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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Himalayan Hydropower

Air Date: Week of

The mountains of Nepal funnel water to some of the most powerful rivers in southern Asia. Now, despite environmental and financial concerns, small-scale hydropower projects are supplying electricity to Nepalese villages, Buddhist temples and even Internet cafes. Reporter Cheryl Colopy has our story.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Building new dams to generate electric power doesn’t happen much these days in the U.S. Concern for migrating fish and the potential for damaging rivers seem to trump the need for electricity. But, in the kingdom of Nepal in the Himalyas, it’s a different story.

Waters from the highest mountains in the world feed some of south Asia's most powerful rivers – rivers that can be dammed and their energy harnessed. And while environmental concerns and the high cost of construction have shelved plans for several large dams in recent years in Nepal, small- scale hydropower projects are flourishing.

Locally managed dams in some Nepali villages are bringing electricity to remote areas and lighting up schools, Buddhist temples, even Internet cafes. But with global climate change, even these small-scale dams face big environmental risks. Cheryl Colopy has our story.

COLOPY: Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and visitors praise the nation’s culture and architecture as “rich.” Yet this is one of the poorest countries in the world. In terms of natural resources, it has one.


COLOPY: From the whisper of little streams to the roar of rock-laden rivers full of glacial melt, this is the music of Nepal.


COLOPY: Yet, with some of the highest peaks in the world and all this water available to generate hydropower, fewer than one in four Nepalis has access to electricity.


COLOPY: Even here in the capital, Kathmandu, power can be intermittent. Arun Shrestha is an engineer with Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. The electricity in his office has been going on and off all morning.


SHRESTHA: We say water is our wealth, and the dream of the nation is to, somehow, harness this wild running water, convert it to energy and do whatever you want to do, you know?

COLOPY: Shrestha laughs as if to say, “If only it were that easy.” In theory, there are up to a quarter of a million megawatts of potential hydropower in the Himalaya. That’s enough to supply two Indias. But earthquakes, sediments, lack of roads and many other challenges stand in the way of turning water into electricity. And most plans depend on neighboring India’s buying the megawatts at a high enough price to justify the effort.

Several years ago, a coalition of environmentalists and economists defeated a major World Bank project. Since then, no large dams have moved past the planning stage. Former Water Minister Dipak Gyawali was one of those opposed. He says big dams mean big debt.

GYAWALI: The issue is risk. Is it a large risk or a small risk? And who’s bearing it? And for the person or community bearing it, even a so-called small project might be a very large risk.

COLOPY: Gyawali does see a future for smaller, Nepali-financed projects like several recently completed ones that are now feeding the grid. He’s one of a group of well-traveled and highly educated water specialists in Nepal who are seeking technological progress that's closely tied to social benefit.

GYAWALI: And don’t give us this pie-in-the-sky kind of argument – “Oh, you’ll build this huge project and suddenly, you know, you can export all the electricity and get a lot of money and build your schools and hospitals and all that.” Now, if Nepal had six to ten billion dollars, would it build this 10,000 megawatt monster, or invest in 200 other things needed in development?

COLOPY: Over at the offices of Nepal Electricity Authority, Managing Director Janak Lal Karmacharya sees it differently. He’s championed some of the large hydro projects, and he still hopes they'll happen. After all, the melting snows are still there. Demand and financing could still come together, he says.

KARMACHARYA: The water is always available. It’s a question of when it should be developed. That means when the market is ready to take that form of energy. So, you know, everything is decided through the market, not philosophy.

COLOPY: The debate continues, and large dams may some day be built in Nepal. But, meanwhile, far from the capital, an array of medium, mini and micro-hydro is serving other cities, and even many of the remote villages in Nepal.


COLOPY: In the dining room at the Panorama View Lodge, in the popular tourist crossroads of Namche Bazaar, an international clientele enjoys bright lights, hot water and flush toilets thanks to hydropower.


The Ngozumpa Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the Khumbu. Melting ice from glaciers provide water for hydropower. (Photo: Cheryl Colopy)

COLOPY: At 11,500 feet, Namche is where trekkers must spend a couple of days to get used to the thinning air before proceeding higher. Adventuresome tourists discovered this region -- known as the Khumbu -- in the 1970s. Guesthouses sprang up. Soon, the wooded hillsides around Namche were denuded for building and fuel. Local Sherpa people and their western friends sought an alternative fuel, fearing there would be no forests left.

Sherap Jangbu Sherpa is the owner of the Panorama View. For the past ten years he’s used electricity from one of the highest hydropower plants in the world.

S.J. SHERPA: When we started the lodge, we used to bake the cakes in a pan and we maybe used almost 20 kilos or 30 kilos of wood just to bake a cake. And now, it hardly costs about maybe 13 or 14 rupees with the electric. It doesn’t cost anything, and it is much easier, so electricity made life very good


COLOPY: Sherap points out all the appliances electricity allows him to use to keep tourists happy.

S.J. SHERPA: Yeah, we couldn’t have refrigerator, microwave, the oven, the toaster, egg cooker, the boiler for washing dishes, and, also, we got another boiler up there for shower. Also, TV.

COLOPY: In Sherap’s office, there’s a computer with Internet access. Sherap writes to his son who’s studying in Colorado. This family is typical of the prosperous merchants of Namche.

What’s more, respiratory health has improved because there’s less wood smoke. Children now watch TV, but they can also do schoolwork at night. And the Sherpa, who are Buddhist, can afford to support local monasteries, where young monks learn to chant Buddhist prayers.


COLOPY: A dozen yaks lumber across a narrow bridge, swinging gently over a river canyon in the Khumbu.


COLOPY: Herders urge them on with whistles and shouts.


COLOPY: Travel in these rugged mountains is still what it has been for centuries. Porters and yaks carried salt down from Tibet, and grains up from the low valleys. Now, it’s just as likely to be beer, cokes, instant noodles, and candy on the backs of porters.


COLOPY: Several hours walk up from Namche, two 300 kilowatt turbines hum. These are the source of the bright lights and chocolate cakes in this part of the Khumbu. The turbines arrived here in the early nineties the fast way – by helicopter. Concrete and cables came the hard way – carried ten days from the nearest road.


COLOPY: The plant is known as the Thame hydropower project for the nearby village of the same name. Thame was once the home of Tenzing Norgay, who first reached the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary.


COLOPY: A little further uphill we find the source of the power plant’s water, diverted from a small river and channeled down via a brick conduit. The air is cold. The contours of the rocky hillsides blur in the morning mist.

This conduit carries water from the river down to a power plant. (Photo: Cheryl Colopy)

M. R. SHERPA: My name is Mingma Rita Sherpa. I am working in Khumbu Bijuli Company and I am technician.

COLOPY: Tell me where we are right now and what this is.

M. R. SHERPA: We are right now in intake, which is water depart to the storage tank.

COLOPY: Mingma Rita Sherpa is a lodge owner in Thame, and he also troubleshoots electric problems for his village. He points out a gate he can close when the river runs heavy with monsoon silt. The Himalaya are young mountains that shed massive loads of sediments. That’s one of the arguments against dams in the high mountains – their reservoirs can fill quickly with silt. Mingma Rita says during the monsoon they power the turbines with spring water.


COLOPY: In the Sherpa village of Thamo, villagers now have monthly electric bills, and they pay them at the offices of Khumbu Bijuli. Bijuli means electricity in Nepali. Every home here has lights.


COLOPY: Khumbu Bijuli has a unique fee structure. Small homes pay a low fixed amount each month, about a dollar. Homes with more appliances pay ten dollars. Khumbu Bijuli has wired each home so that during the peak hours when lodges are serving meals, power to homes can be cut, if necessary.

But lighting is wired separately. That way, in keeping with Sherpa community values, kids can always study. Big users like lodges, bakeries, and cyber cafes pay a much higher rate and they have meters. This payment structure will keep the project solvent – as long as the tourists keep coming. Ang Danu Sherpa is the general manager of Khumbu Bijuli.

A. D. SHERPA: So our biggest challenge is to sustain, to have enough money especially for repair and maintenance. If the tourism business stop here, then we have to really struggle to sustain the company.

COLOPY: The Thame hydropower plant was a gift from the Austrian government. The Austrian aid organization EcoHimal trained Sherpa engineers to maintain the plant. Four years ago, EcoHimal insisted the Nepali government completely turn the plant over to the Sherpa. Dr Martin Uitz, founder of EcoHimal, helped create Khumbu Bijuli’s management structure.

UITZ: Now, obviously, a small hydro station in a remote area will be much more sustainable if the local people own it. If the local people have the feeling they have to call someone in Kathmandu who might come after another three months and look what is the problem, it will never be sustainable. But the local people there have the feeling we are all co-owners, and that has helped a lot to make it really sustainable.

COLOPY: Uitz says the project is unique in another way that he’s particularly proud of. The wiring is all underground in the villages to protect the incomparable mountain views. This is not true in other hill areas of Nepal with hydro.


COLOPY: Sedimentation and earthquakes aren’t the only hazards for hydropower in the Himalaya. In recent years, melting glaciers have posed new problems. In fact, the hydropower plant that serves the Khumbu was supposed to be built not on a small side river, but on a major tributary of the powerful Dudh Khosi, or milk river – so named for the huge loads of sediment the river transports, turning its icy waters creamy.

Plant manager Ang Danu says in 1985 the partially built plant was wiped out when a glacial lake upriver called Dig Tsho burst and flooded the valley below. Twenty people died in the Dig Tsho flood, which also washed away homes, bridges, and trails, along with the partially constructed hydropower plant.


DANU: All the main rivers in the Khumbu which has a glacial source I think they are all dangerous….exposed to outburst because of global warming.

COLOPY: Ang Danu says he’s watched the glaciers in the upper Khumbu shrink over the years, as scientists say glaciers throughout the world are doing. Melting glaciers leave behind lakes with unstable natural dams. If they break, they suddenly release vast amounts of water.


COLOPY: Arun Shrestha of Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology says the bursting of Dig Tsho was the event that put Nepali hydrologists on notice there was something unusual going on in these mountains. Shrestha says sudden floods from glacial lakes are growing more frequent. The phenomenon is known as a “glacial lake outburst flood.” Most of the 15 outburst floods on record happened in the past 20 years, and Shrestha attributes that to global warming.

SHRESTHA: According to what we have observed from maps, from field studies, or imageries, there are slightly over 20 lakes in Nepal that are likely to burst in the future or these lakes need very close attention in the future.

COLOPY: I wanted to catch a glimpse of one of the glacial lakes hydrologists are worried about. Most are so hard to reach scientists have observed them only through satellite photos.


COLOPY: After a morning’s walk up one of the valleys near Everest, my guide and I tackled a hill called Chukkung Ri. From the top, we were told, we could get a good view of Imja Lake.

Two hours later, at about 17 thousand feet and with a stinging wind blowing, I called it quits. But we were high enough to see in the distance a long lozenge of gray-green water lying in the shadow of a popular climbing mountain known as Island Peak. Imja Lake is about a mile long. An outburst flood here would inundate of a string of villages below.


COLOPY: So far, there’s been little study of such lakes here in Nepal. In addition to the nation’s endemic poverty, it’s been beleaguered by a Maoist insurgency for years. And glacial lakes are just one aspect of the complicated water dynamic in this region. South Asia’s enormous population is growing. Arid India will need Nepal’s water and, likely, its hydropower, too. Many water problems will have to be solved here in the land of the Buddha, for they ripple from Nepal to India, Bangladesh and beyond. For Living on Earth, I’m Cheryl Colopy.


[MUSIC: Fontanelle “Niagra” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]



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