Supporting just transitions to renewable run-of-the-river hydropower: Lessons from Nepal Himalayas

Interviewing farmers affected by water diversions for hydropower
in the Gandaki River Basin

Coding each interview, I am taken back to the dusty bench, the leather chair, the kitchen stool, the grassy patch where I was given chai and cookies and invited to sit and to listen.

Whittling down the hundreds of hours of questioning, listening, and observing is no easy task, especially for a country as diverse as Nepal. While generalisations always have their limitations, they are especially difficult in Nepal. Slightly larger than Greece, Nepal is known for its cultural, biological and geographic diversity. The country is home to over a hundred different ethnic groups each with their own language and customs. Covering less than 0.1% of the Earth’s land area, Nepal has more than 2% of all flowering plants, 4% of all mammals and 8% of all bird species. One can travel from the jungle in the south, just 60 metres above sea level, to the highest peaks in the world, including Mount Everest at 8,848 metres above sea level, all within a distance of 200 km!

The scholarly literature on run-of-the-river hydropower is littered with generalisations. Run-of-the-river projects are touted as being social and environmentally benign and supporting rural development. While it is true that these projects do avoid the well-known negative impacts of large dams and reservoirs, they are not without their own set of impacts.

Dewatered river channel below a dam

To understand these impacts, both negative and positive, I decided to focus my dissertation research in Nepal. This country is embarking on an extensive renewable energy transition aiming to increase their energy production tenfold in ten years through the development of run-of-the-river hydropower. While there is a need for low-carbon, renewable energy, especially in Nepal where energy demand is far greater than supply, the rapid rate of growth is concerning. Contrary to their name, run-of-the-river hydropower projects dam and divert entire rivers to generate electricity. These diversions remove irrigation water for farmers – irrigation water that is increasingly important as rainfall becomes more erratic due to climate change.

Given the rapid global growth of hydropower in Nepal, and throughout mountain regions globally, my dissertation focuses on how to reconcile competing water demands in mountain river basins for food and energy production to support inclusive renewable energy development that works for, not against, local communities.

Travelling from one project site to another I quickly learned that generalisations about run-of-the-river fail, even within one river basin within Nepal. At each of my 12 field sites I toured the hydropower facilities including the dam site and the powerhouse and interviewed the project managers and staff. This work was conducted with my research assistant Rashmi, who is a local expert on hydropower. We would walk the dewatered river interviewing farmers to learn how these water diversions affected water security for farming, and examine the social benefits of these hydropower projects for local communities.

Schematic of a typical run-of-the-river hydropower system
(From: Kelly-Richards et al., 2017)

Run-of-the-river project designs are all quite similar – a diversion dam, an underground tunnel for the water diversion, a penstock, a power house with several turbines and an outlet where the diverted water is returned to the natural channel. However, the impacts on local livelihoods and perspectives of the benefits can be very different. My research demonstrates that it is not the size of the project or the location per se that determines the positive and negative social and environmental impacts, but how these hydropower projects are implemented.

Hydropower impacts are site-specific and capturing the spatial and temporal dynamics of water resources is imperative to understanding the implications of these hydropower projects on agricultural livelihoods. For example, timing of water flows is salient for energy production (i.e. peak-demand) and irrigation needs (i.e. seasonal planting). In certain areas, tributaries feed into the dewatered zone, and in other areas farmers depend on springs, not the river, for water supply.

As I delve into the analysis however, there are emerging trends that offer valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of run-of-the-river development in Nepal. First, the majority of the 12 hydropower case studies demonstrate the profound negative impacts that run-of-the-river diversions can have on irrigation water availability, which is in direct opposition to legal tenets that give water for irrigation preference over hydropower in Nepal. On the other end of the spectrum there is Ridi, which exemplifies the positive impacts that run-of-the-river projects can have on local communities. Irrigation water needs were a part of the hydropower design. So water now flows year-round from the dam into irrigation canals, enabling farmers to expand production and grow cash crops. The hydropower developer has also run transmission lines for the local community to provide subsidized electricity to these farmers that are beyond the reach of the national grid. In contrast to all other sites, there were no notable frustrations with the hydropower company.

Maize cultivation

On the contrary, everyone we spoke with was thankful for their reliable source of water and their access to affordable electricity. Even more, their schools received annual financial support as well as the community at large. As one farmer reflected on the negotiations: “Sometimes we had to raise our voice, but there was always peace”. Another explained: “Everything was done per our agreement, we needed development and hydropower brought it”.

Ridi demonstrates how incorporating local community needs early in the planning process allows the project to be designed and built to accommodate these needs in a cost-effective manner. Learning from this site and applying these lessons to projects that are currently or soon to be in the negotiation stage will be critical to help mitigate conflicts, and to balance water and energy needs. However, within this current framework, the financial burden is placed on the developer. While the temptation of minimal conflict from the villagers may be incentive enough for the developer, as protests and strikes can be costly and even violent, there is no backing from the Nepal government to promote, let alone enforce, how hydropower projects are implemented.

Looking ahead, there is much room for improvement in how these hydropower projects are implemented. This is especially important given that more than 70% of new hydropower projects will be run-of-the-river in mountain regions.

My work will be ongoing. There will be many more hours questioning, listening, and observing when I return to Nepal to work on integrating research findings into on-the-ground practices. In my new position as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Montana Western, I will be able to bring students into this research and explore comparative hydropower studies for rural mountain communities in the western United States. Through this ongoing work I aim to help facilitate more collaborative and just transitions to renewable energy.