Nepal’s first tertiary-level interdisciplinary water resource studies: A reflection
In August 2022, a deadly heatwave, followed by exceptionally wet monsoon rainfall and melting glaciers, led to a catastrophic flood disaster in Pakistan. The floods inundated about one-third of the country, displaced more than 33 million people and took more than 1,600 lives. The damage was estimated at US$30 billion. The aftermath of the flood was accompanied by a lack of clean drinking water and sanitation and increased risks of diseases and food shortages.
As the country faces the herculean task of rebuilding, two major issues that worsened the crises need serious examination. The first is climate change impacts that made the weather events more extreme. The World Weather Attribution group of climate scientists found, “the 5-day maximum rainfall over the provinces, Sindh and Balochistan is about 75% more intense than it would have been had the climate not warmed by 1.20C, whereas the 60-day rain across the basin is now about 50% more intense, meaning rainfall of heavy amount is now more likely to happen”.
The second is the prevailing approach to water development and management that further worsened the disaster. The World Weather Attribution group also found that the “devastating impacts were also driven by the proximity of human settlements, infrastructure (homes, buildings, bridges), and agricultural land to flood plains, inadequate infrastructure, limited ex-ante risk reduction capacity, an outdated river management system, underlying vulnerabilities driven by high poverty rates and socioeconomic factors (e.g. gender, age, income, and education), and ongoing political and economic instability.” Other analysts have made similar observations.
2022 Flooding; Indus Basin, Pakistan
Following this approach, Pakistan has built many dams, barrages and canals, which have brought large areas under cultivation, with the Indus Basin Irrigation System forming the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system (Wolf, 1986, quoted in Khan et al 2013). A review of the 2010 flood disaster in Pakistan argued that the knowledge available to adaptively manage such a single interconnected ecosystem under climate disaster is inadequate. The August 2022 extreme weather has exposed this inadequacy.
This type of river management approach has its roots in the knowledge stream that views water broadly for uses in irrigation, hydropower, and piped water supplies. The intricately linked aspects of water such as livelihood and the ecosystem within the river itself and supported by watershed processes are considered in the periphery of this approach. Within this conception, water education has considered social, political, economic and environmental implications of water development and management also peripheral.
The result is the pursuit of a sectoral approach to water development that poorly recognizes the complex and often nested relationships among social, political, economic, ecological and technological facets of water development and management. Water issues vary at the micro, meso and macro levels, and interventions in the waterscape lead to a different set of consequences at these different levels (necCPS, undated). In South Asia’s waterscape, these have resulted in inefficiency, inequity and ecological crises, necessitating management in an integrated fashion.
We need to recognize the complex and often nested relationships among social, political, economic, ecological and technological aspects of water development and management.
Integrated Water Resources Management
Since the early 1990s, the above limitation in the water development approach has been under critique and scrutiny. The 1992 Dublin Conference on Water recognized the need for a holistic approach to water and suggested Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as a guiding framework. The 1995 Conference on Political Economy of Water in South Asia also touched upon the lack of holistic water education. The report of the conference said, “Creating effective forms of knowledge on water issues will require a new type of professional training that begins in school and lasts a lifetime. This can begin with adding social sciences into technology training, but we should strive to create inter-disciplinary theories and intervention practices—social constructivist approaches to technology and participatory design procedures, for instance—to integrate social science and technology at their foundations”.
We should strive to create inter-disciplinary theories and intervention practices—social constructivist approaches to technology and participatory design procedures, for instance—to integrate social science and technology at their foundations.
At a public policy level, there were signals for the pursuit of holistic water education too. Nepal’s 2002 National Water Resources Strategy and National Water Plan, published in 2005, for example, emphasize promotion of integrated approaches. Both donors and governments supported this agenda, implicitly recognizing the need of human resources with interdisciplinary knowledge in water sector agencies. These discourses contributed to the conceptualization and establishment of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), with headquarters based in Hyderabad, India. The Consortium facilitated the beginning of tertiary-level interdisciplinary water study programmes in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Anna University, Chennai, India, and the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, in 2005. The course in Nepal Engineering College (nec), Kathmandu began in 2007. Inputs of various actors over a long time made this beginning possible in Nepal.
The courses were part of the regional initiative under the SaciWATERs-facilitated Crossing Boundaries (CB) project. With funding support from the government of the Netherlands, the project intended to promote gender-sensitive water resources management practices and policies in the region. The project aimed to induct women students into the course and offered them South Asia Water (SAWA) fellowship. With the CB project terminating in 2011, the Canada-based International Development Research Centre supported the SAWA fellowship till 2019.
As part of this compact, nec’s two-year MSc Interdisciplinary Water Resources Management (iWRM) course, spread over four semesters, was designed to educate water professionals with interdisciplinary knowledge and skills in the analysis, development and management of water resources. The course emphasized social, ecological, legal, institutional, political, climate and gender aspects of water resources, alongside technical and financial skills. The graduates were expected to contribute as planners and managers in pursuing a productive, equitable and sustainable water resources development agenda.
The curriculum of the iWRM studies aimed to promote inductive learning supported by innovative processes involving field queries, case studies, group work and assignments as an integral part of curriculum delivery. As an integral component of the iWRM programme, research was expected to create values at multiple levels: i) in setting out a culture of research and appreciating its value in pursuing the educational agenda, ii) as a means of continued learning in developing and expanding understanding in the context of iWRM, and iii) in using research as an entry point to curriculum development, knowledge dissemination, policy advocacy and capacity building.
Research should be an entry point to curriculum development, knowledge dissemination, policy advocacy and capacity building.
Starting a new master’s programme was not an easy undertaking. Drawing students from diverse science-based undergraduate disciplines (engineering, agriculture, microbiology, environmental science/management, biotechnology, and forestry) and placing them on a common platform was and continues to be, an uphill task. Not all of the faculty and the students appreciated the blending of technical and social science subjects. Likewise, many of them found it hard to realize that gender disparity exists in water management. The college’s core faculty had difficulty grasping the concept of interdisciplinary research and was not fully equipped to teach and facilitate problem-based research on gender and equity.
Gender disparity in water development and management continues to be a blind spot
Furthermore, nec’s faculty was small and the turnover was frequent, which challenged course delivery. To cope, the college had to hire a diverse mix of external resource persons with limited teaching and experience to teach and guide students’ research, which led to practical limitations. The course syllabus comprised both technical and social science subjects around water, and not all the faculty as well as the students appreciated the significance of this blending. Inadequate physical and library resources, including lack of access to pertinent journals, was another challenge.
Till mid-2022, a total of 124 students (43 of them women) have graduated and are employed in various agencies and development organizations. A few graduates, mainly from an engineering background, work for government agencies such as the Department of Water Resources and Irrigation, Department of Electricity Development, Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, Nepal Electricity Authority, Department of Agriculture and Ministry of Water Supply. Far more graduates are employed in the private sector. Some graduates are pursuing Ph.D. degrees in universities in Australia, UK, and the USA. Over the years, a couple of steps have been taken to replicate the course. Nepal’s Institute of Forestry has introduced iWRM as a core course in the MSc Watershed Management programme.
System of integrated knowledge
During the 2022 summer, drought, heat waves and flood disasters hit Western Central Europe, North America, China and South Asia and as mentioned earlier the 2022 August flood disaster in Pakistan was one of the most devastating. Subsequently, as part of rebuilding the country, Pakistan Government has approved the Living Indus Initiative, the country’s one of the largest climate-resilience projects. What does Living Indus, and similar river-improvement initiatives such as the Namami Gange programme in India mean for a holistic water journey in countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH)? In an era of climate change crisis, in this new journey, the planning, design, development, and management of water infrastructure in the HKH need to transform. And recrafting of water education would be a major step in this process.
Water development and management approach using system of integrated knowledge–a synthesis of natural science, social science and indigenous knowledge–considering river as a collective flux of water, energy, biodiversity and sediment (WEBS) can meet various functions sustainably
A 2022 monograph, Governing the ‘Water Tower of Asia’: The Case for a System of Integrated Knowledge for the Hindu Kush Himalaya, published by Observer Research Foundation, India, explores the contours of this shift. Examining the state of water development and management in ten major rivers that originate in the HKH, including the Indus River, the authors of the monograph argue that the water crises in these basins are outcomes of prevailing practices based on siloed engineering. A system of integrated knowledge and synthesis of natural sciences, social sciences and indigenous and local practices, they suggest, will be key to addressing the crises. To meet the objective of integrated knowledge, it is necessary to reflect on the larger educational context and assess the practices of water education in universities and the generation of context-specific water knowledge in think tanks, research groups, civil society organizations as well as communities. This effort will help in making a systematic shift towards holistic management of water, rivers and their catchments.
A system of integrated knowledge and synthesis of natural sciences, social sciences and indigenous and local practices will be key to addressing the water crises.
In the early stages of the iWRM programme, there were learning exchanges among nec and the universities in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Such exchanges need to be continuous, and experience of interdisciplinary water education courses around the world need to be brought in for making teaching context-sensitive and taking systematic steps towards generating a system of integrative knowledge. Tracking the graduates and reviewing their role as well as that of iWRM program in reshaping policy and practices will be an important element of this process. At the same time, many other challenges need to be overcome. Perceptional and disciplinary boundaries have to be crossed through continuous dialogue among students from diverse backgrounds. For teaching, appropriate readers, case studies and knowledge products need to be developed through peer collaboration. Introducing the concepts of integrated knowledge at the undergraduate level of water engineering is equally important.
 Fawad Khan (2013) Scoping long-term Research Agenda for Climate Change Adaptation in the Indus Basin through Local Embedded Capacities, ISET and IDRC
 Nepal Engineering College (nec), Undated, Progress Reports