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Earthquakes could shatter Nepal’s dream of tapping its vast hydropower potential

Work is yet to resume at the Upper Tamakoshi dam site after the road was destroyed by last year’s earthquake. Image from Dolakha, Nepal. [All photos by Nabin Baral]

Work is yet to resume at the Upper Tamakoshi dam site after the road was destroyed by last year’s earthquake. Image from Dolakha, Nepal. [All photos by Nabin Baral]

This is the third in a four part series. Our sister website’s Nepal Editor Ramesh Bhushal and photographer Nabin Baral travelled along the tributaries of the Koshi River from near Tibet to the Indian border to report on the challenges faced by people living in the region.

About six kilometres south of the Tibetan border in Dolakha district, the country’s largest hydropower project is being built on the Tamakoshi River, one of the tributaries of the Koshi.

The construction of the Upper Tamakoshi dam is yet to regain pace after last year’s devastating earthquake. Debris has raised the riverbed in some parts and landslides have destroyed the connecting road in many places, delaying the work. Although the project was due to be finished by this year, it is only 70% complete.

One early morning in mid-April, engineer Padam Pokharel leisurely made his way to Gangor, the place where the powerhouse of the project is under construction. He was in the staff accommodation when the earthquake hit. “It was completely dark for about an hour as one of the hill tops nearby had completely collapsed,” Pokharel said.

On our way from Singati — a small stopover for trekkers going to Rolwaling valley — we travel towards the power house in Gangor and then to the dam site in Lamabagar — a few kilometres from the Tibetan border. Small boards with the warning, “Be careful, stones may fall” greet us along the way.

“There wasn’t such a big impact on the major structures of the hydro projects but the staff residence was hit. The biggest problem is that the connecting road was badly affected due to landslides induced by the earthquake,” says Pokharel as we walk more than a kilometre inside the tunnel at the powerhouse.

A few Nepali workers are busy at work. The Chinese contractor Sino Hydro has yet to bring back its Chinese workers. They were sent home after the earthquake.

Last year, the monsoon brought a huge amount of debris to the Gangor Khola, a small tributary of the Tamakoshi near the exit tunnel of the power house, Pokharel said.

After an hour in the tunnel, we come out and find that a small aftershock hit the area while we were inside the mountain. Thankfully we did not feel it at the time, or we may have panicked.

The Nepal government is betting on hydropower to transform the economy and meet its energy needs. Last year, it unveiled ambitious plans to develop 10,000 megawatts of hydropower in the next ten years.

Read also: Nepal’s eternal quest for hydropower

There are 117 projects under construction and more in the pipeline. But with current production less than 700 megawatts, the country is reeling with power cuts of more than 12 hours a day. 

“We are completely mad when we talk about water resources,” says Nepal’s former water minister Dipak Gyawali. “We see dams, we see dollars, but on the ground we don’t have any initiative to conserve water for drinking purposes or effective plans to increase agricultural productivity. We still want to get rich by selling electricity.”


The Koshi basin is a major hot spot for hydropower. Work is also underway on the 900 megawatt Arun III project in another tributary of Koshi — further east of the Tamakoshi project. In 2014 the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted a detailed study and identified 11 potential sites for hydropower generation and water storage in the Koshi basin alone.

“Lots of things are happening in the Koshi basin at the moment. It is one of the basins with the most up to date scientific information and so it is the right time work out an integrated water management plan that will help to understand problems and do effective development planning,” says Shahriar Wahid, coordinator of the Koshi Basin Programme at ICIMOD.

Last year, the International Water Management Institute calculated the 11 hydropower projects identified by JICA could store about 8,000 million cubic metres to meet water demand in the region.

The potential capacity far outstrips demand. Researchers estimate that even if Nepal grows at an unprecedented rate till 2050, water demand in the basin will only reach about 1,000 million cubic metres. Even if the basin’s current unmet demand triples in the future, it will only be 24% of the total water storage potential in the basin, the researchers say.

There is a catch. Many projects being built rely on rivers that originate in Tibet, but there is very little information on what is happening there. In March China unveiled its plan to build more dams and mega structures in Tibet, which may have impacts on projects being planned in downstream Nepal. Officials say there has been very little discussion between the two governments over the issue.

High dam: too high to catch 

In Nepal, the Koshi high dam was first proposed in 1937 before the British left India, but little progress has been made since then. The dam is supposed to produce 3,300 megawatts of electricity, irrigate thousands of hectares of land in Nepal and India and control the annual heavy floods, mostly in the Indian state of Bihar.

In 1946, the Indian government conducted a feasibility study for the high dam, but then the project went into hibernation for decades. It was resurrected as a priority in 1991 when the prime ministers of both countries agreed to go ahead. Then it took almost one and half decades to establish a project office in 2004 in Biratnagar at the India border.

Multiple attempts to conduct a detailed survey of the 269-metre-high dam project have failed due to protests from locals, civil society groups and some political parties.

“We have to be assured about our future settlements and compensation for our land that will be submerged before the work is started,” said 81-year-old Sarimaya Rai, from Barah Kshetra in Sunsari district where the high dam will be built.

Explore the full series here – The Koshi River: a journey down the lifeline of Nepal

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