environmental demands of water users.


An irrigation canal

Figure 1 A canal in the Kamala Irrigation Project that provides water for irrigated crops. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

Both Australia and Nepal are on a water reform journey to create alternative strategies to manage long dry seasons and improve water supply to meet numerous demands.

Working together, the Nepal and Australian governments are building capacity in strategic river basin planning through the Kamala River Basin Initiative in the south-east of Nepal. Applying knowledge, tools and experience from this project will benefit other water limited basins in Nepal.

Additional project collaborations and outputs include:

Meeting the desire to increase agricultural production, develop local industries, preserve environmental assets and promote local economy and livelihoods, requires adequate planning and effective water resources management.

The Kamala River Basin

The Kamala River Basin intersects three provinces, four districts, 15 municipalities and eight rural municipalities, producing a set of complex governance arrangements.

An important agricultural region has grown from government investment in the 1970s in the Kamala Irrigation Project (Figure 1 and Figure 3) with currently 70 % of the population relying on agriculture. The flat fertile plains (Terai, Figure 2 and Figure 5) support subsistence and commercial irrigated crops such as rice and wheat and the Middle Mountains (Figure 6) and Chure support a mix of subsistence crops and forestry and sediment mining (Figure 7). Effective practices for water management are important to deal with too much water in the wet season and too little in the dry season.

High levels of poverty in the region have stimulated migration and more than 30% of households have a family member that has migrated to earn a higher income. To improve local livelihoods the Government of Nepal is considering development strategies including participatory river basin planning.

The Kamala River Basin Initiative

A team at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, through the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio, worked with the Government of Nepal, local partners and local communities to understand local issues and demands in the Kamala River Basin. This work generated information and knowledge for improvement of water resources management policy* and delivery** including:

  • quantifying the amount of water available and current demand;
  • identifying the future needs for irrigated agriculture;
  • developing scenarios with stakeholders to explore development pathways; and
  • improving ecological knowledge for sustainable water management.
Aerial view of irrigated crops

Figure 2 Terai irrigated crop production. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

To date, three main outcomes have been achieved.

Outcome 1: New knowledge linking water policy to livelihoods in the Kamala River Basin

The report, State of the Kamala River Basin, Nepal presents up-to-date water resources related data and trends for the Kamala River Basin. This knowledge supports the development of the Kamala River Basin development strategy.

The main issues identified include:

  • floods impacting communities and infrastructure
  • sediment loads increasing flood risk and damaging infrastructure
  • water availability constraining agricultural production
  • water infrastructure not meeting needs
  • limited land availability and low agricultural profitability
  • institutions needing stronger integration
  • water for domestic purposes not uniformly accessible
  • lack of knowledge about key issues and limited primary data.

The main knowledge from this work includes:

  • collected data on water resources, livelihood-related issues and livelihoods;
  • a river system hydrological model built using historical and current data able to estimate water availability across the Kamala River Basin during the year;
  • development of strategies and scenarios for management of water; and
  • measurement of annual water requirements and availability.

Read our news story, Planning for sustainability of water use in Nepali basins, to hear stakeholder views and solutions for the Kamala River Basin Initiative.

Control area in an irrigation system

Figure 3 Kamala Irrigation Project command area. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

Outcome 2: Change from infrastructure vision to scenario planning

Development scenario planning considers the current situation – water quantity, water quality, use, management, storage, alongside stakeholder issues and vision for future development and needs – to analyse future water-related issues and provide solutions and alternatives to achieve development goals (Figure 4).

The bilateral team worked with local delivery partners engaging different stakeholders in a process of:

  • collating and analysing Kamala River Basin information including stakeholder issues, land suitability assessment and problems with water availability
  • defining development goals and intentions to meet these goals with representatives from different levels of government and communities
  • comparing alternatives for water resource management under current and potential future developments
  • agreeing on future required actions and implementation plans for the Kamala River Basin.
A flow diagram of integrated basin planning

Figure 4 The basin planning approach used in the Kamala River Basin Planning Initiative

The development of a scenario planning approach for the Kamala River Basin changed understanding and influenced process. For example,

  • recognition of people’s aspirations and values at the outset rather than a focusing only on infrastructure development
  • changes in the terms of reference for consultants conducting nationwide basin planning
  • making robust decisions based on basin-wide strategic assessments of impacts and opportunities.
Harvesting a rice crop

Figure 5 Irrigated rice production in the Terai. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

Outcome 3: Kamala River Basin development strategy (in preparation)

River basin development strategies outline actions to achieve development pathways. The Kamala River Basin development strategy is setting priorities for investment projects and the governance and processes needed for these development pathways. It includes an implementation plan outlining coordination, capability, finances, authority and responsibility issues.

Extensive work on the development strategy conducted by CSIRO in collaboration with the Government of Nepal, particularly the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) and local partners Jalsrot Vikhas Sanstha (JVS) and Policy Entrepreneurs Incorporated (PEI) included:

  • professional development and/or technical training of 94 people
  • participation of 446 people in knowledge dialogue or policy forums
  • participation of 938 people in stakeholder consultations from federal, provincial and municipal levels.

The Kamala River Basin Water Resource Strategy is under development and includes stakeholders’ preferred development scenarios and implementation options. Three main goals were identified:

Goal 1) Conservation of Chure – stabilise land and protect forests to prevent landslides; establish and maintain effective erosion controls (Figure 8) to minimise the impacts of floods; and improve water quality.

Goal 2) Consistency of water supply – modernising the Kamala Irrigation Project and promoting sustainable use of groundwater through shallow tube wells (short-term); establishing a limited number of small storages in the Middle Mountains and Chure; and potential inter-basin transfer of water and establishment of water allocation rules and policies (long-term).

Goal 3) Agriculture development – promotion of Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation approaches and promotion of land pooling and collectives by local government.

Mountain and village in valley, Nepal

Figure 6 Middle Hills landscape in Kamala Basin. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

Sediment mining in a river bed, Nepal

Figure 7 Sediment mining in the Kamala River Basin. Photo credit: Emily Barbour

A man standing on a gabion wall

Figure 8 Gabions built to protect river banks. Photo credit: Auro Almeida

Lessons learned

Two of the most important lessons learned throughout the Kamala River Basin Initiative were:

  1. Trust and persistence are crucial for change – time and effort overcame initial barriers to including wider stakeholder groups in the participatory planning processes; and
  2. Invest human and financial resources to improve knowledge of basin planning at provincial and local government levels – this facilitates shared management of water and practical actions across national, provincial and local levels.
Two women walking across a bridge

Figure 9 Women at Katari Bridge. Photo credit: Emily Barbour

Success and the future

Nepal’s draft national water policy proposes development of basin plans across the country. The Kamala River Basin Initiative is an example of how three tiers of government can work together in basin planning. Bringing benefits for democracy and social inclusion (Figure 9), state restructuring, planning and practice, improving small landholder agricultural livelihoods and more evenly distributing water resources.

There is increasingly visible evidence of improved knowledge and ability in basin planning from the Nepal Water and Energy Commission Secretariat.

Current and future work includes:

  • Kamala River Basin Development Strategy under development through collaboration between the Government of Nepal and CSIRO.
  • Government of Nepal technical team following basin planning approaches and influencing their application across Nepal.
  • World Bank National Basin Plan methods under development with background support provided by International Centre of Excellence in Water Resources Management and CSIRO.
  • Government of Nepal and Asian Development Bank working together in the Bagmati Basin to set up a river basin organisation with the capacity to plan and manage the basin water resources in a fully integrated manner.

Project leader: Dr Auro Almeida

More information

More reports, fact sheets and information are available on the SDIP publications page

Read our Nepal news stories

Read the latest SDIP news

Find out more about international water research at CSIRO

*Policy partners

  • Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS),
  • Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM),
  • Provincial and municipal governments,
  • Project Joint Advisory Committee (JAC) with representatives from several Government of Nepal ministries and Australian Ambassador

**Delivery partners

  • Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS),
  • Local consultants (Jalsrot Vikhas Sanstha (JVS) and Policy Entrepreneurs Incorporated (PEI))
  • Local Universities
  • International Centre of Excellence in Water Resources Management (ICEWaRM)
  • Local community leaders