Nepal's Big Dams

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.

One of the adverse effects of dams is their interference in fish migration. The construction of dams changes the flow of water in fast running rivers, causing habitat destruction and disrupting feeding, breeding and migrating grounds. The findings of a study done by the Asian Development Bank (ABD) highlights the declining fish population in Nepal’s river basins due to dam construction. For example, the Kali Gandaki Hydropower Project (Nepal’s largest hydropower project with a capacity of 144MW) is predicted to block upstream fish migration and exacerbate downstream drought from October to May. This is not just a problem for the Kali Gandaki project. The construction of reservoir-style dams is known to affect the state of rivers, and due to upstream hydropower projects, 6 kms of the Marshyangdi River has already run completely dry.

The physical barrier of the dams themselves cause further problems for fish populations. Lakes of stagnant water behind reservoir style dams gather sediment and promote algae growth, which cause problems for downstream aquatic life. These dams not only block fish migration and breeding but also pose a threat to their existence by altering both temperature and oxygen levels in the water.

Effects on Locals

Dams are regarded as an instrument of development, and the construction of the dams themselves are portrayed as a win-win situation for the state and for the people living around them. However, it is the local people who are mostly negatively impacted by such projects. Most downstream valleys in Nepal are hubs for the cultivation of wheat, paddy and maize. Construction of huge reservoirs upstream threatens this vital agriculture by restricting the flow of nutrients to floodplains, and diminishing the inundations of river beds.

According to an ADB report, the construction of the previously mentioned 144 MW Kali Gandaki project forced 1500 families from their homes and communities. While smaller hydropower projects that are locally designed with shared local resources cause less displacement, the current dominant discourse lies in constructing mega hydropower projects which are supposed to provide higher financial returns. However, these mega hydropower projects, which are in the interest of foreign investors, will not bring immediate benefits to the local population. Locals will not only lose their entitled land, but also lose access to the water resources they have relied on.. In theory, the state is supposed to compensate displaced populations with another piece of land or cash, but in reality this too often doesn’t happen..

Further exacerbating problems faced by local communities, when a dam project is proposed, there is a buffer period between surveying a site, and constructing the dam. This period often leaves locals in a state of uncertainty before the state finalizes relocation plans and actually find investors When the site for Upper Karnali Hydropower (proposed, 900MW) was decided in the 1990s, locals were promised relocation and cash and were also advised to buy land that they could sell to the investors for profit. Almost 40 years down the line, the project is still yet to begin. Too often, locals are kept in the dark about the water and electricity politics being discussed by investors, contractors and the higher authorities. The purpose of dams is often not communicated to local communities, and There are politics involved in who gets compensated when dams are actually built. In an interview by Firstpost, a local informed the reporter that the state and the company were only compensating influential and politically powerful people and leaving the general public behind.

Hydropower offers economic opportunity to Nepal, but too often big dams don’t take into account the needs and vulnerabilities of local communities and ecosystems. As we enter the second half of Nepal’s 10 year pledge to increase hydropower production, it is essential that new construction projects work to minimize their harm to the environments they benefit from, and the local people that live there

eARThumanities at NYU Abu Dhabi

@2020 Geopolitics & Ecology of Himalayan Water