Nepal's Big Dams

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

In 2016, Nepal’s government pledged to generate 10,000 MW of hydropower over the next 10 years. Against a backdrop of changing foreign investment dynamics, new hydropower technology, and shifting socio-political implications, this declaration has significant implications for the future of power in Nepal. In this article, we delve into the numerous actors involved in hydropower plants in Nepal, focusing on the ecological, social, and political ramifications of big, reservoir-style dams.

The Nepali state has long associated hydropower with economic prosperity. If every river was tapped, the country could generate up to 83000 MW of electricity, offering a significant renewable power source, but only 42000 MW of this is economically feasible. To understand the current trends in hydropower construction, it is necessary to situate the current time period in the changing narrative of hydropower plants in Nepal. Until the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, dam construction was a top-down process, carried out by state institutions and with little local input. Since then, private parties have been allowed to invest in dams, and there has been greater local participation and influence in dam construction. Although the total capacity of installed hydropower as of 2019 is a meagre 1130 MW, the vision of dam construction for self-sufficiency and export has endured.

As of 2020, all of Nepal’s river dams are run-of-the-river dams, meaning their power-output fluctuates with the seasons, generating less during drier months. In this context, the construction of reservoir-style dams seeks to greatly increase and stabilise hydroelectricity production. Reservoir-style dams generate much more electricity than run-of-the-river dams, but they also have an impact on local communities and ecosystems.

Example of an anatomy of a run-off-the-river dam (illustration based on Kali Gandaki A Hydropower Project)

Ecological and Social Impacts of Big Dams

Impacts on the environment

While construction of mega reservoir dams can be beneficial for large scale power generation and agricultural irrigation, they also have negative environmental impacts and long-term social and economic consequences.