Hydropower with a Difference

A new environmental impact assessment is an encouraging sign for hydropower developers and environmentalists

Despite being home to the transboundary, water-rich Koshi River basin, Nepal is unable to tap into its abundant water resources, and instead continues to suffer from a national energy deficit. With 9 to 12 hours of daily scheduled power cuts across the country, Nepal is facing an ‘energy poverty’ crisis. When a person spends 10 to 30 per cent of their income on energy expenses, they are considered energy poor, and, according to the World Bank, over 80 per cent of households in Nepal are energy poor.

Talk of hydropower development in Nepal has continued for decades, but barely 10 per cent of the nearly 50,000 megawatt potential has been harnessed. If countries in the Koshi basin work together to exploit hydropower resources of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system, this potential would rise to 83,000 MW in Nepal, and almost 59,000 MW in northeast India. It could also be harnessed at a relatively low cost compared to alternative sources of energy.

Building hydropower projects is not easy. Careful planning is needed to ensure that hydropower projects are not harmful to the local habitat, livelihoods of local communities, or to the larger ecosystem, while still remaining economically feasible. It was in this context that ICIMOD partnered with International Finance Corporation (IFC) to develop Hydropower Environmental Impact Assessment Guidelines for the Government of Nepal. In 2014, ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme carried out a study on basin-wide strategic environmental assessments to support sustainable hydropower development. Following this, the Ministry of Population and Environment requested ICIMOD and IFC to collaborate with relevant ministries to prepare the guidelines.

The draft guidelines, which were shared with the Government of Nepal in May 2016, were prepared through a participatory process, and they ensure that environmental impact assessments can be quickly conducted, are aligned with international performance standards, and can help expedite the government approval process. The guidelines were developed on the basis of an extensive gap analysis of existing guidelines, relevant legislation, and comprehensive stakeholder consultations with local governments, developers, and environmental impact assessment practitioners.

The analysis identified several major gaps in environmental impact assessments. Stakeholders were not adequately engaged, areas of study and influence were insufficiently defined, social and economic baseline studies were inadequate, and the knowledge needed to identify and quantify impacts was lacking. Understanding these gaps is important in developing successful hydropower projects.

The new guidelines are designed to help to fill these gaps so that hydropower development can serve the mutual goals of minimizing negative impacts on the environment and maximizing development benefits, leading to more efficient and cost-effective hydropower projects.

There is common consensus – in Nepal, across the HKH, and around the world – that hydropower is a viable solution to address energy poverty. For Nepal, hydropower could also help the country achieve its goal of increasing hydroelectricity production by ten-fold in the next 15 years.

The Government of Nepal has acknowledged ICIMOD’s and IFC’s contribution to improving environmental impact assessment guidelines as one step towards sustainable hydropower development in the country.

Further reading: 

Rasul, Golam, ICIMOD, Food, water, and energy security in South Asia: A nexus perspective from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, published on Science Direct, 

2014 Vaidya, Ramesh, ICIMOD: Water and Hydropower in the Green Economy and Sustainable Development of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region, published on Hydro Nepal, 2012 

Sustainable Development Goals 2016-2030, National (Preliminary) Report, Government of Nepal, National Planning Commission, 2015 

The World Bank, 2016 (online)
http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/hydropower 

World Rivers Review: Focus on World Bank and Dams, 2013
https://www.internationalrivers.org/world-rivers-review/world-riversreview-–-sept-2013-focus-on-world-bank-and-dams 

Nepal: Scaling Up Electricity Access Through Mini and Micro Hydropower Applications: A strategic sock-taking and developing a future roadmap, World Bank Group, 2015 

Nepal Food Inflation, 2007-2016, Trading Economics
http://www.tradingeconomics.com/nepal/food-inflation


Photo credit: Rashmi Kiran Shrestha, Juerg Merz, Padmendra Shrestha