Photo Credit: Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River - Page, Arizona by Flickr.com user Jim Trodel

Load Shedding or Load Sharing?

During a trip last week to Nepal to attend a workshop on climate change adaptation strategies across the Himalaya, I experienced darkness within darkness for several hours every night. I am not talking about visiting one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, though poverty and political dysfunction are part of the darkness I mean to describe. The dim conditions I am referring to are both figurative and literal; each night Nepal undergoes “load shedding,” the governments preferred euphemism for what I have always known as a power outage. Nepal cannot generate sufficient electricity to meet its needs, so for some indeterminate period each evening, the lights go out as if some master switch has been turned off. In the Nepali countryside where 60 percent of the people don’t have power to begin with, life goes on. In a small city like Bhaktapur, a World Heritage site whose narrow, automobile-free mud brick passageways can appear medieval, the effect is not so dramatic—unless you happen to be in the midst of eating dinner. In Kathmandu, a city of almost a million people with (mostly) modern infrastructure and activities, however, load shedding can disrupt the lives of locals and foreigners alike. Many businesses and wealthy Nepalis depend on private generators for backup electricity. But losing power on a daily basis is no recipe for running a country well. Blackouts are not Nepal’s only problem. The country places 144 out of 153 nations on the United Nations’s Human Development Index. The average Nepali earns about $100 USD a month, almost half of all children below the age of 15 labor in the workforce, and some 30 percent of the people living in Kathmandu are not connected to a sanitation system. The city has the second worst air pollution in Asia. There was more than one night when I was out in the hazy streets dodging cars, motorbikes, and porters humping impossibly heavy loads of freight while the stench of garbage filled the air and cows lolled atop heaps of discarded plastic and rubbish. Every person I talked to—from NGO directors to hotel owners to small farmers—had nothing good to say about their government’s capacity to solve problems. My climate adaptation conference ran parallel with a bilateral meeting between Nepalese government officials, business leaders, and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. The topic was how to stimulate Chinese investment in Nepal hydropower, tourism, and other economic sectors. If China can share the load of investing in these industries, load shedding might become a distant memory. As Chinese companies pour concrete for dams and turn river valleys into reservoirs, Nepal could leave the ranks of less developed countries behind. Like every question surrounding hydropower dams in the Himalaya, however, there are problems with this scenario. It’s not that Nepal lacks hydropower sites; the country has only developed about 600 megawatts (MW) out of a potential 26,000MW. Not enough power is being generated today to satisfy peak demand resulting in load shedding. The Nepal Electric Authority estimates that in-country demand will grow to 1,788MW by 2020. Chinese companies are already constructing or about to build 11 dams that will add some 1,200MW to the system, making load shedding a thing of the past. But will all this new power be fed into the grid for Nepalis? The answer is no; signed contracts already slate most of the new electricity to be sold to India. Chinese investors and Nepalese business interests will benefit and this kind of load sharing will likely result in more private sector profits than reductions in load shedding. And this cost/benefit analysis does not begin to address the host of environmental and social impacts of dam building. The two meetings in Kathmandu last week did share one common theme: climate change. As my group of scientists and NGO staff struggled to devise a research agenda to meet the uncertainties of the future climate across a region that is warming faster than the global average, the investors and officials exploring new joint ventures were using historical river flow data to judge the profitability of hydropower for their bottom lines. But climate change already altered what future flows will look like from the giant rivers streaming off the world’s highest mountains. Unless Chinese and Nepali officials revise their flow forecasts to accommodate the future climate, their attempts to share the load of growing Nepal out of poverty will probably result in higher levels of load shedding on the still-dim streets of Kathmandu.