Balancing Hydropower’s Potential with Environmental Imperatives: A Look at Nepal’s Dilemma

127

Nepal, landlocked amidst the towering Himalayas, boasts immense hydropower potential. As the country taps into this resource, building dams and generating electricity, its energy capacity soars. Lights flicker to life in homes, businesses hum with activity, and even exports to India and Bangladesh become a possibility. Yet, amidst this progress, a disquieting melody of environmental concerns rises.

The rush for hydropower often overshadows the delicate balance with nature. Many projects prioritize short-term gains, overlooking the long-term ecological consequences. The price of a dry riverbed can be steep, with biodiversity devastated, irrigation systems crippled, and ancient social customs disrupted. While cities shimmer with the glow of progress, the parched earth beneath tells a different story.

In an era grappling with climate change, the world seeks alternatives to fossil fuels. The recent COP-28 in Dubai echoed this sentiment, urging a swift transition to cleaner energy sources. Hydropower, with its renewable credentials and vast potential, emerges as a promising contender. Nepal, with over 150 operational hydropower projects and numerous more in the pipeline, exemplifies this global shift.

The allure of hydroelectricity is undeniable. It’s affordable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint, and caters to Nepal’s growing domestic demand. The Hydropower Development Policy of 2058 even mandates environmental safeguards, like minimum water flow in rivers and implementation of environmental impact assessment recommendations.

However, the gap between policy and reality can be vast. Agreements with local communities regarding water release are often disregarded once electricity production commences. Rivers get diverted into tunnels, leaving behind desiccated beds. The Kalangad Hydropower Project in Bajhang exemplifies this stark reality. The once-mighty river now runs dry for 3.5 kilometers, rendering riverside rituals impossible and depriving locals of basic water needs. Fish, birds, and other aquatic life vanish, and irrigation canals lie dormant. Promises of post-closure support remain unfulfilled, leaving communities grappling with the consequences of a vanished river.

The problem isn’t limited to isolated cases. The proliferation of small-scale hydropower projects along the same river poses a significant threat. Damming numerous tributaries and diverting water through extensive canals can result in the complete desiccation of the main river system. A 2012 study in Norway revealed that the cumulative impact of 27 small projects exceeded the damage caused by three larger projects with the same capacity. Nepal risks facing similar consequences if it continues down this path.

Nepal cannot afford to prioritize short-term gains over long-term environmental well-being. Article 51(g) of the Constitution clearly emphasizes the state’s commitment to protecting the environment. The integrity of environmental impact assessments must be upheld, and their findings cannot be ignored. Just as Nepal seeks compensation for the environmental consequences of others’ actions, it cannot turn a blind eye to its own responsibilities.

Balancing hydropower’s potential with environmental imperatives requires immediate government intervention and effective regulations. Stringent environmental standards, transparent project monitoring, and genuine community engagement are crucial. Only by prioritizing long-term ecological well-being alongside energy security can Nepal harness the true potential of hydropower without sacrificing its precious rivers and the communities that depend on them.

The choice before Nepal is not between progress and the environment; it’s about finding a sustainable path forward, one where rivers continue to flow, ecosystems thrive, and communities prosper in harmony with nature. The future of Nepal’s rivers hangs in the balance, and the time for action is now.