By Anju Pandit
Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, is a city with 100 percent reach to the national grid, but it is reeling under 14-16 hours of daily load shedding. Visiting Rasuwa, which has 71 percent access to the national grid, our team hadn’t anticipated brighter evenings. Assuming there would be limited internet access, our emails had been turned on to an automatic reply mode. To our surprise, on the day we reached Dhunche , Headquarter of Rasuwa, we learnt that there are no power cuts, except during extreme weather condition, in the region. Lodging at a local hotel in Dhunche, we could charge our cameras, work on our laptops and had access to the Internet. We felt connected to our work and family, the reason being the Chimile Hydropower Plant. We were in Dhunche to feature the micro hydro plant and its implications on local livelihood. Our first evening there raised our expectations about the success of our field trip
Upon meeting local officers and NGO staff working in the energy sector, we learnt that the local government has accepted the role of micro hydro in rural electrification. Valuing the role of micro hydro in rural electrification, four micro hydro plants (Maur Khola, Machet Khola, Kholsang Khola and Daldhunga Khola) were constructed by the Rasuwa District Development Committee (DDC) with support from the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), and the active participation of the local people. These four micro hydro plants produced 45 kilowatts of electricity, enough to supply electricity to almost 477 households (HH), for four months before the 25 April 2015 earthquake struck. The smooth operation of these projects that had literally lit up the lives and livelihoods of villagers living in this far-flung region was brought to a halt by the quake.
All the five micro-hydro power plants (including one in Langtang) operating in Rasuwa were damaged by the earthquake. The devastation has dislocated whole localities in the Langtang area. In other areas, some of the households have been displaced. The micro hydro plants, based in isolated villages in the district, producing somewhere between 10-15 kilowatts of electricity, were pulverised by the earthquake. The destruction ranged from damage to poles/wires, power house damages, wide cracks and damages on canals, and intake burial or even collapse in some places. The first phase assessment of the damage conducted by AEPC revealed that at least 35 percent of the initial cost investment would be necessary in system revival. Given the slow pace of settlement reconstruction, in areas where people are still living in temporary structures, locals perceive there is little possibility of revival of systems in the absence of substantial support from external sources.
Looking at the Rasuwa micro hydro power database, I was still hopeful about finding at least one or two micro hydro plants operating on ground. Upon hearing about a micro hydro plant on the way to Rasuwa Gadhi, we drove to Timure with great hope. On the way there, I captured the waterways—springs, rivulets and the river, on my camera. Upon spotting good water flow in the river in one of the driest months of the year, the wheels of my imagination started going round as the steering wheel of our jeep. I set up different angles to shoot inflow, the turbine, the rotating wheel of the micro hydro, the power production and distribution lines in the village, followed by the smiling faces of the locals and their electricity usage, in my imagination. Upon reaching Timure we stopped by the roadside teashop. Standing on the road, I was excited to see the long penstock pipe leading to a small hut which showed signs of an operational micro hydro.
However, as we entered the boundary of the tea shop, we could see that the total setup was very disappointing. The micro hydro plant was not operational; rather all the equipment and parts of the micro hydro plant had been dismantled and lay in a haphazard state that showed no signs there would be any system revival. The penstock pipe had rusted away and was completely damaged. The rotating wheel had been thrown in a corner, while the generator and load controller were found abandoned in a room, which belonged to a local resident. Had these machinery parts been assembled and were in proper shape, they could have been utilised for electricity generation. But once the micro hydro plant had stopped production, even the equipment costing 1000s of rupees had become trash for the locals.
We enquired about the micro hydro plant and found out that it was the Ghatte Khola Micro Hydro Plant that had been established in the area 19 years earlier. The micro hydro made great contributions to rural electrification, providing electricity to 125 HH in the three villages in Timure VDC for almost 17 years. Local communities had managed operation and maintenance costs through internal sources then. With increased access to the road and the national grid, the people’s demand for quality electricity increased. So, discounting the load shedding problem associated with the grid, local communities chose the national grid over the micro hydro plant that had served them for years. After gaining access to national grid, the lighting facility offered by the micro hydro plant was devalued, even though it was locally obtained subsidised electricity. The communities stopped paying for micro hydro. Two years of non-attendance in terms of repair and maintenance has completely halted the operation resulting in the present state of dismantled machinery.
Even though 10 micro hydro plants have been installed till date in Rasuwa, most of them are non-functional at present. As in other parts of country, micro hydro power plants in the district are facing various challenges. Some are naturally challenged while others, like Ghatte Khola, are challenged by the extending national grid. The natural challenges are unavertable but the risks posed by other factor can be mitigated. As reported by the local shopkeeper “If we had used it for economic activity, the picture would have been different”. The national grid expansion may be one of the excuses, but it was noted that like many micro hydro plants spread across Nepal, limited end use is the major cause of the disuse and dismantling of the Ghatte Khola micro hydro plant after grid expansion.