Nepal’s Electricity Woes

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I am racing to finish this story before 2:00, when the lights go out. Today my neighborhood will have electricity from 12:00 to 2:00 and then from 7 p.m. until midnight. The scheduled outages, called “load shedding” in Nepal, are a regular part of winter here.

Because of Nepal’s monsoon climate and dependence on “run of the river” electricity generation, power production falls dramatically in the dry season. Every year Nepal’s politicians and government promise action to resolve the problem, but nothing happens.

Nepal has capacity to generate enough electricity for its own needs and to light up half of India as well as western China: The huge rivers that flow out of the Himalayas make the country second only to Brazil in potential. But it takes a long time to build hydropower plants, and it takes competent and committed government.

Nepal’s problem is corruption. No electricity generation proposal can be approved by the Ministry of Water Resources without massive bribes being paid. And when the government changes – Nepal has averaged one government per year since 1990 – the project is shelved until the new officials at the ministry get paid off as well.

That’s a severe disincentive to investment, and it’s expensive. Investors willing to put up with the system factor the cost of corruption into their pricing proposals. As a result Nepal has the most expensive electricity in the region. Next-door Bhutan, which has identical geography and types of power plants, charges its citizens about three cents per kilowatt-hour. Rates in Nepal are more than three times higher.

Much smaller Bhutan generates almost twice as much power as Nepal and has enough excess to sell electricity to Bangladesh and India at 4.4 cents per kilowatt hour, generating $245 million in annual revenue. Nepalis sit in the dark for hours every day, and according to recent news will be asked to pay even higher tariffs next year for what electricity is available.

Apart from corruption, politics also get in the way of solving the country’s power woes. Last year when Nepal’s Maoists ran the government they promised to increase power generation to 10,000 megawatts (a 13-fold increase) within ten years. This year, no longer in power, they have forced the country’s two largest new hydro development projects to cease construction, in an effort to bring down the current coalition government.

With a real solution to Nepal’s electricity shortage years off at best even if corruption and political interference miraculously disappeared overnight, the previous government promised to set up temporary oil-fueled generation stations to lessen the shortfall. That promise too came to naught.

If only Nepal could generate electricity from political hot air…

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

See also this letter to the editor, about 12 Hours a Week of ‘Earth Hour’

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.