The Final Development Frontier

glacial lake Tsho Rolpa, Nepal.

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

Opposition from environmental groups is another difficulty, especially for a new generation of dam projects. In the past, the World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank have withdrawn support for projects amid opposition from environmental groups that say large dams can damage natural habitats like wetlands, threaten migratory fish stocks, and displace traditional farming communities.

Activists are concerned over the effects hydropower projects have on the environment and communities. Here are some of their top worries.

Displacement Dams flood valleys and in many cases require communities to abandon their land. A number of dam projects under consideration in Nepal would require whole villages to relocate.
Earthquakes A growing body of research suggests large dams can trigger quakes by adding pressure to areas near fault lines, a phenomenon known as “reservoir-induced seismicity.”
Wildlife Projects can disrupt the natural migration of fish and other river life. Environmentalists in Nepal are particularly concerned about the country’s small population of endangered Ganges River Dolphins.
Seasonal River-based hydropower projects, which are popular in Nepal, only generate electricity when water is flowing, making them less effective in the dry season. Dams can generate power in any season.

The greater stability has boosted momentum for rising investment in the Himalayas—a region dominated by Nepal, India and Bhutan that is considered the final development frontier in South Asia. Hydro energy projects are the biggest focus.  “The only resource we have, like the Arabian countries have oil, is water,” said Chhabi Gaire, project manager at the Rasuwagadhi Hydroelectric Project, a 1f11-megawatt plant under construction near China’s border.

Funding for projects is increasingly coming from Nepalese working abroad, says the Nepal Electricity Authority. Their remittances reached $6.7 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank, more than even Thai and South Korean workers abroad sent to their own countries.  Meanwhile, India’s cabinet approved $850 million in February to build a plant on Nepal’s Arun River that would export most of its energy to India. A month earlier, the Chinese-state owned China Three Gorges Company agreed to a joint venture with Nepal’s government to build a $1.6 billion hydropower plant on Nepal’s Seti River, also mainly for electricity export to India…

Workers on Nepal’s hydropower projects face sometimes deadly risks in the steep mountain valleys of the Himalayas such as landslides, falling boulders and flash floods…  [T] he 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi project, funded by a group of Nepal’s major banks and pension funds, is now under construction and set to open in mid-2018 with a reservoir to enable energy generation in the dry season.  It’s is also a risky project.

To the East the dangerous glacial lake Tsho Rolpa threatens to burst its banks. To the West, the Gongar river routinely spits boulders the size of two-story buildings over the valley wall. A bridge the developers built over the Gongar was swept away in a flash flood during monsoon season. Landslides triggered by quakes swept away swaths of the access road. To keep working, project developers built a steel truss bridge and drilled a new road tunnel through a collapsed valley wall.  Moreover, the project is built on such volatile terrain that the turbines and delicate transmission equipment were buried 460 feet beneath the surface.

Excerpts from In the Himalayas, a New Power Rises: Water, Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2017

 

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