Himalayan Hydropower: Alternative Energy in Nepal

By Zhou, Karen | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Himalayan Hydropower: Alternative Energy in Nepal


Zhou, Karen, Harvard International Review


Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world--a quarter of its population lives on less than US$1 per day, and unemployment rates are over 40 percent. With a population of over 29 million, Nepal is facing an upward trajectory in energy demand, resulting in energy shortage situations where less than half of the nation's electricity needs are met. In recent years, during the coldest winter months, Nepalis have experienced power cuts for over 16 hours per day. Nepal's political and economic development has been overshadowed by its two neighboring global superpowers, China and India. The combination of poverty and political instability has stunted the growth of an otherwise vibrant and culturally rich society, endowed with the breathtaking Himalayas, rich biodiversity, and most importantly, water.

Nepal's extensive river and waterfall systems have led energy experts to predict its feasible hydropower output to be near 43,000 megawatts (MW). However, political obstacles have stalled energy infrastructure development and investment in hydropower projects. The Nepal Electricity Authority reports current annual hydropower output to be at 634 MW, grossly below potential and insufficient to meet domestic energy demand. Though the government remains in gridlock over the drafting of a new constitution, Nepal's steps for future development lie in harnessing the hill potential of hydropower in socially and environmentally sensitive ways that benefit local economies.

Political uncertainty has stalled domestic reform efforts and dissuaded foreign investors from pursuing energy projects within Nepal. A recent example of an unfulfilled venture is the 750 MW West Seti hydropower project, awarded to Australian company Snowy Mountain Energy Corporation 14 years ago, shortly before the start of the decade-long civil war in 1996. Seven years ago, the power-trading company PTC India signed a deal with the Nepalese government to purchase the power produced by the West Seti facility. Though the war ended in 2006, the project's licensing period expired in 2010 without any progress, because of opposition from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) to awarding economic deals to foreign companies and citizens' anger over the export of electricity at the expense of domestic needs. While Nepal would benefit from meeting domestic energy demand, there exists a tremendous market potential in India and China.

Four years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the Nepalese government and the Maoists, and over two years after democratic elections ended a 239 year-old monarchy, the Nepalese government remains in a state of limbo. A new prime minister, Jhala Nath Khanal of the Unified Marxist Leninist Party (UML), was elected on February 3, 2011 after gaining last minute support from the Maoists. This election points to the potential for an increasingly left-leaning government, which could favor the Maoists' ambitions. In the meantime, the moderate Nepali Congress Party and the Maoists continue to compete for power in a parliament that lacks both a majority party and a ruling coalition. The lack of consensus among the 28 parties represented in Parliament has resulted in a prolonged struggle to draft a constitution. The original deadline for a new constitution passed on May 28, 2010, resulting in a one-year deadline extension to May 28, 2011. …

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