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Nepal – A long and winding road

This is Part 4 of a four-part blog series. AWP Program Lead Rohan Kent writes about his recent scoping mission with ANU on sites for Pumped Storage Hydropower in the Himalayan region. Read Part 1  | Part 2  | and Part 3.

I’m not sure that anything can quite prepare you for the close up sight of the Himalayas. Resplendent in white, they climb high into the sky, making you feel as small as you really are. These towering peaks are the source of the water for some of the world’s mightiest river systems. The Ganges-Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow River all have their origins in these mountains and provide the drinking and irrigation water for billions of people across this region.

After being in Bhutan, Kathmandu hits you like a wet sock to the face. OK , so maybe that’s a tad unfair…but it’s definitely a culture shock that you have to embrace though and embrace quickly. Gone is the clean, fresh air and slow-moving traffic of Thimphu, replaced with smog, car horns and the  seething wave of humanity that is the Kathmandu Valley. We were ably advised by our hosts for this leg of the trip to expect chaos and the Valley didn’t disappoint. Kathmandu itself is home to 1.5 million, and some say the wider Valley could host up to 6 million.

Thankfully though, the mountains quickly summoned us, and we once again found ourselves traversing  narrow, bumpy roads this time heading due south. We are travelling into the Makwanpur District and our base for the next few days, on the edge of the Kulekhani Dam. This dam supports three hydropower plants generating approximately 100MW. But a few weeks out from the start of the monsoon it was forlorn sight, well below the high-water line. With an average to below average rainfall expected, this forthcoming monsoon was predicted by some to be 40 percent less than last year, and water scarcity is becoming a very real concern in a country where the dry months consume two thirds of the calendar.

Community meeting with Ward representatives.

Our community meetings with the local Ward representatives reveal a mixture of stories and experiences. Dependent on fish, livestock and agriculture, some have benefited from the compensation packages provided when the dam was first built. But some who have been relocated due to the dam construction, claim to have never received the free electricity or other forms of compensation they were promised. Many also reflect on the lack of ‘check dams’ that could have been constructed as part of the project, to support the fight against soil erosion and act as secondary storage facilities during the monsoon.

There is also an underlying fear here of downstream flooding of villages, should this dam that was commissioned in the late 1970’s, break. With the water scarcity challenges abound, any options to preserve this precious resource – including our option of a reusable water source for energy through the Pumped Storage Hydropower technique – is a welcome topic of conversation.

While there is minimal opposition to the progress that the dam provides through the hydropower plant, it’s the need for better governance that once again is a central focus of conversation including a more predictable and participatory approach to community consultations needed by developers.

We have spent a lot of time on this trip navigating the twists and turns of the narrow mountain roads that characterise the Himalayas. We have become accustomed to the honking horns as the universal language as we approach blind corners or look to overtake those ahead with our more modern fleet. All the while, daring each other not to look over the edge to the valleys far below and to remain focused on the positive opportunities that hopefully lie around the next corner. These roads we have been on have been bumpy. They have been crowded with many users, from all walks of life. And, we have been slowed down many a time due to the constant repairs required to ensure everyone can access and enjoy the fruits of progress and development.

Unfortunately, we have noted often, the lack of roadside barriers to help prevent some from inevitably falling over the edge.

Along these roads we have seen or heard about how nature has fought back against the intrusions into its heartland through tunnels, dams and other forms of infrastructure, by reminding us of its power  through landslides, floods and avalanches.

As we start to wind down the trip, it occurs to me that perhaps the development of more forms of renewable energy options is more like these mountain roads I have been on these last few weeks,  than I had perhaps realised. There are many users and stakeholders to consider, the sector remains in a constant state of upgrade to existing infrastructure and there is always a focus on what’s ahead through the integration of more modern solar and wind power options, so much so that sometimes we forget to glance sideways and recentre ourselves to lives and livelihoods as well as environmental management.

Meeting with representatives of ICIMOD, Nepal.

There are also those who are still falling off to the side through the flimsy or non-existent barriers. On this trip we have heard stories of under-delivery on promised health and education projects by energy companies in exchange for the land access and compensation packages only being paid out when companies reach high profit margins as opposed to compensation through standard revenue.

There are fears of forced relocation should new projects go ahead and of the aggravation of disaster risk caused by the constant plundering and damage to the natural resources.

The need for good governance is a constant theme that has run through this trip for me. While communities and other stakeholders welcome the opportunity that PSH can provide from an ecological, economic, and social perspective, there must still be adequate scaffolding deployed to ensure that – as explained by one community member – ‘everyone can enjoy the positives and everyone avoids the negatives’.

I didn’t ever think we’d find the answer right away. Much more needs to be done. Detailed feasibility studies and market assessments to name a few. But we have been fortunate enough to catch a brief glimpse into the complexities surrounding the evolution of hydropower into Pumped Storage Hydropower, and for that, it’s been worth a few bumps along the way.


Featured image: Mountains in Kathmandu Valley. All photos by Rohan Kent
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