Nepal’s curse of the white gold

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Rasuwa villagers say they are yet to see promised economic bonanza from hydropower projects on their river

Ramesh Kumar in Rasuwa

Tipper trucks piled with cement rumble along the rocky 15km road that runs alongside the Trisuli River that flows out of glaciers in Tibet and tumbles through mighty gorges into Nepal.

It is the steep gradient of this frothing river that makes it so ideal to generate hydropower. Which is why there are eight existing or planned run-of-the-river schemes in a cascade along the Bhote Kosi.

The narrow valley reverberates with the roar of excavators, drills and a mix of Korean, Chinese and Nepali voices among the workers in the newest plant under construction on the river: the Rs65 billion 216MW Upper Trisuli-1 hydropower project.

Despite its proximity to Kathmandu, Rasuwa had largely been bypassed in Nepal’s infrastructure development. Even after India helped build the Trisuli (1967) and Devighat (1984) plants, investment here languished. But after 1990, politicians started promising that the district would prosper from the ‘white gold’ of the Bhote Kosi, there would be jobs, industries and money would pour into the local economy.

The biggest and newest of these projects is the Upper Trisuli-1 and it was sold to the indigenous Tamang community as their economic salvation. But far from jobs and economic benefits, local farmers have seen the destruction of their ancestral land and sacred sites.

“We had hoped that this project would finally bring us resources for local development that we sorely needed, but it has only made our lives more difficult,” says Ashabir Tamang from Mailungbesi village by the Bhote Kosi.

A decade has passed since the Nepal Water and Energy Development Company (NWEDC) began exploring the Upper Trisuli-1 project in Mailungbesi. Financing was secured from Korea (75%), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) with 15% and 10% from the local Nepali partner Bkesh Pradhanang. Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Dutch Development Bank and other international banks also have investments.

During the project design phase the IFC, which is also the primary loan manager for the project, had stipulated that its PS-7 performance criteria be applied to the project. The stipulation seeks to ensure that business activities minimise negative impacts, foster respect for human rights, dignity and culture of indigenous populations, and promote development benefits in culturally appropriate ways.

The NWEDC was therefore forced to enter into an FPIC agreement (Free, Prior and Open Consent) with the indigenous Tamang community. Nepal became a signatory to the ILO Convention 169 in 2007, which gave local and indigenous communities the right to have a say in benefits.

This agreement between the NWEDC and the Indigenous Advisory Council that represents the local community, and the local government stated that about Rs140 million would be spent on sustainable socio-cultural and economic development projects in five years.

Although it required that the consent of local communities would be needed before land acquisition and resource management began, the request was made only when the project reached the implementation stage.

Says Ashabir Tamang, who is also vice-chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council: “The funding for indigenous development projects that we agreed on has not yet been released, the company is violating the contract and cheating us.”

NWEDC Director Giriraj Adhikari admits the company is yet to release the funds as per the agreement, but adds that the company needs to adhere to the financial protocols of international partners involved in the project. “Funds have already been allocated for local welfare, but procedural issues have meant that they have yet to be sent to Nepal from overseas,” he says.

Upper Trisuli-1 is the first infrastructure project in Nepal to try to implement an FPIC agreement to increase self-employment for local communities and minimise adverse environmental effects.

However, local activists say the agreement applies to only 10 out of 21 areas in the project site, and does not include outlying communities and it disregards their customs and institutions. Residents also have complaints about lack of compensation for damage to property during construction-related demolition and river diversion.  On top of that, forests, rivers, wetlands and traditional grazing areas locals have used for generations are located in areas surrounding the intake and powerhouse.

Ashabir Tamang’s gripe is that the project has not fulfilled a single obligation to local residents and has essentially bypassed the community on whose land the project is being built.

“With the monsoon soon coming, we live in constant fear that landslides will wipe out our entire village,” says Tamang. “Where do we go to complain? No one listens to us.”

The memory and fear of landslide is real and fresh. Mailingbesi’s 60 households were nearly entirely buried in the 2015 earthquake, and 20 residents lost their lives. Among those killed were nine members of Ashabir Tamang’s own family, including his young grandchildren.

There are 790 other households in surrounding villages that were also impacted by the earthquakes. Many of them never received the promised government grant to rebuild.

Eight years after the earthquake, many homes are still buried in debris. The boulders and soil have still not been cleared. Only half of Mailungbesi’s population remains in the village, while the rest have moved on to other villages in Rasuwa and Nuwakot.

Those that remain face a host of problems, including where to send their children to school, the nearest primary school is a half-hour walk away in Salletar. Parents wait in fear, hoping their children will not be hit by rockfalls on their way to and from school.

“It is like waiting for another disaster to strike,” says Som Bahadur Tamang, another resident.

Project-related demolition work, tunnel construction as well as the constant movement of heavy earthmoving vehicles have destabilised the slopes, the ground shakes constantly, and rocks frequently fall from the cliffs above.

Kanchhi Maya Tamang tells us of her fears. She says, “I do not worry so much during the day, but I lie awake at night wondering if the river will sweep away our house with us inside or a landslide will bury us alive.”

Inaam Tamang rebuilt his house with concrete after the earthquake, but says cracks have appeared and one of the rooms was carried away by the river when the project diverted the river.

“No one listened to us when we asked that walls be built around our homes to protect us,” he says. “They do not care about us small people.”

Down in Hakubesi and Phulbari, 110 households were displaced by the project and only got partial compensation. Locals are also angry that while there are able-bodied men looking for jobs in the villages, the project is bringing in drivers and construction workers from outside.

Kanchhi Maya Tamang, 55, was hired as a cleaner, but sacked for being too old. “Do you think someone who has carried fodder and firewood from the mountains all her life is not strong enough to sweep the floor?” she asks.

Saraswati Tamang, who owns a grocery store in Mailungbesi, says she has not seen the expected boom in business after the project got going. This despite there being 800 Nepali, Chinese, and Korean technicians living in the area.

“They bring everything from Kathmandu,” she says. “Not just groceries, even live chicken, ducks, goats and pigs. We have not gained much, we were just uprooted.”

Director Adhikari refutes allegations that locals were not given jobs, and says 900 residents were hired and given project-related contracts. But  admits that even though the company is taking initiatives to ensure benefits to the local economy, not all demands can be met.

Source : Nepal Times

Photos: BISWAS NEPALI