In the four years since the end of Nepal’s civil war, political progress in creating a multi-party unity government in Kathmandu has moved in fits and starts. While the effort to bring the Maoists into the fold has made some headway since 2006, continuing environmental and economic troubles in the Nepalese countryside threaten to undermine these tentative steps.
In recent months, a new threat to political stability has emerged: the Sapta Kosi Multipurpose Project, a massive, India-backed hydropower scheme in eastern Nepal currently in the early stages of development. Once operational, the controversial dam—slated to reach a height of nearly 270 meters, making it one of the tallest dams in the world—is projected to generate 3,300 megawatts of electricity.
A proposed barrage and series of canals round out the project, enabling new irrigation and flood-control infrastructure in both eastern Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar, immediately to the south. But the potential environmental impacts of the mega-project have already sparked significant backlash among some Maoist-linked ethnic groups in the region, where the reach and influence of Nepal’s fledgling unity government is tenuous at best.
“Strong” Protests Threatened Over India-Backed Mega-Dam
In June, a network of 15 groups sympathetic to the Nepalese government’s Maoist wing warned of “strong” protests if survey work on the dam continued and “the voice of the indigenous people was not heard.” A memo released by the group dismissed the Sapta Kosi project as “anti-people.”
Specific criticisms of the project have ranged from safety concerns (the dam would be built in a seismically active region) to population displacement. Maoist leaders in the region have alleged that many villages—as well as important local religious sites and valuable agricultural land—could be flooded if the project goes forward. Other Maoists say the project should be delayed until Nepal is reorganized as a federal republic, at which point the states directly impacted by Sapta Kosi could be given greater control over the project.
Meanwhile, some objections to the project have targeted Nepal’s partnership with India. According to ShanghaiNews.net, members of the Maoist opposition have insinuated that hydropower from Sapta Kosi will not be consumed domestically, but rather exported to meet the needs of energy-hungry India.
A number of prominent Nepalese and Indian environmental activists have also spoken against the project, including Medha Patkar, a well-known activist who has played a major role in many past Indian anti-dam protests. Patkar warns the project will not mitigate but instead worsen seasonal flooding, calling plans for the joint India-Nepalese dam project “inauspicious from [an] environmental, cultural and religious point of view,” according to the Water & Energy Users’ Federation-Nepal.
As Nepal Pledges Security for Dam Project, India Pushes Forward
In the past, threats against the Sapta Kosi project have caused surveillance work in the area to be suspended repeatedly. But after the latest round of warnings, the Nepalese government adopted a different tactic, pledging heightened security in the region to ensure the safety of Indian officials doing fieldwork.
In doing so, Nepal’s coalition government is throwing its limited weight around, and—to a degree—staking its reputation on its ability to prevent an outbreak of violence. Historically, Nepal’s government has been largely bypassed or ignored in matters of hydroelectric development. As Nepal Water Conservation Foundation Director Dipak Gyawali told International Rivers in a June 2010 interview:
The main players are private investors, with state entities and civil society unable to stand up to them….In Nepal, we just saw local politicians burn down the office of an international hydropower company even after the project was sanctioned by their leaders in the central government.Gyawali added that during the Nepalese civil war (1996-2006), private developers were able to build “small hydropower projects even while a Maoist insurgency was raging because they did not ride roughshod over local concerns.” Regarding Sapta Kosi, Gyawali said the government should adopt a similar approach, and “start listening to the marginalized voices.” Otherwise, he warned, the Indian-Nepalese team spearheading the project “will be faced with delays, impasse, and intractable political problems,” including the potential for Maoist violence in the region. (As noted earlier this month in New Security Beat, the Indian government has also struggled with Maoist-linked violence in recent years, as New Delhi struggles to pacify a Naxalite insurgency in eastern and central India.)
Rural Nepal’s Troubles Far Bigger Than Sapta Kosi
Maoists may be wielding Sapta Kosi as a weapon to gain political leverage both in the countryside and Kathmandu, but the proposed dam is far from the only environmental issue impacting rural lives and threatening to undermine support for the central government.
In a country where firewood still accounts for 87 percent of annual domestic energy production, deforestation has been hugely problematic across rural Nepal. As of 2010, less than 30 percent of the country’s original forest-cover now remains. The rapid removal of forest cover has reduced soil quality, exacerbated seasonal flooding, and caused degraded water quality due to high sedimentation levels.
Further, as the country’s population grows at an annual rate of 2 percent, low soil productivity and unsustainable farming practices have turned Nepal’s effort to feed itself into a constant uphill struggle. According to the World Bank, the country sports one of the world’s highest ratios of population to available arable land, paving the way for potential further food shortages.
Sustainable energy development in Nepal perhaps represents one way of slowly restoring environmental health to the country. By investing in a more reliable national power grid, the central government could reduce rural dependence on firewood for fuel, allowing the country’s forests, soil, and waters to recover even as population increases. Further, hydroelectric projects like Sapta Kosi—implemented with greater involvement from local communities—could play an important role in moving the country forward. With an estimated untapped hydroelectric potential of 43,000 megawatts, Nepal could not only meet its own energy needs by developing its waterways, but profit from hydroelectric energy exports as well.
On the other hand, the Nepalese government could—at its own peril—continue to overlook rural populations’ grievances, and the environmental degradation unfolding outside Kathmandu. If left unchecked, however, these conditions could once again make the Maoist insurgency an appealing movement, potentially reviving grassroots support for anti-government extremism.
Sources: CIA, eKantipur.com (Nepal), International Rivers, Kathmandu Post, NepalNews.com, New York Times, ShanghaiNews.net, South Asia News Agency, Taragana.com, Thaindian News, Times of India, U.S. Energy Information Administration, WaterAid, Water & Energy Users Federation-Nepal, World Bank, World Wildlife Fund.
Photo Credit: “Neither in Nepal Nor India,” courtesy of Flickr user bodhithaj.