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Success Of Micro-hydro Projects In Nepal

Issue 43, October 23, 2011

Siddhi B Ranjitkar

Success of any project no matter how big or small entirely depends on how serious you are in conceiving, studying and ultimately implementing it. If you miss to do seriously anyone of these activities you are bound to face many problems and even might face the failure of projects. So, we need to keep in mind that we must be serious about the basics of project implementation if we are to succeed in our mission.

It was in the APROSC (Agriculture Project Service Center) hall in Kathmandu in early 1980s I was attending a seminar. A short man: a member of National Planning Commission (NPC) was speaking about the development projects the then government was implementing. At that time, I was not very familiar with this gentleman. When he opened his lecture to the questions and answers, I raised my hands and said, “You have so many projects how could you manage to make the feasibility studies on all those projects?”

The NPC member counter asked, “Where are you?” Then he answered his question, “You are in Nepal; you cannot do anything if you study all those projects in detail.”

I was really embarrassed by his question and answers. A gentleman sitting next to me said, “He has done a doctorate in economics at one of the prestigious universities in the USA. He should know the importance of feasibility studies of development projects.” Only then, I understood he was a member of the NPC: a state agency responsible for planning and monitoring of development projects in Nepal. Obviously, with the green signal from such a responsible agency as the NPC, the then government agencies had been implementing numerous micro projects without doing any studies on them in other words haphazardly.

The results were numerous projects technically, economically and financially failed. One of such failed projects was the Salleri-Jhalsa 40 KW hydropower project built with the financial and technical assistance of the SATA (Swiss Association For Technical Assistance).

At that time, I had just joined the SATA as a program officer. So, one of my responsibilities was to help the project leaders in administration and other aspects of the project implementation from the SATA office at Ekantakuna in Kathmandu and go to the field as and when required.

The Salleri-Jhalsa micro-hydropower project had been lying idle for a few years already. The project management had extended the power lines to the villages hoping that they would be able to produce electricity soon. A helicopter had flown turbine to Salleri: district headquarters of Solukhumbhu District but it had been lying idle, too. So, there had been everything a micro hydropower needed except for the canal that would take water to run the turbine. Unfortunately, the huge landslide had buried the canal without any traces.

The problem had been the canal that they had built, caused landslides. The project management and other technical staffs did not take the digging of a canal was a serious matter and it might cause landslide if they did not do it properly. They simply hired laborers and let them dig a canal at the foot of the hill. Certainly, the hill could not hold its body on the cut feet and let the body slip causing a massive landslide that had destroyed the possibility of producing electricity from the water at that site.

The project management had neither the finance nor the technical skill in coping with such landslides. So, they could neither correct the landslide nor build a canal. Consequently, they could not draw water from the river and run the turbine.

The landslides had caused the scars on the hill. The project management had been more concerned with the landslides than completing the project. Naturally, they could not leave the project area without bringing the hill back to its original shape.

The local people had already started off making jokes on the project. They said, “We have power lines without power, and turbine with power house but without water to run it. We are living with kerosene lamps in the hope of getting electricity.”

A new director replaced the old one at the SATA. He made a helicopter tour to the failed projects: one of them was the Salleri-Jhalsa micro-hydropower project. He saw the landslides, power lines, a rusting turbine and many electrical appliances at the project site. Most probably, he had already made up his mind what to do next at the site but he called a meeting of the project leader and tried to understand what needed to be done not only to resolve the problems of landslides but also of building a micro-hydropower project.

The project was initially conceived for supplying power to the Tibetan refugees’ camps at Jhalsa, Salleri and to some neighboring villages. So, the project was of the 40 KW. Everybody as the member of the NPC in question had thought, “We are in Nepal, we could finish the tiny project without doing any feasibility study on it.” They built power lines, took a turbine to the site, built a power house but not digging a canal to bring the water from the river to the power house to run the turbine. When they started off digging the feet of the hill to make a canal for taking water to the turbine, the hill could not stand on its feet, as they were cut and let the body slip causing a large scar on its body. Then, the project management lost its mind and kept the project as it was.

For the SATA, it had been a prestige issue. It could not leave the project without correcting the scar made on the hill even though it could forget about providing the Tibetan refugees with power. So, the main concern had been for stopping any damages done to the hill and to the reputation of the SATA, too.

As one of the attendees of the meeting called by the director of the SATA to discuss how to stop further damage to the hill in the coming monsoon when the country will have rains for three months, disregarding the rebuke I had from the member of the NPC at the APROSC hall, I raised my hand and said, “We need to do a feasibility study on it”. Nobody said anything but everybody looked at each other. I anticipated somebody would rebuke me for asking such a big thing for such a tiny project.

Even though nobody had agreed or disagreed on doing a feasibility study on such a tiny project, I learned after a few days, the director had agreed to conduct a feasibility study on this project. The feasibility study would cost much more than the cost of the project. However, the director had justified it and convinced the decision makers at the headquarters in Switzerland of its need for the success of the project.

A team of experts came to Nepal. The team visited the project site, studied the catchments of the river from where the project would draw water for running turbines. The team also studied the events of floods during the rainy season called monsoon. Then, the team came up with the plan on resolving the problems of landslides. The team also proposed 400 KW hydropower project rather than a 40 KW previously thought to be built without a feasibility study.

You could imagine how large the hydropower project could be after the feasibility study on a meager 40 KW project. SATA had the money and skills to build such a project but the concern was whether so much of power could be properly utilized there. Again, we needed to do a quick survey on the possibility of power consummation within the areas of the influence of the power plant.

Then, the problem was the sale of power to the local people. It did not mean that SATA wanted the return on the investment it would make in the hydropower project but the SATA leadership wanted to see the power plant would run on its own without the need for the external financial support. So, we came up with the proposal for the Users’ Committee on managing the power plant.

At the same time, designers came up with the design of preventing the landslides, and of the power plant. Two 200 KW turbines would generate 400 KW power. A solid cement-made canal would bring the water to the turbine. The canal even could support the foothill.

The director of the SATA convinced the decision makers at the headquarters in Switzerland of the need for providing the project with the funding to complete the project even though the amount was several times more than previously thought.

The Salleri hydropower project has been one of the success stories of the SATA projects thanks to the feasibility study done on it before implementing it. Two turbines have been generating 400 KW power. District headquarters of the Solukhumbhu District, surrounding villages and the Jhalsa Tibetan refugee camp have been illuminated.

Technology of micro hydropower plants is not so simple as we think it is. We need to follow the technical procedures of building such power plants if we really want to be successful in building such micro hydropower plants.

We need to build micro power plants in hundreds if not in thousands to meet the power need of the growing population living in the hills and the mountains. Two-thirds of the Nepalese lands are the hills and the mountains. Nepalis are scattered all over the hills and the mountains. Providing them with power from the central grid would not be technically impossible but economically and financially might be almost impossible. So, the alternative is to build micro hydropower plants as many as possible.

In order to assist the Nepalese communities in the remote areas in building micro hydropower plants and running them, USAID/Nepal in cooperation with Agricultural Development Bank/Nepal (ADB/N) and Development Consulting Services (DCS) launched a joint program on making available assistance in building micro hydropower plants. Through its ‘Private Rural Electricity Project (PREP), USAID/Nepal provided a grant of 50% of the total capital cost of any micro hydropower plant, the communities mobilized 25% to 40% of the total cost, and ADB/N provided the balance amount in loans taking landownership certificates as collaterals. DCS provided technical services. [Source: Final Evaluation of Private Rural Electrification Project (367-0162) posted on Internet]

Any community wishing to have the joint support of USAID/Nepal, ADB/N and DCS mobilized 25% to 40% of the resources required for building a micro hydropower project. In order to do so, community members set up an electricity company. Any community member buying the share of the company became the member of the Electricity Users’ Committee and entitled to purchase power from the company. Thus, a community mobilized the resources required for a micro hydropower project.

Hydropower plants would free most of the hill and the mountain people from the burden of collecting firewood; this in turn will save the millions of trees that would produce much needed pure air for the humans to breathe in and out for survival. Our hills and mountains would have a chance of remaining green and would contribute to the preservation of the world environment.

The clean energy means electricity will provide the householders to cook their foods with ease. The household environment will be health friendly. Householders will have a less chance of getting eyesores and eye ailments and the lung diseases mostly caused by burning firewood. Students will have a chance of doing homework and studying anything under the bright electric light.

One of the main problems of managing the micro hydropower plants is getting spare plants at the short notice in the remote hill and mountain areas. For example, if a micro hydropower plants is at the Muktinath in the Mustang District, and if something goes wrong to the power plant then you need either a technician or a spare part or both. They are available in the far away town. Even though such a town is only a few hundred kilometers away, you might need to travel for days for reaching such a town.

A company in Butwal of the Lumbini District makes spare parts and provides any technician and spare parts any micro hydropower plant needs.

The guy in Muktinath needs to walk down to Jomson and then wait for a plane to fly to Pokhara and then take a bus to reach Butwal for getting a spare part or a technician or both to fix his micro hydropower plant.. This guy will take at least three days to reach Butwal if not a week in case of delay in getting a plane. His back and forth traveling time between Muktinath and Butwal would be at least six days. In the worst-case scenario, it would be two weeks. You need to add time to make a spare part. Then, he needs to come with a technician to fix the broken spare part.

So, the cost of fixing the broken part in term of time needed to shut down the power plants comes to several weeks if not months. Certainly, the power plant needs to bear the financial cost, too. Regular lives of the people are disrupted due to the power cut. It would cause financial, economical, and social losses.

In order to cope with this time consuming process of getting spare-parts and a technician to fix the broken parts of any micro hydropower plants in the remote areas, some experts had come up with the idea of setting up spare-part-producing centers: one center for catering the need of a few micro hydropower plants around the center.

Another issue of management of micro hydropower plants is the number of staffs it needs to run. Two persons could run any micro hydropower plant in the private sector but the state-run power company had employed almost 20 staffs to run a micro hydropower plant. So, the state-run power company would not be efficient in running any micro hydropower plants.

A number of private companies produce micro turbines and other accessories required for micro hydropower plants but every company has made its own standard of producing equipment and accessories. So, micro hydropower plants need to depend on the same company for getting spare parts from which company they have purchased turbines and other accessories in absence of standardization of all accessories and equipment required by micro hydropower plants.

We cannot provide all the people dwelling in the mountains and the hills with power from the central grid due to the cost it involves; the only alternative to it is micro hydropower plants. So, we need to build a large number of micro hydropower plants to meet the needs of the people living in the hills and the mountains for power.

October 17, 2011

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