Community Empowerment vs. State Stability? Lessons From Nepal’s Micro-Hydropower Projects

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    Post-war countries are among the most difficult policy arenas. The challenge is not only to stop violence and prevent violence from rekindling, but moreover to help countries reset their internal relations on a peaceful path. Increasingly, researchers and practitioners are interested in the potential of natural resources in post-war settings in the hope that good governance and sustainable management can contribute to this reset. Indeed, the international community acknowledged the relevance of the link between peaceful societies and environmental issues by including both in the Sustainable Development Goals.

    In recent research published in Conflict, Security and Development, I explore the socio-economic and political impacts of micro-hydropower development in Nepal, a country wracked by civil war from 1996 to 2006.

    The analysis shows that the provision of ecologically sensitive services to communities by the state yielded tremendously positive socio-economic effects for rural communities.

    However, there has not been an equivalent positive political effect, especially with regard to the legitimacy of the Nepali state. This raises the question of whether micro-hydropower development is conducive to the broader peacebuilding efforts in post-war Nepal because it stresses an already existing divide between state and society.

    Micro-Hydropower Development

    The provision of energy in Nepal remains a pivotal challenge. In 2010, almost a quarter of the country did not have access to electricity, and even those households that were connected did not receive continuous power. The capital, Kathmandu, experiences scheduled power cuts up to 14 hours a day during the drier winter season, when hydropower ebbs, and two to three hours a day in the water-rich monsoon months.

    As a landlocked country in the Himalayas without fossil fuels, hydropower has been the key focus for increasing energy production. Small hydro projects, called micro-hydropower, are often the only way of providing remote communities with electricity. Funding of these projects is administered through the Nepali state. The projects are implemented through the Alternative Energy Promotion Center of the Ministry of Environment, Science, and Technology in co-operation with the United Nations Development Program and World Bank as principal donors.

    The findings of my research show that micro-hydropower development has had many positive effects for rural communities, especially in regard to socio-economic development. Along with micro-hydropower development comes other public and private services, like cable internet and television. The improved socioeconomic status of households in two communities reflects a clear reduction in vulnerability to poverty and even food security as the improved cannels diverting water to the micro-hydropower station have improved irrigation of nearby fields.

    Political Consequences

    But has such development contributed to peace and stable internal relations? When considering the political consequences of micro-hydropower development, assessed through household interviews in two communities in rural Nepal, it becomes evident that it has facilitated interactions that have resulted in more local autonomy.

    From a community-centered, human security perspective such autonomy is without a doubt a positive development. However, when considering the broader post-war context and the all-important relationship between the state and its people, it is more problematic.

    People’s outlook regarding the Nepali state is an important measure of stability. Economic and social grievances were key aspects to the civil war. Eventually the Maoists toppled the monarchy and gained power in the aftermath of the war. Yet, while local socio-economic changes have been visible from the micro-hydropower projects and they are funded in part by the new government, these results have produced little change in people’s outlook on the state.

    Theoretically the opposite is expected. The provision of services through state actors, in this case electricity, is anticipated to strengthen the legitimacy of those actors and contribute to the stability to the relationship between the state and its society.

    Yet, the analysis indicates that the relationship between the provision of ecologically sensitive services to communities and state legitimacy is more complex. In this case, this is perhaps because micro-hydropower projects highlight an existing divide between rural villages and the Nepali state.

    Making Sense of the Post-Conflict Landscape

    In the absence of a positive effect on state legitimacy, service provision through community-based micro-hydropower development has both facilitating and impeding effects on Nepal’s peace process, vis-à-vis socio-economic development on one hand and political centralization on the other.

    The findings of this research highlight the critical policy challenges and dilemmas that can emerge in post-war societies. In many ways this is reflective of the ever more complex nature of international politics and the post-war policy arena. However, it may also be a result of the ever-broadening scope of the peacebuilding agenda itself.

    The peacebuilding agenda expanded first towards liberal peacebuilding that stressed democratization and economic liberalization. Later it expanded further to incorporate questions of international aid, state and human development, the inclusion of civil society, as well as transitional justice and human rights. Other notable additions have been in regard to youth and children, gender, and LGBT rights. Natural resources and environmental issues have also become more prevalent.

    The expansion of the discussion reflects a greater understanding and acknowledgement of the complex nature of societies – especially in post-war countries. But it also makes it more and more difficult to assess the success of peacebuilding policies – especially when different interventions interact and produce unintended and uncertain outcomes, as in the case exemplified.

    To fully understand peacebuilding interactions, and the potential of natural resources and environmental issues in post-war societies, more research is needed – perhaps to reduce, as much as structure, this complexity.

    Taking the perspective of communities and of the state separately is important, but understanding how they interact and depend on one another is essential. Community empowerment can weaken the state, which is problematic to creating stability in many cases. But a central state that is so strong it inhibits local development is not desirable either. The key is in the balance, and sustainable management of natural resources and the environment has the potential to help find it. To establish sustainable peace, solutions must be ecologically sensitive while equally socially and politically relevant and desirable to post-war countries.

    Sources: Conflict, Security, and Development.