Once again the old malaise of brownouts shadows the region.
When winter comes to the highlands of Southasia, the demand for energy drives electric grids into breakdown and you have that dreaded term, load-shedding. In the summers, and on a scale much larger, ‘brownouts’ are a visitation upon the plains. VIP enclaves get privileged access, and well-to-do homes and businesses use inverters and generators. But for the rest, lifestyle adjustments are necessary.
In terms of the major metros, from what we know it is the citizens of Lahore, Kabul, Karachi and Kathmandu who have suffered the most this particular winter. While Karachi suffers about eight to ten hours brownouts daily, and Kabul and Lahore about 14, it is the capital of hydropower-rich Nepal that is today burdened with 16 hours of electricity outage. A recent visitor from Kathmandu to Calcutta and Dhaka – both cities that suffered much in the past – felt a sense of unreality when the lights just stayed on and on.
Load-shedding is an old malaise in Nepal that is back with a vengeance. It used to happen back in the 1990s, due to the government’s inability to undertake anything more than one hydropower project at a time, rather than stay ahead of demand. When there was a sudden surge in demand, there was no choice but to pull the plug on vast areas of the country. The only thing that can be said for the brownouts conducted by the Nepal Electricity Authority today is that the lights go off and come on according to schedule, unlike the lackadaisical switching in most of the rest of the region.
Knowing exactly when the electricity will come and go may be depressing for some, but it does allow for planning. But many industries have done their own forward planning, and decided to close up shop. Others, who are using diesel to generate their own electricity, are finding themselves becoming increasingly uncompetitive vis-à-vis products from India. In mid-February, the Nepal Oil Corporation announced that an additional NPR 110 million per day was being spent daily to feed diesel generators across the country.
It is a depressing scenario for a country with a measly current hydropower generation of 561 megawatt, with winter demand outstripping 700 MW. All the while, the rivers run free with a mythical potential of some 83,000 MW of potential – second only to Brazil, it is said. How the country has come to this sorry pass of extreme electrical deficiency is also all too clear.
During the Panchayat years, before 1990, the development of the hydropower sector was stunted because it was kept under dramatic state control, as a way of keeping the kickbacks within the close circle of the royal family and hangers-on. But this was only one element. The strong undercurrent of anti-Indianism that dominates Nepali politics has also affected hydropower projects, which tend to be seen as attempts by India to push its agenda on Nepal. The widespread perception of Nepal having been cheated on two river barrage projects during the 1960s (on the Kosi and Gandak) has inevitably fed this sensibility.
In the last dozen years, it was political instability linked to the Maoist ‘people’s war’ that affected the planning and implementation of hydropower projects. At a time when the rebels were destroying infrastructure, there was little incentive for private investors to explore possibilities, even while the government remained practically paralysed. Meanwhile, the surge in demand over the last few years is explained by the huge migration to the cities and roadheads by rural families fleeing the conflict, though this has of course been added to by the increased use of appliances by a modernising population.
The immediate cause of this year’s power shortage goes beyond explanations related to the conflict, however. The Kulekhani is Nepal’s only reservoir project, meant to be used to supply ‘peak load’ demand, but it was misused before the Constituent Assembly elections of April 2008 to keep the public free of load-shedding. In addition, 2008 saw a poor monsoon, so the Kulekhani Reservoir was far below capacity by the time autumn rolled around.
Some respite was expected in mid-winter, but the central Himalaya went without winter rains this year, meaning that the snow-melt will also be less than normal.
The load-shedding in Nepal provides a poignant mirror to the problems that the entire society is facing, as the attempt is being made to write a constitution amidst deep and growing social and political tensions. The brownouts are happening as political parties who collaborated in the peace process are growing apart, even as the newly renamed Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) tackles its own internal contradictions and challenges from renegades. But load-shedding is just one among many causes of public frustrations that seem to be building to a crescendo. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal would do well to work to rebuild trust across the political spectrum, to keep any political adventurism at bay, and to allow the constitution-writing to proceed without hiccups – whether the lights are on or off.