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No water at the end of Melamchi tunnel

Kathmandu, March 21, 2016: Less than four weeks remain for the date that was touted as the day when water from the Melamchi river would flow through the taps of Valley’s residences. But although the government has already conceded that it would miss the deadline, it has not been able to offer a new timeframe, putting completion of the much-hyped solution to Kathmandu’s water woes in limbo.

On Sunday, local workers of the Italian contractor firm Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna (CMC), which took over the Melamchi Water Supply Projects in July 2013, went on a strike protesting the decision of the company to fire one of them. Company officials said that managing workers was their internal matter.

Earlier in September, the CMC had halted all tunnel works citing the lack of materials due to strikes in several parts of the country. But, according to the contract, it cannot stop the project under any circumstances and has to keep buffer stock enough for a month.

Meanwhile, project chief and Executive Director of the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board Ghanashyam Bhattarai said that they are currently reviewing the CMC’s capability to work on the project.

“The company cannot be removed from the project as we are under contract but due to its regular inefficiencies we have not even been able to identify when it will finish the project,” Bhattarai said. Informed sources say that as the project is being funded by the Asian Development Bank, Nepal cannot unilaterally deal with the contractor.

The CMC had replaced the previous contractor China Railway 15 Bureau Group after the government terminated its contract for failing to carry out work as scheduled. Out of the total 26.5 km tunnel required for channelling the water from the Melamchi river in Sindhupalchok to a treatment plant in Sundarijal, Kathmandu, China Railway dug only 6.5km and the CMC was awarded a Rs7.72 billion contract to dig the remaining 20 kilometres. The government had claimed that the first phase of the Melamchi project would be completed by April 13, 2016 when it would start pumping 85 million litre water per day (mld) to the water-starved Kathmandu Valley.

In July last year, when releasing the budget for the current fiscal year, the government had promised that water from the project would be supplied to all households in Kathmandu within two years. Melamchi Water Supply Project is one of the biggest recipients of the national budget this fiscal with an allocation of Rs4.95 billion. Bhattarai informed that the CMC has finished digging 15 km of the tunnel so far. But against the contractual agreement to dig 40 metres of the tunnel each day, it has only been able to dig 30 to 32 metres per day. The project can issue a ‘notice to correct’, a last resort when the contractor defaults on the contract, which leads to its nullification if the contractor does not comply even after. The contractor seems to be purposefully provoking the Nepali side to issue the notice so that it can cancel the contract. Bhattarai had earlier said that the CMC is riding on this vulnerability.

But that would mean officials reach a point of no return if the notice is issued as the process will have to be started from scratch to find a new contractor, inviting another setback. If the current contract is terminated, the project will be suspended indefinitely as finding yet another contractor involves new deal with donors, international bidding process, signing new agreements and tackling all the procedural and bureaucratic hurdles that come along. As the company is already certain to miss the deadline, it will be eligible for variation cost, the amount the contractor is entitled to receive if the project goes beyond the set completion date.

Local agents of the CMC were unavailable for comment while the company headquarters did not reply to the Post’s queries. However, Hemanta Joshi, security in-charge for the project in Sindhupalchok, said that tunnel digging in the area has been slow due to difficulties in breaking the rock and due to the earthquakes and fuel shortages of last year. But he expressed confidence that at the current pace they will be able to complete the tunnel in eight to nine months. Though the project was envisioned in the late 1990s, the first agreement for its construction was signed in 2003 with funding from several donors and developmental partners. The project was originally supposed to be completed by 2007. The tunnel can channel 170mld water but the water treatment plant being constructed can only process 85mld and another will be required to treat all the water.

Valley residents had pinned their hope on Melamchi to meet their water needs. The average daily demand for water in the Valley is about 400mld. But the Valley’s water supply authority, Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited, supplies only around 140mld in the rainy season and 80mld water in winter. Besides, 36 percent of the water is lost due to leakage which means Valley residents get only about 86mld water in the rainy season and about 51mld in the dry season.

At snail’s pace
  • Government cannot say when people in the Valley will get water from the Melamchi river
  • Italian contractor fails to dig the daily designated length of tunnel
  • CMC said to have dug 15km of the remaining 20km tunnel