Another Ray of Hope, Another Day of Darkness: The Challenge of Electrifying Nepal’s Himalayas

On paper, the river-rich Karnali province is perfect for hydropower. In reality, the disaster-prone and far-flung region struggles to turn on the lights.

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Another Ray of Hope, Another Day of Darkness: The Challenge of Electrifying Nepal’s Himalayas

Chandani Kathayat, GPJ Nepal

The office that coordinates work on the Nalgad hydroelectric power project is situated atop a hillside (white building) in the Nalgad municipality of Jajarkot district in Karnali province.

SURKHET, NEPAL — As a heavily pregnant Kalpana Nepali and her husband approached the nearest health center, she thought she would soon be in safe hands. But as they entered, they were greeted by a darkness interrupted only by a few beams of light strewn around by battery-operated flashlights held by medical staff. Realizing that Nepali’s labor had already begun, the nurses started examining her by cellphone light.

Auxiliary nurse midwife Gita Bista, who works at the center, says all patients who come at night are treated under flashlight. “We struggle to do even the most basic things” at night, she says.

In the middle of this darkness that defines the everyday lives of Nepali and many residents of Nepal’s Karnali province, a ray of hope emerges every few years: electricity. This time, the hope came in 2020 in the form of the government’s much-celebrated Karnali Ujjyalo program, a hydropower project which promised that 90% of the province’s households would have access to electricity by 2023.

That three-year deadline has passed, and the government that launched the project is long gone from power. Yet, 40 of 79 municipalities in Karnali are still without electricity, says Prem Bahadur Oli, engineer and information officer at the province’s Ministry of Water Resources and Energy Development. More specifically, ministry data shows 50% households in the province are without electricity.

The stipulated period of the program is over, but the current government is still allocating a small amount of budget to it and now, allowing foreign investment to pitch in. For now, Rajkumar Sharma, chief minister of the province, says that the period of this project has been extended by two years.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

But Narayan Prasad Adhikari, director of Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, which leads renewable energy promotion in Nepal under the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation, says it is not possible to provide electricity to the homes of 90% of citizens in such a short time.

Now, this could be the story of an isolated failure of a single government hydropower project — except Karnali province has a history of such failures. Political analyst Pitambar Dhakal says Karnali has had many large hydropower projects that haven’t been successful, and many more that have been put on hold. This one, too, hasn’t seen the light of day. As a consequence, people are deprived of what Adhikari calls “a basic need” and continue living in darkness.

Of Nepal’s seven provinces, Karnali, which borders China to the north, is the country’s largest by area. On paper, provincial leaders describe the province as having immense potential owing to its elevation and abundant water resources. Yet Karnali continues to be underdeveloped and is the poorest province in the country.

Even when the project was launched, it was clear that Karnali Ujjyalo was not as much about building new infrastructure as it was about reviving projects that had stalled or were damaged due to natural disasters such as landslides. This included pico hydropower projects (generating up to 10 kilowatts), micro hydropower projects (up to 100 kilowatts) and small hydropower projects (up to 1,000 kilowatts), along with solar mini-grid projects and solar home power systems.

The reason for choosing to revive dead projects, says Keshav Prasad Upadhyay, a former employee in the province’s Chief Minister and Council of Ministers Office, was because large hydropower projects — such as the high-profile Upper Karnali and Nalgad hydropower projects — have been on hold for years.

The province’s remote geography is an oft-cited reason for delays. It is difficult to connect electric poles and wires in settlements spread out in the Himalayan districts.

Although electricity poles and wires have reached some places in Karnali in recent years, the quality of electricity is poor, Adhikari says. The power supply to Karnali is realized through extremely long transmission lines — extending over 150 kilometers (93 miles), while the standard is up to 60 kilometers (37 miles) — which leads to a loss of voltage over long distances. With few roads in the province, it also costs a lot to deliver materials for the construction of electrical projects, Adhikari says.

Build, damage, repair

Karnali province extends into the Greater Himalayas — the highest section of the Himalayan mountain ranges.

The difficult topography and a landscape riddled with deep canyons and ridges ensures that the impact of natural disasters in the province is accentuated, making any infrastructure work difficult, if not impossible.

The government started the Karnali Ujjyalo program with two small hydropower projects in the Kalikot and Rukum West districts. Although the work was completed, both projects are already under repair. Since the 2022 flood destroyed Kalikot’s project, no work has been done, says Bishnu Bahadur Rokaya, president of Palanta rural municipality. In Rukum West, the project has to be repaired every year, says Laxman Wali, president of Simrutu Khola Cooperative Society, which manages the budget for the maintenance and upgrade of the project.

Too much money vs. no money

As the Karnali Ujjyalo program began, the chief minister’s office looked after the budget while Alternative Energy Promotion Centre provided technical assistance. In total, the provincial government allocated 1.1 billion Nepali rupees (8.2 million United States dollars) over three years, of which approximately 786 million rupees (5.9 million dollars) are unspent, says Yuvraj Neupane, who leads planning, monitoring and economic infrastructure for the chief minister’s office.

At the same time, one of the program’s big hiccups has been lack of funds. “At least 220 million Nepali rupees are needed for the production of one megawatt of electricity, but the government allocates very little budget,” says Oli, the provincial engineer. “Karnali has the capacity to generate more than 20,000 megawatts of electricity, but only 16.58 megawatts are being generated.”

Binod Regmi, who worked on the project as an implementation committee member, says the initial deadline couldn’t be met due to coronavirus lockdowns, lack of proper budget allocations and human resource management.

‘Political love’ vs. need

For the implementation of this program, the chief minister’s office had asked local governments to propose plans for the development of small hydropower plants. But without looking at the “needs on the ground,” the local governments presented plans haphazardly, says Yubraj Neupane, who leads the planning, monitoring and economic infrastructure department, housed within the chief minister’s office.

A provincial employee who worked in the program a few years ago, and asked not to be named for fear of losing his job, alleges that even when the projects were requested, only those that had some “political love” backing them were implemented.

Provincial spokesman Krishna Bahadur GC denies the accusation, saying the Karnali government selected plans “without any political influence.”

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Chandani Kathayat, GPJ Nepal

Unused electricity poles in Nalgad municipality of Jajarkot district and an entrance to a 355-meter tunnel dug are reminders of the unfinished Nalgad hydroelectric power project.

Ambitions vs. reality

According to the Karnali State Planning Commission, about 60% of the 500-kilometer-long (311 miles) Karnali River falls in the province. An estimated 1,459 glaciers occupy an area of 1,023 square kilometers (395 square miles) in the Karnali region.

The river’s tributaries alone could produce around 7,000 megawatts of electricity, without sacrificing the main river, says Megh Ale, who is active in a Karnali River conservation campaign and is president of the awareness group Nepal River Conservation Trust. “Hydro dams are not the only measure for development. It is necessary to develop while paying attention to future risks,” Ale says.

Sharma, the provincial chief minister, is hopeful that external investment will help solve some of the problems. He says a new bill that would provide a 50-year window for foreign investors to invest in hydropower projects in Karnali is currently under discussion in the provincial assembly.

But some residents are not hopeful.

Bhim Bahadur Pariyar, from Adanchuli rural municipality in the Humla district, says that no matter which government comes to power, none has been able to free his village from darkness. Talking and making big claims, Pariyar says, does not build projects.

Chandani Kathayat is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Nepal.


Sandesh Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.

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