Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Nepal’s Hydropower Boom and Its Implications for Water Resources: Challenges and Opportunities at the Intersection of Food and Energy Production in the Gandaki River Basin
by Crootof, Arica, Ph.D., The University of Arizona, 2019, 220; 22618015
Abstract (Summary)

Despite a controversial history, hydropower is expanding in many mountain regions globally. Much of this new growth utilizes run-of-the-river hydropower designs. Nepal is emblematic of the recent focus of hydropower development as the government seeks to install 10,000 megawatts (MW) of hydropower in 10 years—more than 10 times Nepal’s current installed capacity. Although investing in run-of-the-river hydropower projects offers a low-carbon, renewable energy source and the potential for rural development for communities living in mountain river basins, run-of-the-river hydropower projects still require damming and diverting rivers for energy generation. The resulting changes in water quantity, location, and timing can have profound impacts on the riverine systems and people who live in these river basins and depend on river flows for irrigation, fishing, and associated land-based livelihoods. Given many known negative impacts of and social contestation to hydropower development, there is a need to critically examine this growth in sensitive mountain regions. Research is needed to better understand how run-of-the-river hydropower projects influence mountain river basins as well as the policies and practices that shape this development.

To study connections among run-of-the-river hydropower development, water resources and the communities affected by hydropower, my research asks: What challenges and opportunities do run-of-the-river hydropower development and generation present for mountain communities in Nepal? Conceptually, this dissertation draws from energy systems including renewable energy transition scholarship to explore the expansion of run-of-river hydropower as part of a broader, national focus on energy development. Hydrosocial-cycle and sociohydrology scholarship helped guide the study of the physical, social, political and technical dimensions influencing run-of-the-river hydropower development and more specifically, how the social and political relations were articulated between hydropower companies and project-affected communities, and the uneven distribution of impacts that resulted from these processes.

This dissertation combined a national-level perspective of hydropower development with a basin-wide study of 12 case-specific run-of-the-river hydropower projects in the Gandaki River basin of Nepal. Data collection primarily drew from hydropower site visits and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders including (a) national water and energy experts and key decision-makers from the public and private sectors (n = 14), (b) hydropower developers, project managers and staff for the 12 study sites (n = 24), and (c) community leaders, water managers, and farmers from the 12 study sites (n = 48). The focus of interviews and analysis was on understanding the physical, technical, social, political, and regulatory challenges faced by and within these broad stakeholder groups.

Several key findings emerged from this research. Nepal’s hydropower sector is booming with unprecedented growth in their private sector, most of which is run-of-the-river type projects. These hydropower projects were profoundly influencing water flows and communities in Nepal’s mountain river basins. Across all 12 study sites, entire rivers were being diverted during the dry season and contributing to river fragmentation and loss of fish species. However, despite these water diversions, impacts on water for irrigation varied. According to our interviews, water availability for irrigation remained unchanged at six project sites, declined at two project sites, and increased at three project sites. Some project sites also benefited from rural electrification and road development, although such benefit-sharing was not the norm. Eight of the 12 hydropower projects were built within the existing national electrical grid and two sites, that did not have electricity prior to hydropower development, continued to have no access to electricity post-operation. Our 12 study sites exemplify how drastically different social impacts of run-of-the-river hydropower project can be on mountain communities, even within one river basin in the Western Development Region of Nepal. By assessing hydropower conflicts and negotiation processes between hydropower companies and project-affected communities, this study revealed the importance of timing of hydropower conflicts and negotiations, namely early in the planning phase, to support tangible benefits such as irrigation water and electricity for project-affected communities. However, without policies that address the uneven distribution of impacts and unequal power relations embedded in hydropower development, voluntary (in)action in Nepal’s hydropower boom does little to ensure this hydropower development benefits local communities.

While we found unprecedented growth in Nepal’s hydropower sector resulting from private investment, we also found major enduring challenges facing the hydropower sector regarding water availability (flow and timing) for energy generation and infrastructure for energy transmission. Furthermore, hydropower conflicts were prevalent especially given the rapid, concentrated uneven growth of development. In examining this development as part of the broader energy system, we found Nepal’s hydropower boom may be one of installed capacity more so than of electricity generation, distribution, and rural development. Given these findings, the trajectory of Nepal’s hydropower growth—and run-of-the-river hydropower growth globally—may not lead to the energy supply and economic benefits claimed by hydropower proponents. Instead, the boom in run-of-the-river hydropower may perpetuate and intensify existing energy shortages and social inequity embedded within Nepal’s broader energy system.

The results of this dissertation highlight the many opportunities to better plan and manage hydropower growth in mountain river basins regarding not only the pace of hydropower development but where these projects are situated and how they disrupt mountain river basins. As discussed by the World Commission on Dams (2000), there is a need to integrate project-affected communities into the planning and decision-making to improve mitigation measures as well as benefit-sharing practices to support more socially just and inclusive development. As we found at study sites, benefit sharing mechanisms can offer valuable benefits such as irrigation water and electricity to some of the most vulnerable populations to climate change in Nepal—small-scale farmers living in the highlands and help reduce escalating tensions between project-affected communities and hydropower developers in Nepal’s hydropower boom.

However, benefit-sharing is far from a given in Nepal’s mountain river basins. Policy mechanisms are needed to ensure hydropower development does not further marginalize rural communities and deepen inequalities across rural-urban divides. Given the plurality of short- and long-term negative social and ecological impacts in Nepal’s sensitive mountain regions, as well as the seasonal water and energy generation shortages, there is reason to question Nepal’s focus on hydropower instead of a more diverse renewable energy mix that could better meet Nepal’s energy demand and offer a more secure energy future. These findings from Nepal underscore the need to critically assess hydropower development, including run-of-the-river hydropower development, in mountain regions globally.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Scott, Christopher A.
Commitee: Bauer, Carol, Liverman, Diana, Mukherji, Aditi, Gyawali, Dipak
School: The University of Arizona
Department: Geography
School Location: United States -- Arizona
Source: DAI-A 81/2(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Geography, Energy, Water Resources Management, South Asian Studies
Keywords: Hydropower, Mountain geography, Renewable energy systems, Water-energy-food nexus, Water resources
Publication Number: 22618015
ISBN: 9781085673105
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