Power to the People?

BY DEEPAK ADHIKARI
Feb 16, 2011

As winter power shortages shroud Nepal in familiar darkness, the country’s hydro debate grows more thunderous.

The treaty stipulated that the detailed project report (DPR) would be completed in six months, but more than 10 years after signing it, India and Nepal have yet to make significant progress. What could be the reason behind the initial euphoria and the now dormant status of the treaty? Some hydro-watchers say that India is not interested in exploiting and developing Nepal’s hydro potential and is, rather, thirsty for water. The critics say that the Indian side is eager to build the 269-metre high dam at Barahkshetra on the Kosi River, a major contributor to the Ganges in India, as a solution to the annual floods in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, its two most populous states.

The 750-megawatt West Seti project has been through many ups and downs, culminating in the sudden withdrawal of its Chinese investor early last year. Initially conceived as a 77-megawatt run-of-the-river project, it was later changed into a 195-metre, concrete face rockfill dam capable of producing 750 megawatts of electricity. But, if it goes ahead, it is feared the dam will displace the people of four districts. The reservoir will cover 25 sq km and have a volume of around 1.5 billion cubic metres.

“No project can be successful without the inclusion of the local communities,” Bhandari argues. “We should make sure that the projects are for our benefit not for [the benefit] of some foreign investment company.”

He says that the very concept of exporting electricity to India is flawed because it is only a raw material, not a product to be exported.

Can Nepal itself develop the hydro projects that require huge investment? Bhandari and Gurung, who stand on opposite sides of the hydro debate, agree that there is money in Nepal but lack of security is hindering investment. Gurung argues that, since most of Nepal’s hydro plants would be run-of-the-river, and if care is taken to construct earthquake resistant facilities, even big dams are realistic. “The structure should be designed properly,” he says. “For rapid growth, big projects are what we need at the moment.”

According to US-based NGO International Rivers, 400,000 sq km of land has been submerged due to the construction of 40,000 big dams in the past 50 years. Critics of such dams say that there is no compensation for the social, economic and environmental cost of these projects.

How can these opposing development narratives for Nepal be reconciled? Perhaps there is a middle way after all. As Bhandari says, “Not all big dams are bad and not all small dams are good.” The solution may be promoting micro hydropower as well as investing in environmentally friendly and sustainable medium-sized and large-scale projects.

 

Deepak Adhikari is a Nepali journalist based in Kathmandu. To read more of his articles click here.