Speaking at a National Policy Dialogue on ‘Promoting Navigational Usage of Inland Waterways in Ganga and Brahmaputra Basins’ here today, they said such an institution could look into the viability and prospects of inland waterways for trans-boundary connectivity, and Nepal can reap the benefits by getting linked through water with Bangladesh and India via the Ganges river basin as both these countries have a functional inland water transport system.
Organised by South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), the meeting also unveiled a study report on prospects of inland waterways in Nepal apart from discussing on prospects of navigation. They also recommended on expanding tradable benefits of trans-boundary water and on prospects of inland waterways in Nepal to Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins from Nepal’s Koshi river basin and Gandak river basin, where water transport is currently limited to boats used for river crossing.
"By getting linked to the Ganges River through inland waterways, Nepal can get access to Haldia port," the study report reads, adding that the waterway access will facilitate domestic trade and bring down trading cost. "The cost of freight per tonne per kilometre is around Rs 2.26 by railways, whereas the cost to transport the same cargo over the same distance via road shoots up to Rs 4.1, while it would cost only Rs 1.7 through inland waterways."
Addressing the panel, executive chairman of SAWTEE Posh Raj Pandey said that the government should undertake a comprehensive feasibility study of rivers to assess navigability and identify sites for possibility of upgrading existing traditional boats. "The study shows that there is prospect of inland waterways that can be promoted for navigational usage," he said, adding that the government should, however, form laws and guidelines to regulate inland waterways and define the socio-economic and environmental impact of inland waterways.
He also urged policy-makers to take advantage of India’s aggressive push into inland waterways by developing navigation within Nepal so that Nepal could be ready to access the high seas through the waterways.
Former secretary of the then Ministry of Water Resources Dwarika Nath Dhungel and joint secretary at Water and Energy Commission Secretariat under Ministry of Energy (MoE) Madhav Belbase, on the occasion, said that a comprehensive study by the government on inland waterways and its prospect for navigational usage has to be carried out.
Dhungel, also an expert on water resources, said that some attempts had been made two decades ago to develop a multi-modal transport system to connect the hilly areas. "But impetus on road construction had diverted the focus to developing only surface transport," he said, adding that a study was needed to gauge how complementary water transport would be to surface transport, especially in terms of long-haul transport.
"Promoting domestic inland waterways for navigational usage is not so easy," Belbase said, adding that a separate institution has to be formed to study the prospects of inland waterways in Nepal and its benefits in the country’s trade. "Nepal’s water resources is dependent on rain during the four months of monsoon," he said, adding, “If we were to consider commercial navigation, then maintaining of the depth and the channel would be crucial. So without constructing dams, we cannot expect to develop a waterway."
Informing that any type of additional mode of transport is a boon to every sector in Nepal former president of Freight Forwarders’ Association of Nepal Rajan Sharma urged the government to play a proactive role in identifying prospects of linking inland waterways to international trade. "Water transport was considered to be the cheapest form of transport but cost of insurance and liabilities coverage, and of cargo handling at harbors added to the cost of trading," he said, adding that considering the cost of transporting cargos through river for landlocked countries like Nepal, the cost of freight movement depends on the transit providing country as well.
On the occasion, executive director of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-Nepal) Ajay Dixit said domination of political economy of automobile and surface transport in Nepal had stunted development of alternative modes of transport. He also said that commercial navigation may be possible in the lower stretches of large rivers. "But it would require massive river engineering, be it constructing embankments or canalising the river,” he added.
Likewise, a research officer at SAWTEE Dikshya Singh said a comprehensive feasibility study of the rivers to assess navigability, the upgrading of existing traditional boating services at the rivers, and identifying the possibility of multi-modal transport system internally would be the first steps that should be taken to develop water navigational services in Nepal.