Hydropower Pressures: Nepal’s Protected Areas Open to Controversial Development

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Nepal’s government has approved a controversial new proposal allowing the development of large-scale hydropower plants within protected areas, prompting concerns about conservation setbacks.

The Nepali government has approved a controversial proposal allowing the construction of large-scale hydropower plants inside the country’s protected areas, in a move conservationists have slammed as a “huge setback.”

The policy on “Construction of Physical Infrastructure Inside Protected Areas” was published in the national gazette on Jan. 4. It allows hydropower developers to build projects entirely inside protected areas, release only a fraction of the water in the river during the peak dry season compared with previous requirements, and acquire land for developing power projects inside protected areas more easily.

“This is a huge setback for the conservation campaign in Nepal. It puts at risk the hard-achieved successes in the past decades,” Dilraj Khanal, a natural resources lawyer, told Mongabay.

The move comes amid concerns from leading conservationists, lawyers and Indigenous communities that the new policy will unleash a torrent of hydropower development in what are still well-preserved conservation areas. They say the changes aren’t just legally flawed, but also risk undermining the conservation gains made in Nepal in recent decades, even as the country faces the impacts of climate change.

More than two dozen conservationists have reportedly submitted feedback to the Ministry of Forest and Environment to not go ahead with the proposal, which was made available for public discussion in September last year. However, officials didn’t make any significant changes to the document to reflect the comments, a comparison of the initial and final drafts shows.

“We are thinking of challenging the decision in court,” Khanal said.

Nepal is home to 12 national parks, a wildlife reserve, a hunting reserve, six conservation areas and 13 buffer zones. These extend from the lowland Terai Arc to the high Himalayas, covering nearly a quarter of the country’s total land area, according to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. While local communities were displaced to establish national parks in the southern lowlands, people continue to live inside some national parks and conservation areas, such as Sagarmatha (Everest), Langtang and Annapurna, famous worldwide for their scenic trekking routes.

“The new procedures raise a lot of questions,” conservationist Kumar Paudel from the NGO Greenhood Nepal. “The most important question it raises is: Who’s protected area is it?” he told Mongabay referring to tight restrictions on local communities to utilise natural resources, but lax rules for big infrastructure companies to build hydropower plants.

The Nepali government and private sector have for decades invested heavily in hydropower development, in response to chronic electricity shortages. Today, the country’s dozens of dams generate power not only for domestic demand, but also for export to neighbouring India and Bangladesh. This “clean energy” gold rush is expected to get even more frenzied as India recently signed an agreement with Nepal to import 10,000 megawatts of power over the next 25 years.

However, the government doesn’t have a clear road map for hydropower generation in Nepal. Hydropower plants have been built all around the country without a proper assessment of demand and supply. Similarly, the associated infrastructure — dams, power transmission, lines and access roads — have all been built in an uncoordinated way.

Rivers inside protected areas had so far been off-limits to this building and damming spree. But the new policy, which replaces one instituted 15 years earlier, changes all that. While the previous policy banned the development of any power project that occupies an area entirely within a national park or a protected area, the new policy makes it fair game.

The old policy also allowed a concession to local communities to build plants of up to 1 MW for local use, provided they weren’t connected to the national grid. It also required that at least 50 per cent of the monthly natural flow should be maintained in the river during the peak dry season after the water passes through the hydropower plant.

The new policy, however, opens up the possibility to develop power projects of any capacity entirely within a national park or a protected area. And because it allows power project developers to pay their way out of the whole process of procuring land and planting trees to compensate for the trees cut during project development, it could indirectly promote the buying and selling of land inside protected areas, a ministry source familiar with the policy told Mongabay.

According to the new policy, hydropower projects with an installed capacity of 100 MW or more that lie entirely within a conservation area will be allowed to release as little as 10 per cent of water in the river during the peak dry season. This may not be adequate for aquatic species downstream, experts say.

Source: Eco-Business