Power to the people

The remote villages of Nepal have long struggled with energy access, but a UN development project is changing their fortunes.


Energy is a huge problem in Nepal, but it should not be that way. Set in the Himalayas between China and India, it possesses vast amounts of untapped hydropower resources: large valley glaciers, powerful rivers and giant waterfalls – all located at dizzying heights. The potential is enormous. But few have the know-how to exploit it.

The consequences are inevitable for Nepal; one of the poorest countries on earth. The national power grid is under huge pressure, with 16-hour power blackouts occurring in the dry season. According to the UN, less than 44 per cent of the population had access to electricity in 2009. The situation is particularly bad in rural villages, which are too remote to access the grid: only 15 per cent of rustic households are estimated to have access to electricity.

However, some of them are getting help. The UN’s Rural Energy Development Programme (REDP) has, according to its own records, changed the lives of many such communities. The project, an initiative by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is helping villages build their own small-scale electric ‘micro-hydro’ plants. These help render the mountainous resources. One plant can typically produce 30 kilowatts, which is enough to power a small village.



The concept is not new. It started in 1996 as a pilot initiative in five remote Nepal districts. It was stepped up in 2001, and helped shape the Nepal government’s Natural Rural Energy Policy in 2006 – a five-year plan. According to the UN, the project had by 2010 connected nearly 60,000 households to energy resources, creating more than 300 micro-hydro plants. By the end of last year, it had reportedly made energy available to one million people in rural communities. That is quite a difference.

That said, the UN is not doing all the work. Far from it. “Micro-hydro was introduced in Nepal before, but the difference UNDP made was to put community people at the centre of the project so that they are the driver to introduce this technology, then also maintain and then have full ownership,” said Shoko Nodo, the UNDP country director in Nepal.

As such, the locals are the ones digging channels, diverting water, and stringing powerlines. “We provide them with technical assistance, because they need a lot of help to do the work,” says Satish Gautum, the project’s program manager. “We are not actually building our project ourselves, but we are supporting the people in the rural areas to build it.”


Such policies, and the consequent access to electricity, appear to have transformed many lives. According to research by the UNDP and Nepal’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, they resulted in an eight-per cent increase in household incomes by 2009. Researchers also found that 40 new businesses were created for each hydropower station. Other benefits were improvements in school enrolment rates, water quality, and child and maternity health.

As makes sense, there is no plan to halt the project. An extension of the now-expired REDP got underway in 2011. Dubbed the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood programme, it is a renewed UN strategy to continue to introduce hydro plants to villages, with an end-date set at March 2016. The government of Nepal is backing it, as is the World Bank. May the process go on and on.

Photos: Arthit Kaeoratanapattama, Galyna Andrushko, Zzvet [all via Shutterstock.com].