Political Instability Blocks Nepal’s Hydropower Potential as Daily Power Outages Continue


Article Highlights

Businesses continue to struggle with constant load-shedding.  

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – On a recent evening in Kathmandu, dinner was not served at Tara Gurung’s house.

Gurung could not prepare dinner for her children because she did not have any water to cook the food.

An unscheduled power outage restricted the Gurungs from using the electric motor that transfers water from their underground tank to the one on top of their roof, which is connected to the water pipes in the house.

When Gurung woke up at 6 a.m. that day, there was no power. When she and her husband left for the office at 9 a.m., there was still no power.

By the time they returned from work, it was 6 p.m. and the area’s scheduled power cut, commonly known as load-shedding, had already begun.

“This is the fourth time this year that we haven’t cooked dinner due to scarcity of water because of no electricity,” Gurung says.

And the Gurung’s aren’t alone.

Almost every household in Nepal deals with scheduled power cuts daily. Nepali citizens say the lack of power reduces their access to basic human rights. Business owners report drops in production and profits, with the health sector particularly concerned about patient care. Nepal’s dependence on hydropower means that the severity of load-shedding fluctuates between the dry and wet seasons, according to Nepal Electricity Authority, the state-run power provider. The untapped potential to generate hydropower is vast, but political instability has hampered long-term projects to build more plants. The government is seeking foreign and private investors to move forward with these plans.

Load-shedding began briefly in Nepal in 1999, says Kiran Kumar Shrestha, deputy manager of Nepal Electricity Authority. But in recent years, it has returned and has become a permanent facet of life.

“The country didn’t face shortage until 2005,” he says. “However, the crisis became acute in 2006 and is continuing to date.”

The crisis here continues as demand for electricity is rising by 10 percent each year, according to Vidyut, Nepal Electricity Authority’s publication.

When it comes to water, Nepal is the second-richest in this resource in the world, according to a 2011 article by Sunil Kumar Dhungel, director of Nepal Electricity Authority, in the company’s publication, Vidyut. But the country currently accesses less than 1 percent of its hydropower potential.

Sushma Sharma says she is frustrated because she does not have power at her house for the majority of the day. She lives in the Bishalnagar area of Kathmandu.

“In this country, so-called rich in water resources, for how long do its citizens have to live in darkness?” she asks.

Sabita Shrestha, an 18-year-old student from the Lalitpur district of the Kathmandu Valley, says power cuts affect her studies.

“There’s no time to study during the day,” she says. “And at night, there is no power to study. So how do I study? And I really can’t study under candlelight.”

Shrestha’s neighborhood faces power cuts three times per week during evenings and nights.

“We’re accustomed to living in the dark,” she says. “But it’s sad when it’s affecting my studies.”

And it is not only students and families that suffer from power cuts. They affect the country’s businesses, too.

Gyanendra Dahal, managing director of Footland Shoe Industries in the Budhanilkantha area of Kathmandu, says he had to make an extra investment in the business during the first year of operation because of load-shedding. The burden of increased costs ultimately affects customers.

“Due to the erratic power cuts, it’s difficult to manage the work schedule,” Dahal says. “So we have to use petrol-powered generators to operate the machines. This has thus increased the price of our shoes.”

Mahesh Aryal, a manager at Nepal Kangri Carpet Industries in the Sinamangal area of Kathmandu, says that load-shedding has hurt his business, too.

“Production has gone by down by 25 percent,” he says.

During the spring, there were 12-hour power cuts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day in the main industrial areas, home to businesses such as meat-processing plants, flour mills and soap factories, according to the March-April notice from Nepal Electricity Authority. The authority has reduced the cuts to eight hours a day with the start of summer. Early monsoons in the season have enabled an increase in hydropower.

Larger manufacturing industries outside of the main industrial area, like cement mills, face power cuts similar to those of residents – up to 10 hours a day.

The country’s health sector has reported risks to residents’ health as a result of the load-shedding.

“Surgeries that are done by using generators can be risky due to the power fluctuation,” says Bishnu Puri, a manager at Vinayak Hospital in the Gongabu area of Kathmandu. “It is not really feasible to operate machines for MRI, X-ray, CT scan using generators.”

Puri says this decreases patient care.

“Because of this, sometimes, we have to make patients wait unnecessarily for five to six hours,” the hospital manager says. “This is a pity.”

Ganesh Gurung from Pokhara Pharmacy, which is located in the same area as the hospital, says load-shedding affects the medication stock because some medicine needs to be stored at certain temperatures. They become useless when the pharmacy, which doesn’t have an alternative source of electricity, loses power.

Narayan Poudel, managing director of Omega Pharmaceuticals in Kathmandu’s Lainchaur area, confirms Gurung’s concern.

“Almost all injections have to be maintained at certain temperatures,” he says. “But due to load-shedding, small pharmacies can’t maintain the temperatures.”

Poudel says that consumers suffer because some pharmacies sell the bad medication anyway.

“Still, these injections are being openly sold in the market,” Poudel says. “So they don’t work the way it should.”

Chiranjibi Sharma, head of Nepal Electricity Authority’s Load Dispatch Center, attributes the increase in load-shedding to the increase in demand for electricity amidst low production capacity.

Damodar Bhakta Shrestha, chief of the hydrology branch of Nepal Electricity Authority’s Project Development Department, says that the company produced only about 561 megawatts of electricity from December to March because of the lack of rainfall and low river levels. The average demand, however, is more than 1,060 MW per evening, the period of peak electricity usage, leading to load-shedding.

In 2010, load-shedding hours peaked to 18 hours. Estimates for this year were similar, Shrestha says. But the rainfall in February helped to maintain the water level at the Kulekhani hydroelectric power plants, keeping the load-shedding limited to 14 hours.

Hydroelectric power plants like Kulekhani are only capable of producing hydropower from running water in Nepal’s rivers. Therefore, when the water level decreases in the rivers during the winter, so does production, Shrestha says.


But during the summer, there are monsoons, which lead to excess water in the reservoirs. Load-shedding drops to about two hours per day during these months.


But Punya Prasad Ghimire, a senior officer at Nepal Electricity Authority, says that the country can’t rely on weather to end load-shedding.


“More rainfall in winter is not the solution to load-shedding,” he says.


Rather, he says that the country should be able to generate enough power to solve the problem.


The year 2011 marked the 100th year since electricity was produced in Nepal. But in these 100 years, only 0.8 percent – 706 MW – of the production potential has been achieved, says Tula Ram Giri, senior officer in the general manager’s office of Nepal Electricity Authority’s Generation Construction Department.

Dhungel acknowledged in the company magazine the untapped potential that Nepal has to generate more hydropower.


“In Nepal, every year, 224 billion cubic meters of water per second flows in 6,000 rivers across Nepal,” Dhungel wrote.


This could produce 83,000 MW of electricity every second, according to Dhungel.


Nepal’s national energy policy, which was released in 2009, estimated that the daily demand will increase to 1,579 MW by 2015 and 2,773 MW by 2020.


Gairikant Adhikari, another official at Nepal Electricity Authority, says that the decade-long conflict between the government and Maoists, which ended in 2006, obstructed the construction of new hydroelectric power plants. Most of the plants, he says, were far from the cities and could not be operated because of security concerns.


Although the conflict has ended, political stability is still far off. This limits the government in its ability to make long-term plans.


Projects that were to be executed before the conflict started, like Arun III, a 402-MW hydroelectric project in 1992, could not be completed because there was no consensus between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and Nepali Congress, two of the country’s largest political parties, Shrestha says. Building on the power generated from Arun I and II, the plan would have enabled the country to produce cheap energy at 1.50 rupees (less than 2 cents) per unit.


“If this project had materialized, Nepalis wouldn’t have had to face load-shedding for more than two hours,” he says.


Arjun Kumar Karki, spokesman for Nepal’s Ministry of Energy, says the government is looking for investors in order to pursue projects.


“To solve the problem, the current government is attracting foreign and private investors to invest in this sector,” he says. “We are also giving loans to small projects involved in producing energy, buying power from private sector in a way that profits them. And until we can produce enough energy in Nepal, we are importing energy from India. Also, we have started maintenance and repairs of old transmission lines.”


But he says a permanent solution requires Nepal to become energy-independent.


“In course of the future, the solution for load-shedding is to produce all the energy we need in Nepal itself,” he says. “Instead of relying on the water levels in the rivers and producing energy, we should have plants that will produce power throughout the year.”


In order to start this, the current government has made a preliminary agreement for a hydroelectric project with China Three Gorges Corp. to build a dam on Nepal’s Seti River. The goal is for the plant to produce on its own 750 MW – more power than all the plants have been producing in Nepal for the past 100 years.