Loadshedding 2.0

I wrote a blog post mid December about the return of electricity 24/7 in Nepal, you can remind yourself of that post here.

A friend living in Nepal for quite some time, today shared a more detailed account, not only of loadshedding and electricity, but of a number of other issues affecting daily life in Nepal:

  • the snail’s pace with which reconstruction funds are being distributed to folks to rebuild their homes (it’s been 20 months, two monsoons and two winters since the 2015 earthquakes for crying out loud).
  • what’s behind the dearth of water supply in the Kathmandu Valley
  • the continuing saga of the dratted road widening project that has been relentless for years and years
  • opinion on the upcoming local and federal elections and the possible threat of yet another embargo

It’s a long read but (to my mind anyway) it’s rather interesting.  She’s given her permission for me to reproduce it here.

Kathmandu has electricity, 24 hours of electricity. Students can study at night with light instead of candles, mothers can see what they are doing when they cook the dinner meal, cell phones can be recharged at any time, and the illuminated winter nights don’t feel as cold as when we had to sit in the dark.

All scheduled power cuts (load shedding) have ended, for now. Other areas in the country still have some load shedding but not as much as in previous years. It has been 10 years since we had full power, and then only in the monsoon when the river-flow generated electricity was at full capacity, the rest of the year the power cuts ranged from 3 hours a day to 6 hours a day. In the last 10 years, the cuts have been up to 16 hours a day, and then the 8 hours that we did have, were mostly between midnight and 5 am, the other 3 hours sporadically during the day.

Most middle class houses and small shops have a battery back up system. When there is electricity, inverters recharge truck-sized batteries. When the power cuts come on the batteries kick in for a few hours. Enough to light a few LED or CFL lights, perhaps a computer, recharge cell phones. It all depends on how large a person’s system is. Before I converted to solar, I had one battery, enough to run a tv or a computer and a light or two for about 6 hours. The down side of this inverter system is that it uses more electricity to recharge the batteries than normal use of electricity. A while back, there were so many homes and businesses who had inverters, the government outlawed them because it was eating up what little electricity Nepal had. Inverters were no longer allowed to be imported from India and China, but some enterprising Nepalis were able to get around this law by ordering parts and assembling them in Nepal. To try to end battery back up systems, the gov’t only gave a little electricity during the day, not long enough to fully recharge the batteries, so businesses systems often failed in the afternoon. Lights and tv would go off only after an hour or two at night and the life of the very expensive batteries would be cut in half. Instead of one lasting 3 years it would die after 1-1/2 years.

This past monsoon was good to us; it rained heavily all season so there were few power cuts. But by fall all power cuts ended. Many of us believed that the gov’t was being generous during the festival season. But when the season was over, we continued to have power. We were stymied, when would load shedding resume, we plan our life around loadshedding. People make appointments during the time when the power in their area is cut off. They shop when there is no electricity at home so that they will be home when the power is turned back on. Dinner parties are given around when the power is on. More go out at night when they have no electricity, but stay home on the nights they do have light. What was going on? The fear was that when load shedding finally started we would be hit with a 12 hour power cut. Before, as the generation decreased the power cuts slowly increased, in increments. But to go from full electricity to only having 2 or 3 hours 2 or three nights a week would be a big adjustment.

Then it came out in the news that a new person, Kul Man Ghising, was appointed to head the NEA (Nepal Elect. Auth.) He studied our electricity use and realized there was enough electricity to power the city if no one used their inverters. So we have had electricity 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Such a luxury!!!!
However, during heavy usage, 6-9 pm, the power is so weak that lights barely illuminate, but we do have light! Though during this time some lights just won’t come on or they flicker the full three hours and the fridge seems to be in a death rattle. This is when I switch over to solar.

Many have converted to solar power and the earthquake damaged power lines from India, from whom Nepal purchases some electricity, were finally repaired this fall and one or two small earthquake damaged hydro electric generators have also been repaired, which has provided us with more power, but it still was a mystery as to why we weren’t having some power cuts. Before, when no one had inverters and when the population was less than half of what it is now, we had scheduled power cuts.

Then it came out in the news that our power was being stolen from us. That those at NEA from the top of administration down to the lowly meter reader were in collusion with large factories and other businesses. They sold electricity to these businesses at a very high rate (well worth it to have electricity during factory hours and much cheaper than purchasing diesel), they tampered with the meters to reflect low usage and they shared the spoils among themselves. Students, small businesses and families were being deprived of light because it was being given to the large factories. People were outraged when they learned of this. Many wanted to hang the officials by their toenails for depriving us for so long, and for enriching their pockets. As these crooks have been rounded up and arrested, people have gathered around their homes throwing eggs at them while they are being loaded up into the paddy wagons. I think some would be torn from limb to limb were it not for the police to keep some semblance of order.

But there is some concern. There is only one large hydroelectric dam, the Kulhikani. The country depends on the power it generates during winter. In the late spring the mountain snow melts, feeding the river generated power turbines. These rivers generate power from spring all through the monsoon, finally tapering off in early winter. So it is during these few months that we are totally dependent on the Kulhikani dam (except for what is purchased from India). Because Nepal used to be under the ocean, the mountains are partially made up of silt. During the monsoon this silt runs into the rivers and into the Kulhikani lake. At present the lake is about 1/3 full of silt so there no longer is enough water in the lake to generate for as long of a period before it runs dry. The government has known about this for a few years, but so far they have not tried to tackle the problem. The concern many have is that NEA has been using this power plant to provide us with 24 hour electricity now, and then when we really need it, there won’t be enough water in the lake to carry us through to the snow melt.

Recently I read an interview of Ghisling, who Nepalis regard as a hero. When asked if he was using the lake water, he declined to directly answer. He said that it didn’t matter whether or not the dam lake was being used because we were purchasing enough electricity from India to carry us to the snowmelt season. So we wait to see if we will have light for the next few months.

Kathmandu has been suffering an acute water shortage for years. About 30 years ago, the leaders at the time realized that Kathmandu would run out of water. So a plan was proposed to burrow a tunnel through one of the hills that surround the Valley to access water from the Melamchi river. This project was designed to feed a 1995 projected population. But then the revolution happened, the people threw out the government and held elections. The new elected officials were distracted from their duties, most of their energy went to holding on to power and filling their pockets. One leader, so disgusted with the greed, formed a second communist party and started a civil war. During all of this time, our water sources were being stretched beyond capacity. Those contracted to dig the tunnel were constantly running into problems because of the civil war and the gov’t would then fire them and hire another contractor, and then another and then another. Middle class people who lived throughout the country were escaping the war, coming to Kathmandu in droves; the population skyrocketed. House rents doubled, the electrical grid and water sources were being stressed. By about 2006 there simply was not enough water to feed all of the families. Those that could afford it would purchase small pumps, so when the water was turned on, these pumps could suck the water into the holding tanks, which was great until load shedding increased. However, if no one had sucking pumps, then some water would flow into everyone’s tanks. I lived at the end of a small lane. There were about 12 houses on this lane. Because my house was furthest from the main line, I never got water unless I used my sucking pump, but it was a race to see who could turn on their pump first. If I was first I would get some water, but if others turned theirs on before me, my pipe was dry. Because the other houses were closer to the main line, even if I was first at the sucking pump they still got some water but not as much if I wasn’t sucking as well. During power cuts only those who had generators were able to suck water into their underground holding tanks. And all the time the politicians told their citizens not to worry, the Melamchi water project was soon to provide all of us with abundant water.

Now, most pipes have no water except during and shortly after monsoon. The rest of the year the water truck owners make their living. Wells were dug but most have dried up because so many have wells.

About 5 years ago the Melamchi tunnel project was awarded to an Italian company and they have dug most of the tunnel. But during the embargo last year, with no fuel, and very little electricity this company has struggled. The gov’t was threatening to cancel the contract, telling them they should have prepared for such an event and should have had at least a two months supply of fuel, never mind that this embargo lasted for over 6 months and then when fuel did start flowing it was only a trickle. Somehow the Italians convinced the gov’t that they should keep the contract and the work continued. But, the Italians discovered gold while digging. The rumor is that the Italian workers were stuffing their bags full of gold to take back home with them, but the gov’t found out and not only put a stop to it, but also stopped the digging, until further notice. Talking with someone recently, they said it could take years before all of the gold is mined. There has been no announcement of a resumption of the digging but the city is now laying huge pipes under the main arterials in preparation for this new water supply, and the gov’t has promised the water will be flowing by the end of the year. In the meantime, our new roads of 4 years are being dug up once again and no one knows for sure when they will be repaved which means people will be slogging through mud in the wet season and gasping for clean air from all of the dust in the dry seasons.

The road widening project through out the city has been such a fiasco. Rather than widening one section and then paving it, the gov’t (run by the fearless communist leader at the time) decided to tear up all of the roads at the same time. For two years most slogged through mud during monsoon and wore face masks during the long dry season. The dust was so bad during the day I had to turn on my scooter lights so that oncoming traffic could see me. Now it is 4 years later and many of these roads still haven’t been paved. A friend and former co-worker lives on such a road. It has been this way for 1-1/2 years. She says the only time she does laundry is on Saturdays when there is less traffic on the road. The other days there is so much dust in the air her clothes never really get clean.

My 2 km road, which dead ends at the National Park, is being widened. The road is so steep in some parts that non-4 wheel drive vehicles struggle to climb it because of all of the mud. There used to be two gutters on either side of the road for water run off. Now those gutters have been filled in so the water runs down the middle of the dirt filled road (here up on the hill water is abundant, it comes into our pipes 2 hours twice a day, and there are two rivers and many rivulets). In some places the mud is 6 inches deep along this road. But there is a smaller parallel road that joins the main road about ½ km before the park. Most people use this road to walk up and down so that they aren’t slogging through mud or being splattered by vehicles. Motorcycles, scooters, and older cars go up this road and then at the junction turn down onto the main road and basically slide down to their destinations. I talked with some of the villagers here who are very active communally. They were the ones who managed to keep the road from being widened by 5 meters and got it down to 2 meters. They told me that the road will not be paved for another year because the widened areas need to settle over the monsoon. That is logical, but the gov’t also wants to start widening the parallel road. I tried to talk the villagers into protesting and stopping the widening until the main road is complete because what will people and vehicles do during monsoon? How will anyone who doesn’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle get up the hill? Hopefully they are mulling it over and can do something. But, when it comes to losing part of your property or part of your house due to a wider road compared with the inconvenience of slogging through mud or parking at the bottom of the hill and walking up for one season, slogging does not seem as important.

Many affected by the quake have yet to receive the first $500 installment payment for rebuilding their homes. Those that have (about 25%) are still waiting for the second installment. Fortunately the very competent man who originally was named to head the NRA (National Reconstruction Authority) and was then fired a couple of months later (political reasons) has just been rehired and he has hit the ground running. Many have confidence in this person. A large number of the registration forms of those who suffered damaged or lost houses, seems to have gone missing. So he has the impossible task of re-registering everyone so that he can start distributing the money. It may not be soon enough for those to rebuild before the third monsoon since the earthquake, but many are confident that their money will come. In a suburb of Kathmandu, there are still many families living in tattered thrown together shelters. I am not sure if they owned homes or were renting. Rents have more than doubled since the quake, it is possible these families simply can’t afford to rent a flat anymore and so are forced to camp out.

Some political parties in the gov’t coalition are dragging their heels on a second amendment regarding federal districting. The reason we had this long embargo last year was due to the dissatisfaction of the higher populated, less powerful Madesh, who wanted fair representation and a non-gerrymandered state. One amendment was passed and they now have greater representation but the state border issue is still thorny. Many just no longer have the will or the heart to close the borders again to force the gov’t to redraw the federal lines. Due to the unrest, many suffered along the border, shops were closed and very little business was conducted. Yes, the rest of us suffered as well (and those especially affected by the earthquake) but the economy for those along the border tanked.

The problem is that the new constitution requires that local and federal elections are held before the end of the year. The Madesh say there is no point in having a local election until the border lines of each state are finalized, which makes sense, and they threaten to refuse to participate in the elections. The man in power is working hard to get this done but one party is intractable, so it looks like the local elections will go ahead as planned in about 2-3 months. Which will then pave the way for the federal election. Those of us who are very dependent on open borders with India (fossil fuels, food, building supplies, cloth and clothing) are wary of what will happen if the elections happen before the amendment is voted on. I, for one, am keeping well stocked with cooking gas, petrol and some food necessities. I don’t want to have to go through another embargo so totally unprepared as I was last year.

 

About Kate Coffey

After 25+ years in the investment management industry, I packed in my job and spent 2014 living and working in Nepal and Bangladesh, and visited some other places in between. It took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and it's people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Sanga foothills. Since 2014, I have continued my warm relationship with SIRC and worked closely with my friends there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes to date. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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2 Responses to Loadshedding 2.0

  1. jgedye says:

    When I visited Bhutan I understood they had engineers (I believe from Canada but I might be wrong on that point), design waterfall turbines and were selling power to India. Bhutan is directly east of Nepal and I’m not suggesting moving electricity east to west through the Himalayas – that would be crazy, but surely the same engineering could be used to generate power from mountain runoff rather than buying it from India. Bottom line is that the use of public funds is remarkable!

    J

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Every engineer I have met, I have suggested the same thing. It’s not complex to do, it has been done many times before. To have such a resources on your doorstep and not use it boggles my mind. Selling electricity to India and China would shore up the coffers of Nepal’s public purse immensely … but that would require a government actually interested in bettering the lives of it’s people.

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