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Nepal: a nation left in the dark

5 August 2009 One Comment

The Himalaya is one of the fastest changing regions in the world due to global warming. Emma Kemp discovers the effects of political instability, climate change and a lack of resources during the dry season in water-rich Nepal.

<i>Life by candlelight: Prashant Ale, 15, entertains himself at home during a night of darkness. Picture: Shova Ale.</i>

Life by candlelight: Prashant Ale, 15, entertains himself at home during a night of darkness. Picture: Shova Ale.

It’s 9pm. The streets of Kathmandu’s central tourist district, Thamel, so vibrant during the day, are black and still as the windless night.

Shops that spill out onto the street are shut away behind corrugated iron doors, while the hawkers, touts and bicycle rickshaws that usually compete for space at this time are mysteriously absent.

Maybe it is as a local tells me earlier that day, that the Maoist-run Government is cracking down to ensure young people stay in at night.

But the silence agitates. A single shaft of light creeps down from a second storey window of the upmarket hotel on the corner. Other than that there is nothing but the darkness that envelops this dead city.

And it’s dry. Moistureless air rasps and clings inside my already cracked nose. There is no hint of any rain brewing here. That would be a momentous event in Kathmandu, a precipitation free city for six months straight now.

In the next suburb the Ale family is playing Scrabble. There is no blur of a television or hum of a radio as the couple and their four children chat quietly inside their house. The only signs of life are their moving shadows against the wall, cast there by the dim candlelight.

The fridge is off, as are the lights and running hot water. This is how it is for 16 hours a day in Winter. Dark, dry and obscenely difficult.

The family is just one of nearly 1.5 million people who have been suffering through crippling electricity cuts in Kathmandu. This is the human face of the power problems in neglected Nepal.

In January the state-run Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) imposed a 16-hour power outage daily in Kathmandu in a bid to cope with the power crisis that has plagued the country since 2006.

It was the third time in less than a month that the Government had increased the blackout hours, this time bumped up from 12 hours a day because the NEA could only meet half of the national demand for electricity. Nepal’s power-producing rivers are all but dry following two rainless winters, and Kathmandu, a city of about 1.5 million people is suffering the most.

Most mountain livelihoods are very poor, relying almost entirely on climate-sensitive natural resources. Picture: Rhys Atkinson.

Most mountain livelihoods are very poor, relying almost entirely on climate-sensitive natural resources. Picture: Rhys Atkinson.

Not a drop of rain was recorded at Kathmandu Airport this Winter, according to the 2009 Climate Section report from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “Four out of 35 stations broke all the previous lowest rainfall records. Normally, the winter rainfall varies from about 40 mm in the south-east to above 140 mm in the western parts of the country. This year the entire country received little or no rainfall during the winter,” the report said.

Along with the increased power outages – “load shedding” in officialese – the Government also declared a national power crisis and announced a plan to install a series of generators of up to 200 megawatts. They run on diesel, a fossil fuel that emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Nepal is one of the most water-rich countries in the world, ranked in some surveys as second only to Brazil. But it is also one of the poorest, a devastating irony for a country so amenable to hydropower. According to the United Nations Development Program, poverty in Nepal has increased over the past three decades, especially in rural areas. With an average income of less than one Australian dollar a day, Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia.

It has also been one of the most unstable. The change to a constitutional monarchy in 1990 prompted a new era of political unrest and intensified the bloody Maoist insurgency. It took more than 10 years to reach a peace agreement, with democratic elections finally being held in 2008. Nepal became a republic with a Maoist-led coalition government which has inherited a raft of problems, including the failing electricity system.

In May, however, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned after eight months in office in protest at a decision by the President to veto his attempt to dismiss the head of the army. After weeks of turmoil, Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) was elected by parliament as the new PM, again throwing the nation’s peace process into uncertainty.

Nepal: a country at risk

The Himalaya is one of the fastest changing regions in the world due to global warming. According to scientists, the Himalayas are warming at an alarmingly quicker speed than the global average, becoming 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer in the last 100 years, a far higher level of warming than the 0.5-1.1 degrees on average.

Nepal has been placed in the sixth position in view of possible harm due to climate change and ranked 31st out of 198 countries based on possible water-induced disaster.

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In the city of Kathmandu, the electricity crisis has served to heighten the difficult living and working conditions that ordinary people face. But it also demonstrates the intractable environmental problems that Nepal is confronted with. As awareness of the possible impacts of climate change on Nepal’s unique environment is just beginning to grow, the current short- to medium-term solutions to the country’s electricity problems have environmental ramifications.

Meanwhile, climate change has been leaving its mark. And while not everyone is in agreement, nearly everyone I spoke to in Nepal was unanimous that things are definitely different. I experience this sitting in a lodge in Monju on the lower part of the Everest trail, when a group of overseas doctors on their way to Pheriche’s Himalayan Rescue Association come into the common room. “Where’s all the snow?” is their repeated catchcry.

Despite its vulnerability the 'roof of the world' appears unspoiled. Picture: Emma Kemp

Despite its vulnerability the 'roof of the world' appears unspoiled. Picture: Emma Kemp

Our trek guide, Ang Tshering Lama, agrees. He has walked in the Everest region every season for 25 years, and says he has never seen such unusual weather. “I tell you, there would usually be snow everywhere on the mountains.” Also an avid ice climber, Lama says he is disappointed with the swift decline in ice on the mountains in recent years.

Nepali Buddhists will tell you this is Everest’s doing. Known locally as “Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky”, the mountain is said to punish unworthy acts with erratic weather and natural disasters.

But scientists are not so sure. Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, Climate Change Specialist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the research body for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says there is no concrete evidence that the prolonged dryness in Nepal in the last year is a result of climate change. “Whether it is due to climate change, whether this is persisting phenomena or if it’s within the relativity is quite hard to say.” But he concedes climate change can certainly add to the severity of Nepal’s electricity infrastructure problems.

Nevertheless, the life and economy of Kathmandu continue to suffer. Ganesh Shah, former minister for the Environment, Science and Technology in Nepal* is concerned about the huge cumulative effect of the crisis on the economic growth of the country. “Businesses dependent on electrical power – which is most – have a hard time during the power cuts and productivity is way down in many companies due to the outages. Even some NGO offices come to a standstill,” says Mr Shah.

“At night, whole sections of the city plunge into semi-darkness and shopkeepers light up their shops with candles, gas and kerosene lamps, giving the city something of a medieval aspect.”

While this medieval image may have a certain charm, the reality is harsh. A tiny internet cafe – a small dank room with three computer monitors – near my hotel charges me 15 Nepal rupees (25c Australian) per hour. When I return three weeks later the doorway is boarded up. The owner of the convenience store next door informs me it has shut down. The load shedding had increased to 20 hours per day since I was there. “Four hours of operating time a day does not make enough profit for us,” he tells me.

Local Nepali woman Uttra, 32, says all the businesses in Kathmandu have been suffering at the hands of the crisis.

“My brother is a dentist, and he can only have the electricity a few days (a week) in the daytime. So he is paying for his staff – he has three assistants, and a receptionist – and he has to pay the rent and now it’s very difficult because he cannot run his clinic.”

The electric load shedding schedule changes daily, rotating on a roster that depends on which area of the city one lives in. The rich buy diesel-run generators and the poor re-schedule their lives. Kathmandu residents must check both their calendar and their clock before undertaking simple daily tasks such as showering, watching television, using computers, eating, recharging batteries and refrigerating food.

Getting on with it: long-suffering residents put on a stoic face and continue with daily life despite the large disruptions. Picture: Emma Kemp.

Getting on with it: long-suffering residents put on a stoic face and continue with daily life despite the large disruptions. Picture: Emma Kemp.

Uttra lives in Kathmandu with her husband and four-year-old daughter. Like everyone else, her family has electricity for only eight hours per day in four hour blocks.

“Sometimes I will have electricity for four hours in the early morning from 4-8am, and sometimes it’s at night from 12-4am which is useless because everybody is sleeping.”

“I have a small daughter and it’s very difficult and very dangerous if you have a child at home and then you have to survive with the candles. We have six days of darkness in the evening, only on Thursdays in my house I have electricity from 4-8 in the evening.”

Many of the locals lay the blame for this crisis squarely at the feet of the Government. Years of political turmoil, mismanagement and bureaucratic corruption have prevented a succession of governments from commissioning new hydropower projects.

“The main problem is the lack of planning, and the point is that there are so many projects in the papers up to 10,000MW,” says Brijesh Mainali, researcher at Energy and Climate Studies Division in Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.

“And you might read that the government has changed now, but there is no commitment or planning for these actions. And the electricity projects have been declared but not a single action has been taken to move them forward. The things that are in the papers are not in the recommendations.”

With 6000 rivers, the country’s hydropower potential has been assessed at 83,000 MW. But the fate of many of the proposed and half finished projects such as West Seti (720 MW) and Budhi Gandaki (660 MW) is unknown. In total, these in-development projects would provide a comfortable 2789 MW, a healthy increase from 554MW, Nepal’s current total electricity capacity.

Ngamindra Dahal, hydro-meteorologist and coordinator of the energy and climate change unit at the National Trust for Nature Conservation, concedes the problem is complex. “There are two major reasons for this power crisis: climate change is one, and a lack of planning and mismanagement is another. So we are facing both natural and man made problems.”

Depleted: the river inside Kathmandu Pashupati Hindu Temple is used for religious ceremonies, washing, and bathing but has run almost dry after a rainless winter. Photo: Emma Kemp.

Depleted: the river inside Kathmandu Pashupati Hindu Temple is used for religious ceremonies, washing and bathing but has run almost dry after a rainless winter. Picture: Emma Kemp.

Mr Mainali reiterates the situation is an accumulation of problems, short-sightedness, political intervention in the Nepal Electricity Authority and a long history of what he calls “water politics”.

“As a result, we have always lacked in terms of long-term plan to cope with the increasing demand of electricity. But we should realise this nightmare is not only because of the politicians. The experts and planners who were advisors and guiding the politicians should also take moral responsibility.”

“Every politician has different proposals, and one proposal is implemented for six months, and then another proposal comes and they change everything. So everything is based on these numerous proposals and not in implementation.”

Add to this the elusive “hydro-mafia”. The term, which originated in the east Indian state of Bihar, has more recently been applied to Nepal to describe how the Government and project contractors allegedly take a generous commission from half-finished hydro projects so have no interest in fully completing them.

Dipak Gyawali, former minister of water resources and head of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, believes that this corrupt system has been imported into the “New Nepal”.

“Now the Bihari system is in a better position than ours,” Mr Dahal agrees. “Even in the worst part of India the mismanagement is not as bad as in Nepal.”

But Shah says since the new Federal Government took power, people’s rule has been the major theme and the rights of people would not be undermined in any way.

Regardless of the truth in this, it is little consolation to most of the people of Kathmandu who feel worn down by the constant struggle without power.

For life to go on with some semblance of normality, there is little choice but to seek alternative short-term power solutions. Ironically, at a time when converting to clean energy has become the norm around the globe, Nepal is essentially taking a step backwards, switching from renewable energy to dirty energy.

“People are demanding their right to use a round the clock power supply system. So I don’t know where we will head in the future in terms of management,” says Dahal. “Households in Kathmandu have installed generators, these are run on diesel.”

Obtaining clean drinking water is also becoming increasingly complex with the onset of the dry season each year. Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), the sole supplier of drinking water to the Valley area, is distributing 10 million litres of water less than the daily volume prior to the introduction of load-shedding, due to lack of electricity to pump ground water.

The daily demand of drinking water inside the Valley is 230 million litres, whereas KUKL is now supplying only 90 to 110 million litres of water each day.

On top of this, the ageing water supply system is suffering 50 per cent leakage, with many of the pipelines up to 70 years old and some even 100 years old, according to Richard Austin, General Manager of KUKL. He said the system cannot be improved without completely renovating it.

According to United Nations sources, roughly one-third of the nation’s city inhabitants and two-thirds of all rural dwellers do not have pure water, and the use of contaminated drinking water creates a health hazard. Untreated sewerage is a major pollutant factor: the nation’s cities produce an average of 0.7 tons of solid waste per year, and open sewers sit right next to main roads and walkways.

These factors, combined with economic imperatives, make it difficult to pass judgment on this dirty business of diesel, which only intensifies Nepal’s environmental problems and also doubles up as a health risk. Shah says he believes there is always an alternative for everything. “Only the thing is what you prefer,” he says. “There is a trade-off between profit and clean environment.”

Tourist hub the streets of Thamel are usually bustling with people well into the evening but many shops and restaurants have not been able to run. File photo.

Tourist hub: the streets of Thamel are usually bustling with people well into the evening but many shops and restaurants have not been able to run. File photo.

Tourists are one group who tend to accept this compromise without much question. Those who trek up into the mountains accept the lack of power and warm their fingers by the heat of burning yak dung. But in Kathmandu, most barely question the fact that their hotels run on diesel to provide 24 hours of power, hot running water and internet access at any time of day. As an integral part of Nepal’s economy, tourism also places great demands on the already stressed electricity system.

The long term solutions to Nepal’s climate change and electricity shortages seem obvious but will require enormous investments, cooperation and planning. But unfortunately Nepal lacks these privileges.

As the politicians dither, life goes on. The Tilganga Eye Centre in Kathmandu, run by the Fred Hollows Foundation, has to rely on donations to pay the Rs 100,000 a month it costs to keep its generators going. The hospital which removes more than 7,000 cataracts per year, cannot afford to say no to diesel.

Manager of the centre Bhagirath Baniya said he is frustrated at the lack of planning by what he calls an “ill-educated” government. He said it can be difficult to raise enough funds to keep the hospital running during a time of such stress, with most donations coming from Australian supporters of the foundation.

What makes the future gloomy for Nepal is the current policy strategy framework. It will take more than the historical Band-aid solutions and ad hoc actions to make a discernible and meaningful impact to the interwoven challenges of climate change, water and electricity.

Nepal has immense potential to become a global example of clean energy use. Yet the ultimate fragility of such an impoverished and politically unstable nation may instead render it the most vulnerable to the inevitable time bomb that is climate change.

* Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned during the writing of this article. As part of cabinet for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), Ganesh Shah was also forced out of his position as Minister for the environment. Thakur Prasad Sharma, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (United), was sworn in as the new Minister on July 29.

Post script
Since writing this article, the monsoon rains in Nepal have arrived. There has been no load-shedding for more than one-and-half hours per day for the last couple of weeks although it is supposed to be four hours according to the program of Nepal Electricity Authority (NRA). Load-shedding has been reduced as water has been rapidly replenished by monsoon rains, said the Ministry of Water Resources. In the dryness of next winter, load shedding is expected to resume in the Kathmandu Valley once again. In place of the grueling power cuts are now heavy monsoon floods and landslides which have so far killed over 40 people and left more missing.

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