A village on the waiting lineThe planned West Seti Hydropower Project set the village of Dhungad into an eternal state of limbo
The small village of Dhungad fits every description of a sleepy place. When we arrived there around mid-day in spring 2013, what stood for the village square was quite an empty save for a few stray dogs strung around in various stages of repose. As we walked in from the north, from afar, the settlement had looked quite promising, easily the largest we had passed, and with the lush green of the wheat crop across the Seti river providing an enticing backdrop, it made for an idyllic setting.
The first sign how things actually were in Dhungad came as soon as we asked where we could eat. To our utter astonishment, we were told there were no eateries in the entire place. The one shop in the ‘village square’ did stock the national snack, the chow-chow noodles, and, thankfully, the shop owner even offered to prepare it for us. For someone who had hiked the whole morning on a half-empty stomach in the hopes of a nice dal-bhat lunch at Dhungad, having to make do with only noodles was disappointing enough. But to see the shopkeeper saunter off towards the river instead of getting on with the business of cooking was excruciating. Imagine my surprise when I called out to him and he responded that he was going to get some water; Dhungad had no drinking water supply.
Bypassed by development
For a village of that size to have to rely on river water came as a shock. Located in the southeastern-most tip of Baitadi district, at the tri-junction formed by Baitadi, Doti and Dadeldhura, Dhungad had been a major rest stop between the eastern parts of Baitadi and Bajhang and market centres in Doti, Dadeldhura and further to India. That much is evident from the buildings in the village that hark to far better yesteryears.
All of that changed with studies that began in the early 1980s to generate power from the Seti (or, West Seti, as it is called to distinguish it from the Seti river near Pokhara). Old-timers still remember the French team arriving by helicopter to survey the site, a fact that becomes even poignant given that they have been waiting since then for the project to take off even as they lived through years of uncertainty.
The state of limbo that has become part of the life of Dhungad residents for more than three decades has been accentuated in a number of ways. The motorable road that goes north from Dadeldhura town and on to Bajhang bypassed it completely since it made little sense to spend money to provide a road connection to an area that would be submerged soon enough. Once that road was constructed in the 1990s, foot traffic along the Seti via Dhungad ceased, and Dhungad slowly became a ghost of its former self. The once-busy trail was used only by the locals, and in a condition of perpetual disrepair.
The impact of the planned West Seti Hydropower Project goes deeper since no major development intervention has been introduced in Dhungad all these years for the simple reason that it would be akin to literally pouring money into water. At least, that is the reason given to people of Dhungad whenever they went to the District Development Committee seeking funds (a fact that was equally true for all the villages in Baitadi, Doti and Bajhang in the submergence area of the reservoir that would be created by the proposed high dam).
Dhungad is also located more or less on the riverbed itself. This means that floods are a recurrent danger every monsoon, and it was not surprising that many in Dhungad said their immediate need was a secure embankment to prevent river water from entering their homes. But, they also knew that was no more than a pipe dream because no government would fund such an enterprise. They have no electricity either and a proposal to set up a microhydro plant on the nearby Dhung Gad (river), one of the tributaries of the Seti, did not come to fruition either. Thus, they shoulder on with their lives—without drinking water, without electricity, without a motorable road, under constant threat of flooding, and ignored by the state.
It was the people of Dhungad who first came to mind when I read about the Three Gorges Corporation pulling out of the project recently. Our visit to the area was not long after the project had been handed over to the Chinese company, and people were upbeat about things moving forward. It was an optimism born out of desperation. In 1994, the government had signed an agreement with Australia’s Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation. Following 17 long years of inaction apart from more studies and a few consultations as well as requests from the company for more time to find the money for the project, the government had decided to scrap the deal.
The fervent hope of the Dhungad residents is that the hydropower project would commence operations and they would finally be able to rebuild their lives somewhere else with the compensation they received for their land. Now, two generations after that first visit by the French, they are back to square one. We have heard about development refugees. The people of Dhungad have not been displaced but their fate seems not much better.
Around the same that Three Gorges opted out of West Seti came the news that we had signed a power purchase deal with Bangladesh. This is based on the assumption that we will have surplus power once the mega hydropower projects come online. Among these are Upper Karnali and Arun III, both of which had been handed over to Indian companies in 2008. The project development agreements (PDAs) were finally signed in 2014, with the understanding that power generation would begin in 2020. There is no way that will happen. Just yesterday, the company responsible for Upper Karnali received a year-long extension to put together the finances required. There has been more movement with Arun III, with Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, remotely laying the foundation stone in May earlier this year. How swiftly this will translate into action on the ground is yet to be seen. It would behove us to temper our expectation for we have examples aplenty of projects repeatedly failing to meet deadlines. Just think of Melamchi and Kulekhani III.
One does wonder how much our fascination with big projects is responsible for this mess we find ourselves in. During the bad old days of loadshedding, it was not very uncommon to hear some people variously blame the UML or the anti-Arun activists for their role in the 1995 cancellation of the Arun III project which was to be funded by the World Bank. We have since learnt that the loadshedding was artificially created for the large part, but the sentiment is strong that Nepal took a step backward with the end of Arun III. Back in 1998, in the course of some research I had discovered that without Arun III and its various conditionalities, we would be generating an extra 320 MW at a cost of USD 420 million by 1999. With Arun III, the cost would have been USD 1.08 billion with only 297 MW more generated, and that, too, only by 2003.
As the people of Dhungad and their neighbours have found out over the course of many long decades, big is not always better.