Stewardship of Nepal’s Rivers and Water Resources for Multiple Uses

Fragmentation of rivers by dam building, loss of aquatic biodiversity and careful attention to dependent local livelihoods are rising global concerns.

Fragmentation of rivers by dam building, loss of aquatic biodiversity and careful attention to dependent local livelihoods are rising global concerns. These concerns are also being raised in Nepal where investment in dam building for hydropower has significantly increased. Since the 1960s, the use of water resources in Nepal has focused on modification of stock and flow of rivers using dams and barrages though hydrological knowledge was limited. In the 1960s the United States government began supporting Nepal in improving this knowledge base by establishing hydro-metrological stations and in assessing groundwater resources in the southern plains[i].

Two decades later, in the 1980s, the US government supported the Irrigation Management Project (IMP) that involved users of built irrigation systems in the management of those systems.[ii] This effort would draw on the knowledge of Nepal’s long tradition of Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems (FMIS). FMIS provide irrigation to almost 75 percent of the country’s irrigated area. The IMP also had an applied research component implemented by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) working to further understand and support FMIS.[iii] This research in Nepal received support from innovations around the world through the common property research work of Nobel Economics Laureate Dr. Elinor Ostrom. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a group of like-minded donor organizations also provided support to Nepal’s rapidly expanding community forestry programme following the adoption of the policy recommendations of the Master Plan for the Forestry Sector in 1989. USAID/Nepal has also supported a string of projects working on hydroelectricity since the early 1990s focused on private sector-led hydropower energy generation rather than a holistic development and management of water resources.

In 2014 USAID/Nepal supported an Assessment of Water Resources Management & Freshwater Biodiversity in Nepal.[iv] Using this assessment as a point of departure, USAID/Nepal designed the Program for Aquatic Natural Resources Improvement (PANI)[v]. DAI Global implemented the program in Nepal’s Mahakali, Karnali and West Rapti (MKWR) river basins.

Mahakali, Karnali and West Rapti: Paani’s Three River Basins in Nepal.

The PANI program had the following three components:

  • A research component implemented by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) This component was named Digo Jal Bikas (“Sustainable Water Development”)[vi]
  • A program support component implemented by the Office of International Programs of the U.S. Forest Service (USDA/USFS-IP)[vii], and
  • The large, multi-element Paani project (see Volume I of the e-Book)[viii].

The MKWR basins occupy Nepal’s Karnali region, one of the least developed regions with low Human Development Index (HDI) outcomes (Mahakali: 0.43, Karnali 0.43. West Rapti: 0.46)[ix] compared to other parts of Nepal, mainly in terms adult literacy, life expectancy, malnutrition, access to safe drinking water, etc. Large parts of the MKWR region remain poorly connected by roads and therefore remain to be effectively ‘reached’. Development in the region has remained costly and governance weak, and this has directly affected delivery of basic services, resulting in high child and maternal mortality, low agriculture productivity, etc. that explain the widespread poverty. The PANI program responded to the above concerns. Specifically, it aimed at:

  • Identifying Aquatic Values, Threats and Needs,
  • Putting Aquatic Conservation and Management into Local Hands, and
  • Building Aquatic Resilience and Livelihoods

The Government of Nepal (GoN) and USAID worked together to address these lacunae through the PANI program. Those designing PANI were unaware at the time that the project may well be USAID’s first-ever major project working on freshwater biodiversity anywhere in the world.[x] PANI was also the first significant effort by the Government of Nepal to address aquatic biodiversity. As noted by one of the 40+ contributors to Volume II of the Paani e-Book: Nepal’s drive for biodiversity conservation had focused exclusively on terrestrial ecosystems and species since the advent of modern conservation, which started with the promulgation of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1973. Very few conservationists in Nepal had even heard of the Aquatic Animal Conservation Act, which was promulgated four years earlier in 1969. This law, which recognizes aquatic biodiversity and proposes measures to protect them, has sat on the shelf for half a century[xi].

A fisherman with his net in the river @Nabin Baral

As the program drew to a close, it solicited reflections from a wide cross-section of PANI partners and collaborators who were asked to provide their perspectives on what had (and what hadn’t) been accomplished over the five years of the program and what needed to come next. The engagement of these partners and collaborators with the PANI project and lessons learned are important to share with the wider stakeholder community who care about Nepal’s aquatic resources management so that future decisions and projects are well informed and do not end up merely re-inventing the wheel. The engagement of all three components of PANI in the National River Summits of 2017 and 2019 opened the program to a broader range of stakeholders. PANI brought diverse voices and multiple values into the national conversation on water resources that had been focused far too much on a single use: hydropower development[xii].

The Paani program supported two potentially globally-significant innovations.

Innovation #1: Locally-Empowered River Stretch Co-Management

Part of the story of putting aquatic conservation and management into local hands is the development of locally-led, locally-empowered river stretch co-management. Local community groups began to monitor and manage fishing resources in partnership with their local governments, which enacted conservation laws to protect aquatic biodiversity resources and control harmful practices. With continued support, assessment, and adaptive improvements, it has the potential to develop into a national program along the lines of Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) and eventually into a global model.

Innovation #2: Using systems-scale analyses as a framework for moving decision making on hydropower development from “ad hockery” to proactive, rigorous, fact-based, decision-making.

The other potentially significant innovation is using systems-scale planning to grow the pilot efforts in river stretch co-management into a new model for the management of High Conservation Value Rivers.  The three in-depth studies by Paani/WWF (High Conservation Value Rivers, Energy Options Assessment, and System Scale Planning brought together multiple stakeholders to integrate science and local knowledge and at the same time introducing rigorous analysis and fact-based decision-making into the siting, sizing and construction of hydropower plants on Nepal’s rivers[xiii].

 A pristine stretch of the Karnali River @Nabin Baral

Final Outcomes, Getting the Word Out & Looking Forward

PANI produced a comprehensive list of the documentation. Given the pathbreaking nature of this project, not just for Nepal, but also globally, the documents are available and accessible at the newly established Freshwater Centre of Excellence (FWCoE) established at the Central Department of Environmental Sciences of Tribhuvan University with support from the Paani project.[xiv] It is anticipated that this knowledge on Nepal’s freshwater biodiversity will bring a substantially broader view of water resources to the table. It will also help a wide variety of end users both in Nepal and beyond its borders to promote the management of water resources for sustainable multiple uses. Both the international development community, and the next generation(s) of Nepali professionals and others can pick up the baton from PANI and push for a more comprehensive understanding and more careful stewardship of Nepal’s water resources[xv].

Key Paani documents can be accessed through the links listed in endnote #16.[xvi]


[1] Water Resources, Page 173, See Christa A. Skerry, Kerry Moran and Kay M. Calavan, 1991. Four Decades of Development The History of U.S. Assistance to Nepal 1951-1991 Published by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Second printing May 1992.

[2] USAID/Nepal Irrigation Management Project (IMP), 1985-1989. See the IMP MidTerm Evaluation Report produced by ISPAN (a regional Irrigation Support Project for Asia/Near East) in 1989:

[3] Nepal Farmer Managed Irrigation System Trust

[4] 2014 Assessment of Water Resources Management & Freshwater Biodiversity in Nepal

[5] USAID/Nepal’s former Environment Officer Bronwyn Llewellyn is credited for the vision behind the PANI program with its emphasis on freshwater biodiversity.
For her reflections see Paani e-Book Volume II, p. 13-14.  The PANI program had 3 components implemented by IWMI, the US Forest Service and DAI. The Paani project, implemented by DAI with the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) and many other Nepali partners, refers to the large, multi-element described in Volume I of the e-Book.
Paani e-Book Volumes I & II II is also available at

[6] IWMI Digo Jal Bikas website:  See also Luna Bharati, Sanita Dhaubanjar and Emma Karki in Paani e-Book Volume II, p.25-29

[7] Research sponsored by Paani and the US Forest Service is described by Justin Green, Nico Stoehr and Mark Weinhold (p. 30-37), CMDN Dibesh Karmacharya (p.38-41), ISET-Nepal Ajaya Dixit (p.55-59) and Kathmandu University/Tribhuvan University Ram Devi Tachamo, Deep Narayan Shah and Subodh Sharma (p.60-66) 

[8] Vols. I & II available at

[9] Nepal in Data accessed on 12 April 2019.

[10] “may well be” deserves some explanation.  In the Paani e-Book we noted in footnote #5          on page 3 of Volume II: “Numerous queries over several months to the managers of            USAID’s large, Congressionally-mandated Biodiversity Program have received no response.      Consultations with current and retired USAID Environment Officers who have worked in         Asia, Africa and Latin America appear to our hypothesis.  We believe the second       project that would qualify under this category is a program supported by USAID/Cambodia      on the Mekong River that was launched early in 2017.”

[11] Arun Rana in Paani e-Book Volume II, p.104-105.  Rana, of Himalayan Anglers, discusses the important perspective of commercial angling.  Other fisheries research not already mentioned above includes the contributions of David Gillette, University of North Carolina-Ashville (p.94-98) and Steve Lockett, Mahseer Trust (p.101-103).

[12] NRCT/Nepal River Conservation Trust Megh Ale, Mausam Khanal and Nabin Baral, in Paani e-Book Volume II p.67-76; Karen Bennett p.87-94 and David Molden p.103. For additional pictures from the NRCT/Nepal River Conservation Trust organized “Karnali expedition” see for the Karnali River and associated landscapes, and for portraits of some of the remarkable people met during the descent by raft and kayak from Holy Mount Kailas to the Holy Ganga.

[13] Rajesh Sada, Jeff Opperman, Michele Thieme and Hannah Baleta in Paani e-Book Volume II, p. 81-86

[14] Tribhuvan University Freshwater Centre of Excellence Portal:

[15] USAID/Nepal will be providing follow-on support through the newly designed Jal Jangal (Water/Forests) project as well as through the Urja (Energy) project which is a follow-on to the Nepal Hydropower Development Project (NHDP).  Paani/NHDP linkages are discussed by Rob Taylor in the Paani e-Book Volume II, p. 16-24. Urja will be taking the lead on critically important issues that must be urgently addressed to bring hydropower development in Nepal into a broader system-scale perspective focused on much more than just energy production. These issues are also discussed by Khadga Bisht, former President of the Independent Power Producers of Nepal (IPPAN) (p.9-12) and by Madhav Karki, Centre for Green Economy Development Nepal (p.99-101).

[16] Key documents for those interested in learning more about the PANI/Paani program:
* E-Book USAID/Nepal Paani Program Final Summary and
Volume I Final Summary – p.1-22
Volume II Reflections on & Documentation produced by the PANI program –p. 23-132(IIA Reflections p.23-127, IIB Documentation p.128-132)
* Recording of the virtual Paani close celebration (June 24, 2021)
* Paani Program – Final Project Report (April 2016-August 2021)
* IWMI Digo Jal Bikas (Sustainable Water Development):
Final Report/Main Report:  Sustainable, Just and Productive Water Resources Development in Western Nepal Under Current and Future Conditions  (November 2019, 203p.)
Final Report/Annexes  (22 Annexes, ~1500p.)
* Tribhuvan University Freshwater Centre of Excellence Portal:

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