Flip the dam plan overEvery year and in almost every grade, the government prescribed school curriculum makes students rote learn that Nepal has one of the biggest potential for hydropower development. Politicians, when in power cite hydropower expansion as Nepal’s short cut to heaven. A shroud of the promised land hung large when KP Oli and his Indian counterpart remotely laid the foundation to the 900 MW Arun 3 Hydro power project. In an recent op-ed article (Return of the Dam Plan, May 25), economist Chandan Sapkota lauded the restart of the project for its “transformative nature in terms of potential to boost economic growth and job creation.”— and took the opportunity to reflect on why the Arun 3 was stopped more than 20 years ago.
Every year and in almost every grade, the government prescribed school curriculum makes students rote learn that Nepal has one of the biggest potential for hydropower development. Politicians, when in power cite hydropower expansion as Nepal’s short cut to heaven. A shroud of the promised land hung large when KP Oli and his Indian counterpart remotely laid the foundation to the 900 MW Arun 3 Hydro power project. In an recent op-ed article (Return of the Dam Plan, May 25), economist Chandan Sapkota lauded the restart of the project for its “transformative nature in terms of potential to boost economic growth and job creation.”— and took the opportunity to reflect on why the Arun 3 was stopped more than 20 years ago.
He limits the causes for the derailment of the project to NGO and INGO activism with tacit approval from UML that blew even valid concerns blown out of proportion. But Sapkota does not acknowledge that it was the first time since donor Agencies’ involvement in Nepal ( a period of almost half a century) that a voice of dissent had found place. World Bank’s withdrawal from the project was viewed as an obstacle for progress, rather than as one of the first triumph of the democratic movement of 1990. This was the first time in Nepal’s modern history that a movement had been successful without mass protests—an omission that seems to have happened when development is only considered through techno-bureaucratic lens.
Sapkota, however, makes one potentially valid argument. Perhaps the continuation of Arun 3 then might have transformed the energy landscape and Nepalis might not have had to go through long-debilitating hours of darkness. Hence, as a measure he advises that in the coming days “politics should not supersede development of transformative projects,” which I will argue against.
The missing factor
Despite the discontinuation of Arun 3 in the 90s, hydropower sector remains protected from criticism. As a consequence, environmental imapcts and the impacts on indigenous life is often downplayed. For any arising consequences, Sapkota points that the rekindled Arum 3 promises “30 units of free electricity per month to affected households, 12 percent of total royalties to project affected areas, 3,000 jobs, generous resettlement scheme and development of local infrastructure.” However, given the reality that those who will be immediately affected belong to marginalised community who have little or no political agency, what is the guarantee that such tall promises will be fulfilled? A case in point here is the ongoing development of Upper Trisuli-1—a216 MW hydropower project in Rasuwa.
Research done by Subha Ghale and Shradha Ghale, whose findings have also been coalesced into an article titled Lost in hydro dreams published in the Record, an online platform, shows that the communities there face far reaching consequences. Members of the community living in the vicinity of Upper Trisuli construction site were promised employement but “later most of the construction workers were brought from outside Rasuwa district.”
But let us assume that Arun 3 will provide the economic incentive that the project developers have designed. What economists tend to miss is the fact that market centric solutions do not produce the best or even the desired outcomes. The remote foundation laying of Arun 3 indicates that hydro power projects are set in hinterlands that is far away from city areas. As such the human life there is not orientated by the market but by their relationship with the ecosystem. Lost in hydro dreams points out that “loss of agricultural lands and community forests is deeply disempowering for women. But women’s concerns were neither identified properly during project consultations and baselines, nor reflected in the mitigation measures. Women interviewed during the study expressed a greater sense of loss for their ancestral lands and livelihoods. They said the compensation money was handled and managed by male members of the household.”
Development for all
As Arun 3 project marches further, it is crucial from lets-make-Nepal-a-heaven perspective that indigenous communities not suffer the brunt for ‘the greater common good’. Furthermore, setting aside the threat to fragile mountain ecosystem, sentiments that advocate for politics to not supersede development of transformative project is, to put it bluntly, a direct threat to the practice of democracy.
The fast track project through Khokana, to take an example here, is an example of transformative project. It is bound to connect the capital with soon to be developed Nigadh International Airport. But had it not been for active opposition, the Khokana fast track would have created economic opportunities by eviscerating communal identity.
Tourism—a major source for bread and butter for Nepal— generates revenue (85 billion rupees in the last fiscal year) because of the long held belief that Nepal offers scenic paranomas, as well as spiritually offers what is unavailable in the west. Consequently, we need to actively preserve and perpetuate the existence of our indigenous knowledge and environmental resources to reap a greater economic benefit. Hence, even from an economic vantage point, it is imperative that development projects are green signaled only after a holistic examination of the effects of massive projects. And, at least there has to be a guarantee for the existence of a space where politics could supersede transformative projects.
Ghimire is a journalist associated with the Kathmandu Post Twitter: @NepaliChimney